The Pale King – Chapter 9: “Author Here”

Dear Dave,

I’m curious, why put the “Author’s Foreword” nine sections in?  Was this your decision; did you specify it in the notes and drafts you left behind?  Was it Michael Pietsch’s call?  I guess this question gives me a good excuse to make the pilgrimage to the Ransom Center to comb through the archives in search of an answer.[1]

Aside from why it’s in section 9, my other question is why include it in the first place?  Of all the narrative experimentation you’ve conducted in your short stories and novel-length fiction, why this?  You’ve trodden so much new literary territory, why go stomping through this stale ground?  Perhaps more reason to venture to Austin, Texas.

One possible theory I have is that it is a satirical jab at the postmodern meta-fiction cliché of the novel-that-says-it’s-really-a-true-story-but-the-author-makes-no-attempts-to-hide-the-fact-that-it’s-actually-a-work-of-fiction.[2]  If so, well done.

Another possibility, one I want to explore here, takes us back to Infinite Jest and then even further back to Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, Hamlet.  My undergrad Shakespeare professor – whose name escapes me now some fourteen years later – pointed out an interesting observation about the opening lines of Hamlet.  In that first scene, Francisco is keeping watch and Bernardo approaches from offstage to relieve Francisco of his post.  Yet it is Bernardo who first asks, “Who’s there?” Francisco replies – loosely paraphrased – “No buddy, you tell me who’s there!”  The standing guard ought to be the one asking, “Who’s there?” not the one approaching… that is unless there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark.”[3]  This disjointedness in the opening lines foreshadows the turmoil that fills the rest of the four-hour play.

Fast forward to 1996 and Infinite Jest.  Many scholars, writers, and readers of your works have pointed out the plethora of references and allusions to Hamlet throughout IJ, but what caught my attention was Matt Bucher’s mention in the “How to Read Infinite Jest” introduction to the Infinite Summer group read of how the first two words in IJ are “I am” spoken by Hal, almost as if in response to Bernardo’s opening question.  If the out-of-sync exchange between Bernardo and Francisco in the opening scene of Hamlet foreshadow trouble to come later in the play, perhaps so does Hal’s opening line in IJ.[4]  While I haven’t made it very far into Infinite Jest, there is the little matter of chapter 1 ending with Hal going bat-crap crazy in the Dean of Admissions’ office and having to be restrained and dragged out of the room.  And I am sure there is plenty of other turmoil that ensues as the story progresses.

Which brings us to § 9 of The Pale King.  The “Author’s Foreword” with its opening of “Author here.”  Do these opening words – while not at the actual beginning of the novel – also foreshadow future turmoil and unrest?  If so, what is that turmoil and unrest, and where is it found within this piecemeal, nonlinear, unfinished novel?  I posed the question on Wallace-l about a possible Hamlet connection in this section and received some very insightful responses.[5]

I went back and reread the section to see if I could find more answers to my questions.  Here is what I found:

The Pale King is, in other words, a kind of vocational memoir.  It is also supposed to function as a portrait of a bureaucracy – arguably the most important federal bureaucracy in American Life – at a time of enormous internal struggle and soul-searching, the birth pains of what’s come to be known among tax professionals as the New IRS (p. 70).

1985 was a critical year for American taxation and for the Internal Revenue Service’s enforcement of the US tax code.  In brief, that year saw not only fundamental changes in the Service’s operational mandate, but also the climax of an involved intra-Service battle between advocates and opponents of an increasingly automated computerized tax system.  For complex administrative reasons, the Midwest Regional Examination Center became one of the venues in which the battle’s crucial phase played out (p. 82).

The real reason why US citizens were / are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes in that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull.  Massively, spectacularly dull (p. 83).

To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves such a powerful impediment to attention.  Why we recoil from dull.  Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from.  But there might be more to it.  Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.  Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly… but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUVs’ backseats.  Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head.  This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do.  I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information.  Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down (p. 85).

The turmoil: the upheaval and systemic changes taking place in the mid-80s in the IRS, and the fact that these changes went virtually unnoticed by the American public because they were so dull and boring that no one cared.

But, based on the final quote above, it goes deeper than that.  The battle is not just the bureaucratic changes happening at the Internal Revenue Service that are hidden and masked in dullness and boredom.  The battle is one against dullness and boredom itself.  What a formidable foe indeed.

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I’d like to posit this might be part of the reason for the “Author here” beginning of § 9.  But I think I’ll need a trip to the Archives to check if I’m right.

[1] A recent email exchange with Greg Carlisle lent a good literary reason, one that works within the whole of the novel, but I will elaborate on that later.

[2] I first came across this narrative style in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, in which the “Author’s Note,” in which the narrator / “author” tells of his journey to India in search of a great story, is actually the start of the story itself (I have to tell my AP students this several times when we begin reading the book).  Martel used a similar narrative approach in his follow-up novel, Beatrice and Virgil, but – in my opinion – it didn’t work quite so well.  Then it reared its ugly head about three-quarters of the way through a book I just recently finished, Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist.  Hely pulled the someone-suggested-I-write-my-story-and-here-it-is one out of his hat, which, I have to admit, ruined the book ever so slightly for me.*  I really enjoyed it up until that point, although I suppose I should have seen it coming.

