8 Sep 2011, 8:49pm

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Shattercane & Lamb’s Quarter

I’ve written here about how I’m interested in dating the various sections of The Pale King–when they were written, what else DFW might have been working on concurrently, and how the other might have influenced The Pale King (or how The Pale King might have influenced what else he was working on at the time). I think some of that might be discernible from some of the small details that show up in other works (more on this), but of course we’re likely to know more when The Pale King materials make their way from Little, Brown down to the Ransom Center. The HRC tells me that the Pale King materials will arrive in Austin after the paperback is released. Typically the paperback comes out a year after the hardcover (so maybe April 2012), but perhaps Little, Brown will release the paperback in time for Christmas? Either way, I doubt the Pale King materials will be indexed and accessible to researches before Fall 2012.

In any case, there might not be any meaningful connection that shows Wallace was working on more than one thing at once, but just that, like most writers (and professors), he had a lot of things that continued to interest him, and in many cases he retold the same things multiple times. Some of the same motifs show up in all his work and many of the same details get recycled and slightly retold.

I mentioned in the recent contest here that I was surprised no one chose any of the words from The Pale King‘s opening section as the “best” word.

I was a little surprised that no one submitted any of the words from the opening page of the novel: shattercane, sawbrier, muscadine, vetch, invaginate, chert, corn-bound.

Honestly, I didn’t think much of this passage when it appeared in Tri-Quarterly under the title “Peoria (4).” And I thought it was a curious choice for Michael Pietsch to use as the opening of this particular novel. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder what inspired Wallace to write it in the first place. Is it just a paean to his “home” state of Illinois? Was he trying to do his best Cormac McCarthy impersonation? Did he really intend to use this passage in TPK or had he written it for some other purpose? Am I overthinking this?

And then the other day I was listening to the audiobook of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, read by The Man Himself (get it here: http://www.sonn-d-robots.com/dfw/readings/), specifically, I was listening to the long (55 minutes), closing chapter of the book: BI #20, The Granola Cruncher. Toward the end of the story, when the girl is driven to a remote location and is forced out of the car by the predator, and then forced to lay in the grass, face down, this passage suddenly sounded terribly familiar to me:

Lying there helpless and connected, she says her senses had take on the nearly unbearable acuity we associate with drugs or extreme meditative states. She could distinguish lilac and shattercane’s scents from phlox and lamb’s quarter, the watery mint of first-growth clover.

Compare that to the opening sentence of The Pale King:
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.
So there is a basic similarity of using “shattercane” and “lamb’s quarter” and “mint” as floral descriptors, but does that mean the two pieces were composed anywhere near the same period of time? Who knows? Let’s look at the terms, though.
Shattercane (sometimes “shatter cane” or “wild cane”) is just another name (albeit more poetic) for an invasive variety of sorghum (sorghum bicolor). It is a weed.
Lamb’s Quarter (or lambsquarters) is a type of goosefoot or pigweed (also great names)–another weed.
Now listen, as good as The Pale King is, to me, there is nothing in it as powerful as Brief Interview #20. Nothing. Wallace always struggled with how to end a story–and a book. But I believe he mastered it with Infinite Jest (although many people hated that ending) and then got better with it by ending Brief Interviews with #20, and then even better by ending Oblivion with “The Suffering Channel.”
Go read BI #20 again. The whole thing is on The Paris Review‘s site:
The ending of the story is just devastating.

