So I finished The Pale King last night. It is pretty much a novel about boredom, tedium, and everyday life. It is rather obviously unfinished, and rather not obviously fiction in the strictest sense (re: ‘This is Water;’ [listen here] it seems DFW was exploring permeable membrane between truth and fiction at the time he died, perhaps the regions George Steiner once labeled ‘real’ and ‘more real’).
Nothing much happens. We keep expecting something to happen but it never does. Furthermore, there isn’t even a protagonist. The book is not a novel in any normal sense. Yet it is perhaps the most perfect novel of the decade. DFW’s marries Nabokov’s pitch perfect lyricism with a blistering sincerity all his own. He plums the depths of the era’s deepest fear: boredom. Ennui. Sameness. Lack of uniqueness. It seems the overall conceit of the novel is to bring together the most exceptional batch of IRS employees so as to demonstrate palpably the superiority of computers. Discussions of tax occupy pages and pages.
Tax theory links the narrative. One practically expects to be able to outline the chapters vis a vis a 1040. The choice of the tax world as his hyper-reality is incisive. To most people, taxes represent the most boring task in the world and the IRS terrifies because it is comprised of group of people who have conquered their capacity to be bored. They are all freaks to most ‘normal’ people.
In this world of hyper normalcy DFW explores the abnormality of all human life and the vital importance of paying attention. Of concentration. The Pale King, at times, feels like a vivification of ‘This is Water’ (listen here), but that connection is too hard to hold. The Pale King killed the author. Or at least he killed himself while writing it.
Much as we try to disassociate author and work- pace Barthes- DFW, esp. the DFW explicitly presented in The Pale King as very much the type of person the real DFW directed ‘This is Water’ at, is rather explicitly pushing back at a darkness of near Beckett-ian absurdity. And the real, the living, breathing, writing DFW, apparently lost. It has been said novels, poems, and paintings, all art, is an apology for a life that couldn’t be lived. One hopes that via his last works DFW will point others towards a light we hope he found. His are, as Steiner said, ‘night words,’ Saturday speech in hope of Sunday.