*In case I’m being too subtle or too nice (because I did enjoy the three books mentioned above; in fact Life of Pi is one of my all-time favorites): I don’t like the whole pomo ploy of author-writing-as-narrator-saying-he’s-really-the-author.

[3] Of course, we all know there have been ghost sightings during the night watch at Elsinore and everyone is on edge.

[4] To be honest, this assertion on my part is purely speculative.  I have had – or perhaps have listened in on would be a better way to put it – many a conversation about Hal and the rest of the cast of Infinite Jest.  I have twice attempted to begin reading the thousand-page magnum opus, only to make it to about page 50.  While I’d like to blame it on bad timing or unforeseen circumstances that prevented me from finishing, I’ll have to admit that my not having made it more than 10% of the way through the book is probably due to my – as one commenter on the Infinite Summer website put it – lack of testicular solidity.

But I have decided to attempt to tackle the beast one more time this coming summer.  I’m going to finish Infinite Jest or die trying.

… ok, maybe that last line was a bit melodramatic.  But I really want to finish the book, dammit.

[5] Greg Carlisle, author of Elegant Complexity (a study of Infinite Jest) had this to say:

Hamlet doesn’t speak until several minutes into the play, well into Act I, scene ii. His first words are not to a character, but an aside to the audience: “a little more than kin, and less than kind.” That aside is the equivalent of saying “character here.” Hamlet will continue to make asides, including seven really long ones (the soliloquies). These asides can get obsessed and digressive, but it’s a play, so they can’t go on forever.

The character in The Pale King who says “author here” well into the book is a little more than kin to the author of The Pale King, and his assessments of some of the other characters could be said to be less than kind. He continues to speak to us in long asides as well as being a character in the book. His asides can be more obsessed and digressive than those in a play, but they can’t go on forever either.

Before Hamlet kills Polonius he is treated like a prince. Before Dave Wallace is discovered not to be who they think he is, he is treated like a prince.

Then Hamlet is banished to England. Wallace is threatened with some kind of punishment (isn’t he?) and then banished to a regular office instead of the throne-like office he would have received.

The Pale King – Chapter 4

Dear Dave,

I was wondering while reading this section if you ever saw the movie Teachers (1984).  The premise of the film is a graduate of a failing high school sues his alma mater because they gave him a diploma despite the fact he never learned to read.  The film is a biting satire of our public education system, and news report about the death of Frederick Blumquist that is chapter 4 of TPK reminds me of one of the minor characters in the film, Mr. “Ditto.”[1]  This washed-up old teacher, who receives the award each year for best classroom management, has a unique system for running his classes.  There is an outbox from which students take their work for the period and an inbox where they turn it in at the end of the period.  The students work quietly for the hour while Mr. Ditto sits behind the newspaper at his desk.  The kicker is that, like Mr. Blumquist in your story, he dies of a heart attack at his desk and it takes several days for anyone to notice.[2]

This short chapter begs the obvious questions of how could a man sit dead at his desk for four days without drawing even the slightest notice from the twenty-five coworkers with whom he shared the office space?  The rather trite answer of “He was always absorbed in his work, and he kept to himself” doesn’t and shouldn’t sit well with us.

But I think there are bigger and more serious issues and questions at play here, questions like what kind of job does this guy have that he has done nothing for four days – because he is dead – and no one – his boss or supervisor, especially – doesn’t notice or care?[3]  Is his job really that unimportant that no one notices that it’s not being done for four days?

And then there is the even larger question of why did his coworkers not notice?  Why was it the night janitor who finally discovered the dead body and not the person in the cubicle next to him?  Are their jobs that engrossing and engaging that they must maintain a singular, horse-blinder-like concentration on their work?[4]  Or is it perhaps that those coworkers are so self-absorbed that it takes the demise of the fellow at the next desk over to draw them out of their little hermetically sealed bubbles?

Just below the surface of this tragically ironic news story is a pretty scathing social criticism of our tendency toward self-absorption.  How many of us go through an entire day without even looking up and into the eyes of those around us?  How many of us remain completely oblivious to the hurts and pains – physical or otherwise – of those we cross paths with each day?  How long does the dead guy have to sit at his desk before we sit up and take notice?

[1] I haven’t seen the film personally, but a colleague of mine loves to relate the story of good old Mr. Ditto who dies at his desk and no one notices.[back]

[2] The chapter is also somewhat reminiscent of the Friends episode that guest stars Jason Alexander from Seinfeld.  He plays an unnoticed depressed office manager who reaches out to Phoebe who temps as a telemarketer.  No one in his office seems to know he is even there, even in the midst of his very loud announcements of his plans of suicide.  Fortunately, Phoebe is able to talk him off the ledge, so to speak.[back]

[3] And the obvious follow-up question of where can I find a job with this little accountability?[back]

[4] My guess is probably not since one of them died doing the same work and everything kept chugging right along all around him.[back]