I displayed far more affect than she did. She learned more about love that day with the sex offender than at any other stage in her spiritual journey, she said. Let’s both have one last one and then that will be it. That her whole life had indeed led inexorably to that moment when the car stopped and she got in, that it was indeed a kind of a death, but not at all in the way she had feared as they entered the secluded area. That was the only commentary she indulged in, just at the anecdote’s end. I did not care whether it was quote true. It would depend what you mean by true. I simply didn’t care. I was moved, changed—believe what you will. My mind seemed to be moving at the quote speed of light. I was so sad. And that whether or not what she believed happened happened—it seemed true even if it wasn’t. That even if the whole focused-soul-connection theology, that even if it was just catachretic New Age goo, her belief in it had saved her life, so whether or not it’s goo becomes irrelevant, no? Can you see why this, realizing this, would make you feel conflicted in—of realizing that your entire sexuality and sexual history had less genuine connection or feeling than I felt simply lying there listening to her talk about lying there realizing how lucky she’d been that some angel had visited her in psychotic guise and shown her what she’d spent her whole life praying was true? You believe I’m contradicting myself. But can you imagine how any of it felt? Seeing her sandals across the room on the floor and remembering what I’d thought of them only hours before? I kept saying her name and she would ask What? and I’d say her name again. I’m not afraid of how this sounds to you. I’m not embarrassed now. But if you could understand, have I—can you see why there’s no way I could let her just go away after this? Why I felt this apical sadness and fear of the thought of her getting her bag and sandals and New Age blanket and leaving and laughing when I clutched her hem and begged her not to leave and said I loved her and closing the door gently and going off barefoot down the hall and my never seeing her again? Why it didn’t matter whether she was fluffy or not terribly bright? Nothing else mattered. She had all my attention. I’d fallen in love with her. I believed she could save me. I know how this sounds, trust me. I know your type and I know what you’re bound to ask. Ask it now. I felt she could save me I said. Ask me now. Say it. I stand here naked before you. Judge me, you chilly cunt. You dyke, you bitch, cooze, slut, gash, cunt. Happy now? All judgments confirmed? Be happy. I do not care. I knew she could. I knew I loved her. End of story.

Pale King Contest Winners

I’ve received a ton of great submissions for the Pale King contest I announced a couple of weeks ago. I want to thank everyone who submitted entries and put thought and energy into these ideas. I was really impressed by the quality of the answers. Many of the responses to the contest about themes and ideas were lengthy and sophisticated. I truly enjoyed reading all of them. I hope you enjoy them as well.
(Winners will receive copies of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, courtesy of Random House, copies of David Hering’s Consider David Foster Wallace, courtesy of SSMG Press, Infinite Jest posters from the amazing Sam Potts and other small prizes.)

Contest #1: Did any theme or idea in The Pale King remind you of Wallace’s earlier work?


Matt King

The Pale King, approximately p. 270-284 vs. Infinite Jest, approximately pg. 601-619.

“The connection I have in mind concerns Wallace’s use of needlessly complicated and poorly planned (or deliberately planned to be inconvenient) parking situations and bureaucratic demands placed on specific individuals as a means of gaining insight into these characters. In the relevant section of The Pale King, David “Author Here” Wallace has to balance the (past) anxiety of his new job and the (current) demands of narration against the poorly planned parking situation at the Peoria REC. In the relevant section of Infinite Jest, Don Gately has to balance the rules of the halfway house and the consequences of Lenz’s shenanigans while also trying to make sure that the residents get their cars moved to the other side of the street. For Wallace, there seems to be a sense in which both submitting oneself to bureaucratic rules (of the halfway house, of the IRS) and enduring situations made needlessly complicated (in these cases, specifically with reference to parking) makes one stronger, or at least serves as a sort of test of Don’s and Dave’s abilities to let go of a sense of self. In other words, these scenes are about Don’s and Dave’s capacity to respond, not only to other people but to situations that test their patience and limits of boredom and annoyance.”


Runners Up:

James McAdams: “I noticed a direct accounting link between Sylvanshine’s observation that ‘the core accounting equation A=L+E can be dissolved into everything from E=A-L to beyond’ (The Pale King, p. 5) and one of the super long footnotes that rupture “Octet,” i.e. where the narrating author admits that ‘the Quiz spends five lines constructing a possible analogy between the world’s joy/misery ratio and the seminal double-entry A=L+E equation of modern accountancy, as if more than one person out of a thousand could possibly give a shit.’  (Brief Interviews, 150).”

