David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest drew heavily from his own life experiences with addiction, rehab, and a family of strict grammarians, but the late author went a step further in his unfinished final novel, The Pale King. The book’s protagonist is literally named “David Foster Wallace,” and the book follows his experiences as he starts working at the IRS. March 24, 2005, “the fifth day of spring,” is the date given for the book’s “author’s foreword,” which introduced the book’s big ideas and blurred the line between fiction and reality.
Usually, the copyright/legal disclaimer page is the only part of a novel readers can be assured is non-fiction. Here, Wallace reverses that dynamic, or at least confuses it, by declaring “The Pale King is, in point of fact, more like a memoir than any kind of made-up story” and “the only bona fide ‘fiction’ here is the copyright page’s disclaimer.” The book’s fictionalized “Wallace” narrator shares enough traits with the real Wallace (such as his stated ambition to become “an immortally great fiction writer a la Gaddis or Anderson, Balzac or Perec, etc.”) that the distinction gets not just very confusing but also kind of boring. Wallace repeats phrases and over-explains terms for pages on end, to the point that anyone trying to figure out the difference might just get bored and give up. That’s the whole point.
This foreword is obviously fictional. It doesn’t appear until several pages into the novel, which was assembled posthumously by Wallace’s longtime editor Michael Pietsch. However, the fictional “Wallace” pretends that The Pale King is a real-life memoir, and the writer Wallace used that ruse to comment on the then-current fad for memoirs over fiction. This adds another dose of confusing meta-meaning, or as Wallace refers to it, “gratuitous titty-pinching.”
After pages of enumerating IRS history and personal experiences, Wallace reaches the book’s central question: why are we so repulsed by boredom? Infinite Jest was a novel about entertainment and all of its victims: the tennis players training to entertain others, the drug addicts who have been used and abused by entertainment, the terrorists who want to weaponize entertainment for political purposes, and so on.
For the follow-up novel, Wallace tackled boredom, entertainment’s exact opposite. The Pale King takes place in the offices of the IRS, one of the most boring settings imaginable, and as this foreword demonstrates, often goes on for pages at a time on a seemingly irrelevant topic, only to eventually reach a sublime conclusion: “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.”
The complex twists and turns of this foreword are a reminder of the beauty of The Pale King (evident also in its opening page, a poetic description of a Midwestern cornfield) and the mystery left by the book’s semi-completed state. Happy fifth day of spring.