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Foster Wallace book bores into boredom

Foster Wallace book bores into boredom

Last Updated: Saturday, April 16, 2011 - 20:30

London: Claude Sylvanshine, one of the oddball IRS agents who populates the late David Foster Wallace`s unfinished novel ‘The Pale King,’ is described at one point as a "fact psychic." He has paranormal flashes not of the future but of random, meaningless facts: the number of years a piece of gum has been stuck to the bottom of a desk, or the middle name of a passing stranger`s childhood best friend.

Most of the world`s information, Wallace shows us over and over in ‘The Pale King’, is not really worth knowing. Wallace was still writing ‘The Pale King’ when he killed himself in 2008, leaving an unanswered question for both his many devoted readers and, apparently, himself: How does one live a meaningful life when so much of what surrounds us all seems so meaningless?

"The Pale King" doesn`t really hold together as a novel, with no conventional resolution and plenty of characters and tangents seemingly unconnected to the book`s main action. It`s a fact that Wallace`s long-time editor acknowledges in a necessary foreword detailing how he, at the request of Wallace`s widow, assembled this 547-page book from hundreds and hundreds of pages of writing the acclaimed writer left behind.

"There is no question that `The Pale King` would have been vastly different had he survived to finish it," wrote Michael Pietsch, who was also Wallace`s editor on his 1996 epic, "Infinite Jest."

That "The Pale King" is not a final product, though, in no way subtracts from the strange and memorable pleasures on every page of this book. What will seem like a gift to Wallace`s many fans should earn him many new ones as well — readers willing to be challenged by his dense and brilliant prose, impressed by the endless reach of his perception and charmed by his offbeat humour.

Even Wallace`s previous, finished novels placed little emphasis on plot or payoff, and Pietsch writes in his foreword that Wallace in his notes envisioned the book as "a series of setups for things to happen but nothing ever happens." The action in the book centers mostly on an IRS processing center in Peoria, Ill., in the mid-1980s. There are suggestions of a looming power struggle between competing management factions, but that never really comes into focus. What might have gelled in a finished novel becomes instead a patchwork of lively character sketches frequently punctuated by Wallace`s lengthy digressions into politics, economics and tax policy, urban planning and traffic patterns, and particularly the inanities and ineptitudes of large bureaucracies.

Wallace`s tangents are often fascinating but can be tedious, and after a while that starts to seem intentional in a book in which the true subject appears to be boredom itself. Here`s where setting the book in the IRS comes to look like a stroke of genius, those much-maligned guardians of a U.S. federal tax code so central to American life yet so impenetrable and mind-numbing to most Americans.

"Thirty years of looking at forms, crosschecking forms, filling out the same memos on the same forms," is how Wallace describes the work of his IRS examiners, a collection of neurotics and misfits showcased in individual chapters — some set long before their IRS careers, some in the midst of them.

It`s in these character-based chapters that Wallace really shines. Some are dark and tragic: a young woman struggles to survive life with her chaotic, itinerant mother; a young man stands by helpless as his father is killed in a freak accident. One chapter, about a viciously bullied high school student and a gruesome shop class accident, leaps from afterschool-special pathos to bloody slapstick to genuinely moving in the span of seven fast-moving pages.

Another agent, and the book`s sometime narrator, is ‘David Foster Wallace’ — with the author in a bit of literary trickery suggesting that he really did work for the IRS for a brief time in his early 20s. The book`s version of Wallace suffers from a socially crippling case of acne, and at one point sees his new career nearly derailed when IRS computers mix him up with another agent also named David F. Wallace. A chapter where this fictional Wallace stumbles into a bizarre encounter with the superior agent`s infant child is uproariously funny, and a welcome reminder that the real Wallace was a satirist of the first order.

What binds all these strange characters together, it seems, is a mix of character traits that enable them to take on the crushing boredom of their job. Some do better than others: one aspiring agent realizes that "if you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish; but another nearly goes mad as he realizes "that `boring` also meant something that drilled in me and made a hole."

That`s actually a good description of what Wallace does here, boring deeply through the mundane surfaces and routines of everyday life and rooting out the ironies and absurdities. The idea of writing that makes boredom interesting has a paradoxical quality that Wallace himself would appreciate, and it`s a shame he`s not around to see his success in pulling it off.

Bureau Report

First Published: Saturday, April 16, 2011 - 20:30
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