Matthew Ritter: “Meredith Rand has a history of grappling with the classic objective/subject (or being-for-itself vs. being-for-others if you want to get existential) distinction. On page 484, she says, “I mean starting to see yourself as a piece of meat, that the only thing you’ve got is your looks and the way you affect boys, guys. You start doing it without even knowing your doing it. And it’s scary, because at the same time it also feels like a box; you know there’s more to you inside you because you can feel it, but nobody will ever know–not even other girls, who either hate you or are scared of you, because you’re a monopsony […]”

This discussion, the problem of being a body and, therefore, an object for others’ consumption/use is reminiscent of B.I. 46 in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (pages 98-105) [The story in which the narrator asks “How would you feel about me tying you up?”]. In both, the point seems to be that humans are both subject and object, but object much more so. We cannot deny our embodiment, our being seen by/thought of/addressed by others, that we are not simply just who we think we are inside our own heads, but that the lion’s share of the self resides in the intangible, private, and unseen world. When being-for-others/objectivity casts too great a shadow, the eclipse of self is frightening, dangerous, and destructive.”


Philip Miletic: “One of the themes in Wallace’s The Pale King that has been a recurrent and rolling stone picking up moss is Trauma and the formative features of trauma on individuals or groups of individuals. Thomas Tracey, in his essay “Representations of Trauma in David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion” in Consider David Foster Wallace, draws attention to Wallace’s peaking interest in trauma: “In Oblivion…the experience of trauma touches especially on human memory, dream, and fantasy” (173); and calls Infinite Jest‘s focus on AA as “a precursor to the detailed exploration of psychological trauma we later encounter in Oblivion” (172). In a New York Times review of The Pale King, Michiko Kakutani writes, “Wallace is focused on how various characters came to work at the I.R.S. — what combination of psychological tics, childhood trauma, financial circumstance and random luck propelled them into the rat race and tossed them onto the hamster wheel that is life as accountants there, pushing paper and numbers in a deadeningly generic office fitted with fluorescent lights, modular shelving and the ceaseless “whisper of sourceless ventilation.”” The exploration of trauma as a formative function in an individual’s development is abundant in The Pale King w/ the numerous back stories (the boy who sweats, the boy who is incredibly nice and thus hated by everyone, Meredith Rand’s exhaustive retelling of her past trauma that elevates Drinion, captures his attention although some would find it drastically dull, and etc.) that may not seem overly traumatic in a blown-up magnitude kind of way, but are the little instances of trauma, sometimes subconsciously, that form character, that is unique to an individual and can be revealed to others if these small (or big) trauma are given attention. The narrator in “The Soul is Not a Smithy” calls their “unwitting” trauma “the original trauma” (Oblivion, 67) that is similar to the original sin of Adam and Eve, the original sin that is responsible of human existence. InInfinite Jest, the site of trauma is not just the AA center, but Hal too experiences trauma, discovering his father’s dead body, that forms his current identity; Joelle’s acid accident possibly gives birth to Madame Psychosis: Trauma here creates an entirely new identity. And even in The Broom of the System, Lenore Beadsman goes the traumatic experience of an identity crisis due to the shared name w/ her Grandmother, Lenore Beadsman. (This calls to attention the two David F. Wallaces in The Pale King. Because of the unfinished state of the novel, we can only imagine what traumatic experience both David Wallaces will go through, that is, from what we have only glimpsed from their displacement.) Trauma becomes for Wallace something that is overlooked, which is depressing because it is trauma that is wholly specific to an individual (even within a shared traumatic experience) and is what really creates an individual unique within a society that clumps people within groups, organizations, jobs, classes, etc.”


