A salient formal device David Foster Wallace used throughout his career was the onslaught of confusing details that slowly accrue and congeal and eventually reveal a well-planned and moving whole. He did this on both a micro and macro level; it was how individual stories and chapters might function and was also how his novel Infinite Jest functioned as a whole. In his introduction to Wallace's unfinished novel The Pale King, editor Michael Pietsch suggests that the book would have worked similarly. As it is, King's elements never quite congeal. You can feel it building narrative mass, but in a losing race against page-number. Pietsch points out that King has a "spine," and it does, in a sense. Amid various narrative tidbits, it follows a group of IRS agents in Peoria, IL in the mid-1980s. But if you look at King as a novel, if you cling to the spine, it's a disappointment. If, on the other hand, you look at King as a collection of notes, character sketches and short stories made from philosophical, psychological and moral ideas—look at it, in other words, as what is it—it's quite fascinating.
The moral system of The Pale King is, by and large, the same one expressed throughout Wallace's oeuvre, especially in his more recent interviews and appearances, and particularly in his Kenyon commencement speech from 2005. In fact, many of the situations and metaphors found in the Kenyon speech are reiterated in King. There're the traffic jams and long lines posing the existential problem of being a self with others; the heat that could either be hell or the force of spiritual oneness; there's even the cart with one wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left—every annoyance you can't control.
And there are Wallace's ideas about freedom. Freedom is volition and volition requires saying no to appetite. People who follow their appetites are like "a piece of paper on the street in the wind, thinking, ‘Now I think I'll blow this way, now I think I'll blow that way.'" If you live this way it's like you're "taking the train instead of actually driving yourself somewhere and having to know where you were and make decisions about where to turn."
Awakening from this jumble requires some kind of awareness of your own doubleness; awareness of yourself as both subject and object. Too much a subject and you're a solipsist; too much an object and you're dissociated.
These issues of freedom through conscious action and consciousness through object-subject conciliation have serious philosophical precedents and influences that Wallace is working through. However, Wallace is not just concerned with abstract philosophical problems but with their peculiarly contemporary articulation. Which is what in part explains the setting of The Pale King.
If in Infinite Jest Wallace offered a diagnosis of a sick country, King offers something of an etiology. The cult of self-interest against which Wallace stakes his moral claims found a uniquely forceful iteration during the Reagan Revolution and is figured in the tax revolt. The IRS was at a complex intersection in the mid-80s; partly the civic conscience of the nation, it also started being run as a for-profit business. Wallace is keen to point out that Reagan used the IRS strategically, playing both sides. He publicly vilified taxes, but privately made the IRS more powerful and invasive so as to avoid raising taxes. When you abdicate your sense of duty, you need someone to force your hand. You become, in the words of Wallace, adolescent, "with a twin desire for both authoritarian structure and the end of parental hegemony."
It's with this twin desire that Americans looked to the anti-government government of Reagan Republicans and the anti-corporate corporations of post-60s pop culture. It's pop culture, and modern culture in general, that was, and of course still is, habituating us to constant stimulation, which is used as a distraction from existential dread. And the contemporary manifestation of existential dread is boredom, which you've probably heard is what The Pale King is about, according to Wallace and others. You may have read the quote Wallace attached to the manuscript, which read: "Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom." Just as pop culture habituates us to stimulation—distraction from our being—boredom, when pushed through by will, can habituate us to dealing with our being and dealing with it well.
I find all of this startling and insightful and brilliant and it sounds true. But like everyone, I'm skeptical of what sounds true. Beautiful lies can sound true. I want to know that truths can be sustained; that they not only determine the construction of but also somehow arise out of various complex situations. The Pale King frequently burrows deeply into the knotted particulars of experience; the book is all flashes of brilliance that burn brightly, but not for long enough. However true its truths, they're not given form in a sustained performance.
The book is, finally, just a hint of what the world might look like if Wallace was still around to transfigure it for us. We're lucky to have even that.