Frontier Psychiatrist

Bored to Death – A Review of The Pale King

Posted on: May 11, 2011

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

The new David Foster Wallace novel sounds like the dullest book of all time. Subject: taxes. Major characters: IRS employees. Setting: Peoria, Illinois. Plot: Minimal. Violence: Minimal. Sex: A blowjob buried in a footnote. Major theme: Boredom. Length: 538 pages, plus addenda.[1]

Nevertheless, The Pale King is a masterpiece.[2] Its 50 chapters intersperse “a portrait of bureaucracy” at the IRS with traumatic tales of adolescence and supernatural stories that include ghosts, psychics, and a boy’s quixotic quest to kiss every spot on his body. With layers of malaise, wit, irony, and earnestness, the novel finds depth in banality and meditates on the human condition, the fact that “we’re all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can ever bring ourselves to even try to imagine.”

The Pale King was unfinished at the time of Wallace’s suicide in 2008. And while the book is both bulky and baggy, it is also surprisingly cohesive. This is a testament to the efforts of Wallace’s editor and friend Michael Pietsch, as well as the author’s ability to unify fragmentary narratives, as he did in Infinite Jest, the 1996 novel that made him a star. And of course, there is the magic of publication. Once a work is between two covers, it feels official, even if there are thousands of pages of documents left for scholars to study and debate what Wallace might have intended had he lived to finish the book.

To get a sense of this dark, labyrinthine, and encyclopedic novel, imagine if Kafka, Borges, and Thomas Pynchon teamed up to write a season of The Office.[3] Like Infinite Jest,[4] The Pale King has multiple narrators, a fragmented nonlinear storyline, extensive footnotes, paragraph-length sentences, encyclopedic detail, and obscure vocabulary, as well as a barrage of technical tax jargon and insider IRS idioms. While labeled a novel, The Pale King blends techniques of fiction, journalism, and autobiography. As Wallace writes in an Author’s Forward that appears (bizarrely) on page 66, the book is based on his stint as an entry-level IRS employee in 1985 and is “more like a memoir than any kind of made up story.”

Two of the most memorable sections are 100-page chapters that read as self-contained novellas.  In the first, Chris Fogle recalls his nihilistic and “wastoid” youth fueled by drugs, alcohol and “romantic narcissism.” But the party doesn’t last. Inspired by a hard-nosed professor and the grisly death of his father, Fogle chooses the straight and narrow path of adult responsibility and gets a job at the IRS.[5]

The second is a pas de deux[6] between two IRS colleagues: the office sexpot and the office dullard. Set at a bar during happy hour, the scene hums with sexual tension, as the woman details her romance with an orderly during her stay at a mental institution.[7]

Elsewhere, Wallace focuses on the pain of youth. One heartbreaking chapter features a comically geeky teenage boy and his social ostracism.[8] Another details a teen whose anxiety makes him sweat profusely, which only makes him more anxious. Another details a young couple’s unplanned pregnancy crisis.[9]

What ultimately unifies this novel is its obsession with the concept of boredom. In his depiction of life at the IRS, Wallace portrays boredom as a crusher of souls, the curse of corporate life, the price of adulthood. As one character notes:  “Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorientation, boredom, angst, ennui –these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.”

Yet boredom also emerges as a kind of poetry, as evidenced by the care with which Wallace details the tedium of life at the IRS branch in Peoiria. And throughout, The Pale King implies parallels between the careers of IRS examiners and writers.  Both professions require making narratives from seemingly random data and sitting “very still at a desk and working on something in a very concentrated way for years on end.”

Of course, Americans fear boredom. Witness our desire for constant stimulation, our addiction to electronic devices, our obsession with the constant connectivity and endless entertainment of online social networks and virtual reality.  An astute observer of the American psyche, Wallace suggests that the real enemy isn’t boredom per se, but what boredom masks (or fails to mask). As he writes: “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.”