Jeff Stern: “The thing that struck me was the “what’s wrong?” device – the way the smoother of the tax guys would insert that phrase in a conversational pause strategically in order to be seen as insightful and attentive, while actually being less attentive and attuned to the person he’s listening to than he might be otherwise.  This reminded me a lot of the way that Orin would approach subjects in IJ, with the same story, the fake wedding band, and seem to connect in a way with them that other men were unable to accomplish. That sense of personal connection that is so rare – a feeling that someone really knows you, cares about you, has an instant connection in a way that others you have known your whole life have failed to make. And the parallels here are profound, I think. It’s not just the contrivance that fakes a true connection. It’s not just the way that the social con artist preys upon the ego and fragility of the subject. It’s also the newness. The way that we attach importance and profundity to someone who is able to show insight connection immediately. In fact, it seems all the more powerful that a stranger can tell you things and know things about you that those you have lived with all your life have failed to see. This is the power of fortune tellers, the power of Dr. Phil. They cut through the bullshit of everyday life in seconds and see into your soul, precisely because you are so desperate to have someone recognize you – the real *you* inside that you always keep partially hidden from the world for fear of ridicule (or worse, hurt or death due to exposure). And as a subject you don’t realize that these devices are so successful because you are just like everyone else. You don’t realize that those around you know these things too, but don’t say them out of politeness or out of fear or out of being absorbed in their own neuroses. You wouldn’t accept your friend saying this stuff to you anyway, precisely because of the shared history you have. You need to hear it from a stranger – you give them that power over you and the benefit of every doubt both because you crave that recognition and intimacy and yet are unable to deal with it on a regular basis because then that requires facing icky truths about yourself on a regular basis, and ewww.  And so whether it is the hook up artist or the professional networker, you are able to accept it then and imbue this experience with meaning and assign to this person a preternatural ability to see deep within your soul. And the nature of this exchange with a stranger or near-stranger – the social anxiety involved – helps to make it happen. And we would never do this in our regular lives with the regular people we love because we have to keep telling ourselves “this is water. this is water.” just to keep from exploding at that guy with the bad comb-over who has too many items in the express line at the grocery store, and our family – well, don’t get me started. Actual intimacy does breed contempt to a degree, and we’d much rather believe in magical intimacy even though it’s actually just pure trickery that leaves us cold and empty in the aftermath. So I guess that I think this is sort of a repetition of the theme of false intimacy trumping actual intimacy, and a sort of individualized version of the entertainment/boredom issues that Wallace addresses in IJ and TPK, flip sides of a coin on micro and macro levels, but really just talking about what it’s like to be human.”

Several folks submitted this one:  toward the end of Meredith Rand’s long monologue, she talks about “all the terrible country songs my dad used to listen to” and how if you change “the you to me, like, you understand that what they’re really singing about is losing some part of themself or betraying themself over and over for what they they think other people want.” (TPK, page 508). Wallace talks about this same phenomenon to David Lipsky in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, page 198: “I remember just being real impatient with it [country music]. Until I’d been living here about a year. And all of a sudden I realized that, what if you just imagined that this absent lover they’re singing to is just a metaphor? And what they’re really singing to is themselves, or to God, you know?”

The Menace of Insects – Glendennings obsession with mosquitoes as it relates to fear of insects (spiders) in Infinite Jest and “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.”


Contest #2: What is the single best word in The Pale King?

Winner: banausic, page 229, submitted by Jesse Hilson

“Banausic” is defined as serving utilitarian purposes only or mechanical or practical. The word and concept  (banausos) have an impressively complex etymology related to Greek mythology, economic insults, Plato, and philistinism. So much of The Pale King concerns the class of people who appear to actively choose to serve utilitarian purposes only—the practical, mechanical, routine tasks necessary that keep the nation’s finances flowing.

Runners Up:




Other words submitted:









[I was a little surprised that no one submitted any of the words from the opening page of the novel: shattercane, sawbrier, muscadine, vetch, invaginate, chert, corn-bound. Read these.]

Congratulations again to all the winners. I will contact you about the prizes.

Contest Update


Last week I announced a contest looking for hints of themes similar to those in The Pale King that might appear in Wallace’s earlier work. I’ve received a lot of great entries, but we still have a week left before the deadline (May 25).

Prizes now include posters of Sam Potts’ amazing Infinite Jest Diagram (which you can’t even buy anymore).

Other prizes include copies of David Lipsky’s book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace.

Copies of Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays edited by David Hering.

And a few other assorted goodies as other prizes.

Contest #1: Did any theme or idea in The Pale King remind you of Wallace’s earlier work?

Contest #2: What is the single best word in The Pale King?

Submit your entries by emailing matt@mattbucher.com

[Many thanks to Sam Potts, Random House, and SSMG Press.]

Contest: DFW & The Pale King

David Foster Wallace began working on The Pale King as early as 1997, possibly even 1996. Some of the early research he did for the novel now resides in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. I’ve looked at some of it. (I must say I’ve never felt luckier to live in Austin) and I can confirm that Wallace was auditing a class on tax at Illinois State University in 1997. He also corresponded with tax professors and attorneys. (You can view the archive’s finding aid here: http://research.hrc.utexas.edu:8080/hrcxtf/view?docId=ead/00503.xml The Pale King stuff is mostly in boxes 25.5-7 and 26.1-8.)

In 1997, a year after the publication of his mammoth novel “Infinite Jest,” Wallace enrolled in accounting classes at Illinois State University and began plowing through shelves of technical literature, transcribing notes on tax scams, criteria for audit and the problem of “agent terrorism” into a series of notebooks.

A couple of other sources state that Wallace was working on The Pale King as early as 1996.

Around this time, Wallace was extremely busy and productive. He was in the middle of completing his first volume of nonfiction essays (not counting Signifying Rappers), A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Earlier in that year (1996), Wallace spent five days talking to Rolling Stone‘s David Lipsky. The transcripts of their conversations were published last year as Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.

Late in the book, Lipsky and Wallace are talking about the themes at the heart of Infinite Jest (pp. 157-161). Wallace says that the country seems to be setting itself up for “repression and fascism” since we “hunger to have someone else tell us what to do,” and that some of that hunger might be related to a generation raised on irony. Wallace wonders what comes after this Letterman-like ability to poke holes in everything. Lipsky asks “What do you think it will be?” Wallace replies:

My guess is that what it will be is, it’s going to be the function of some people who are heroes. Who evince a real type of passion that’s going to look very banal and very retrograde and very . . . You know, for instance, people who will get on television, and earnestly say, “It’s extraordinarily important, that we, the most undertaxed nation on earth, be willing to pay higher taxes, so that we don’t allow the lower strata of our society to starve to death and freeze to death.” That it’s vitally important that we do that. Not for them, but for us. You know? That our survival depends on an ability to look past ourselves and our own self-interest. And these people are going to look–in the climate, in the particular climate of our generation and MTV and Letterman, they’re going to look absurd.

Here I can see Wallace thinking not only about taxation and tax brackets and shifting perceptions of equitable tax distribution, but about what sort of characters need to be in place to take on these ideas. And I’m reminded of section 22 of The Pale King with the Jesuit substitute and his speech about how accountants are heroes and how accounting might appear to be banal and boring, but that it’s vitally important to society.

At one point in Infinite Jest, we get to read an essay Hal Incandenza writes about the hero of action and the hero of reaction. He compares Chief Steve McGarrett of “Hawaii Five-0” and Captain Frank Furillo of “Hill Street Blues.” McGarrett is a classically modern hero of action.

In contrast, Captain Frank Furillo is what used to be designated a ‘post’-modern hero. Viz., a hero whose virtues are suited to a more complex and corporate American era. I.e., a hero of reaction. Captain Frank Furillo does not investigate cases or single-mindedly home in. He commands a precinct. He is a bureaucrat, and his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields.

Again, this concept of heroism sounds exactly like what the Jesuit substitute lectures about in Section 22 of The Pale King.

Yesterday’s hero pushed back at bounds and frontiers–he penetrated, tamed, hewed, shaped, made, brought things into being. . . . In today’s world, boundaries are fixed, and most significant facts have been generated. Gentleman, the heroic frontier now lies in the ordering and deployment of those facts. Classification, organization, presentation. To put it another way, the pie has been made–the contest is now in the slicing.

We don’t yet know exactly when Wallace wrote those words, but the idea of the modern hero was clearly on his mind as he wrote about Hal Incandenza and Don Gately. Even his first novel, The Broom of the System, deals with this idea of the frontier being pushed back, the Great Ohio Desert being hewed out of civilization.

Governor: Gentlemen, we need a desert.
Mr. Lungberg and Mr. Obstat: A desert?
Governor: Gentleman, a desert. A point of savage reference for the good people of Ohio.  A place to fear and love. A blasted region.  Something to remind us of what we are hewed out of.  A place without malls.  An Other for Ohio’s Self. Cacti and scorpions and the sun beating down. Desolation. A place for people to wander alone. To reflect. Away from everything. Gentlemen, a desert.