Wallace stops short of making an explicit connection between boredom and clinical depression, from which he suffered for most of his life. While it would be callous and presumptuous to read The Pale King as a suicide note, it’s clearly the work of a genius in agony, a writer whose absence we continue to mourn. The king of American letters is dead. Long live the Pale King.

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He read 13 books in April. This summer, he plans to get outside more often and become less pale.


[1] This is a problematic introduction, for many reasons: (1) Unverifiable hyperbole that panders to our superlative-addicted culture (2) Use of list format that presumes the reader’s presumed non-existent attention span. (3) Colon abuse. (4) Faulty premise that a novel’s ostensible subject has any bearing on its merit. (5) Predictable one-two punch: lead the reader to believe one thing in the first paragraph then whisk away the rug in the second paragraph. (5b) That was a mixed metaphor. (6) Nobody who has even a passing familiarity with David Foster Wallace would believe that he could write a boring novel, much less the most boring novel of all time. (7) Anyone without a passing familiarity with David Foster Wallace is probably (a) not a reader of Frontier Psychiatrist (b) under the age of 25 (c) over the age of 50 (d) all the above. (8) Cheap appeal to knee-jerk stereotypes about the IRS, the Midwest, etc. (9) Cheap appeal to reader’s presumed anti-intellectualism, or unwillingness to read a lengthy piece of literature. (10) Author’s barely veiled self-congratulatory superiority for having read a lengthy piece of literature on an ostensibly boring topic. (11) Unintentional nostalgia: When I was a newspaper reporter in New Hampshire, my colleagues and I competed to see who could conceive of the worst opening paragraph (or “lead”) for an article. One favorite was ‘When so-and-so woke up this morning, he had no idea he would be dead.” (12) This shameless use of footnotes which Wallace does in The Pale King and did in Infinite Jest like, 15 years ago.

[2] Here we go again with the superlatives.

[3] While comparing authors (or musicians) to each other in arts reviews is an accepted way to establish one’s authority, it is also not-so-subtle bragging and intellectual laziness. Why not review a writer or a musician on his own terms? Why pander to the paradoxical desire of readers who want something new, but want it to seem familiar?

[4] I have not read Infinite Jest in 10 years and remember few specifics. In 2004, my first year as a teacher, I assigned the book’s first chapter to a class of seniors, in part to burnish my image as a ‘hip’ ‘young’ ‘intellectual.’ They humored me, but did not seem particularly moved.

[5] Best college novel: Ethan Canin, For Kings and Planets. Worst college novel: Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons.

[6] I have been waiting for a chance to use this phrase.

[7] Best pas de deux: J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey.

[8] He makes the kid in Rushmore seem like the varsity football quarterback.

[9] Not unlike the famous Ernest Hemingway short story, “Hills Like White Elephants”

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13 Responses to "Bored to Death – A Review of The Pale King"

What a beautiful review and what a beautiful picture of Mr. Wallace. I miss him.

Thanks, Diane. Have you read The Pale King yet? What’s your favorite DFW book?

KEITH! What an incredible review! You definitely made me want to read the book–which, I think, is the best compliment a reviewer of a work can receive. That or maybe a check written out to them.

Also, I love your take here: “While comparing authors (or musicians) to each other in arts reviews is an accepted way to establish one’s authority, it is also not-so-subtle bragging and intellectual laziness. Why not review a writer or a musician on his own terms? Why pander to the paradoxical desire of readers who want something new, but want it to seem familiar?” I’ll keep that in mind and try to be less intimidated about writing about music for Front Psych. 🙂

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[…] Psychiatrist. His recent book reviews include Incognito, The Death of the Liberal Class, and The Pale King. His review of Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Life on a Tough New Planet was featured last week on […]

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[…] Minimal. Sex: A blowjob buried in a footnote. Major theme: Boredom. Length: 538 pages, plus addenda.[1] Nevertheless, The Pale King is a masterpiece.Its 50 chapters intersperse “a portrait of […]

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