So here’s the contest: Did a theme or an idea in The Pale King remind you of something from one of Wallace’s earlier books? Submit your find.

Ground rules:
1. This assumes you’ve read The Pale King.
2. Your finds can come from any of Wallace’s other books. (Make sure to cite the page number.)
3. I’m the sole judge.
4. The deadline is May 25.

1st prize wins a copy of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky (courtesy of Random House), plus some commemorative Pale King bookmarks, plus some limited-edition DFW trading cards & bookmarks (courtesy of SSMG Press), plus some other treats. Four other winners will receive a copy of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.

I am also looking for the best word in The Pale King. There are a lot of candidates, but you should submit what you believe to be the best word used in The Pale King (cite the page number, please). 1st prize wins a copy of Consider David Foster Wallace edited by David Hering (courtesy of SSMG Press) and some bookmarks and some other goodies.

You can submit entries for either or both contests.

Enter by emailing your entry to matt@mattbucher.com

Murals, Street Art, Graffiti, and Tags





















The Pale King – Section Guide

[Page numbers refer to the US edition hardcover, for page references in the US edition paperback, add two pages]

§1 – p. 3 – “Peoria” prose poem thing

§2 – p. 5 – Sylvanshine on the plane

§3 – p. 25 – short dialogue about masturbation and tits

§4 – p. 27 – newspaper article about dead guy found at his desk

§5 – p. 29 – perfect boy (Steyck)

§6 – p. 36 – Lane Dean contemplates abortion (“Good People”)

§7 – p. 44 – Sylvanshine in an ice cream truck

§8 – p. 53 – Toni Ware is poor

§9 – p. 66 – Author here; DFW character’s intro & background

§10 – p. 86 – Bureaucracy is not a closed system

§11 – p. 87 – internal memo re: examiners’ syndromes

§12 – p. 89 – Steyck as an adult being overly friendly

§13 – p. 91 – David Cusk sweating as a boy

§14 – p. 100 – IRS documentary video, 14 interviews

§15 – p. 118 – Sylvanshine, fact psychic

§16 – p. 122 – Lane Dean smoke break (“A New Examiner”)

§17 – p. 127 – IRS men as heroes monologue

§18 – p. 128 – desk names are back (on camera)

§19 – p. 130 – 1980s politics/civics lesson

§20 – p. 150 – Toni Ware’s dogs; “I’ll kill you”

§21 – p. 152 – Audit/fraud investigation

§22 – p. 154 – Chris Fogle, wastoid novella

§23 – p. 253 – dream: rows of faces & boredom

§24 – p. 256 – Author here, arrival in Peoria, Self-Storage Parkway, the mixup

§25 – p. 310 – everyone turns pages

§26 – p. 314 – examiners phantoms & ghosts

§27 – p. 317 – Rotes orientation; Cusk sweating it

§28 – p. 346 – 10 Laws of IRS Personnel

§29 – p. 347 – dog shit stories; Fat Marcus sits

§30 – p. 356 – internal espionage dialogue

§31 – p. 371 – Shinn on surveillance

§32 – p. 373 – The Exorcist on the speakerphone

§33 – p. 376 – Lane Dean, bored at work (“Wiggle Room”)

§34 – p. 386 – jargon about the Alternative Minimum Tax

§35 – p. 387 – Manshardt’s fierce infant (“The Compliance Branch”)

§36 – p. 394 – The boy kissing his own body (“Backbone”)

§37 – p. 408 – awkward conversation at restaurant (Rand?)

§38 – p. 410 – Author here; technical explanation of identity mixup

§39 – p. 415 – Band-saw accident

§40 – p. 423 – Cusk’s fears, at the psychiatrist

§41 – p. 425 – Cardwell is demented, a loon

§42 – p. 426 – Rescue Rangers meth binge in college

§43 – p. 431 – possible terrorist event; Glendenning’s management style

§44 – p. 437 – The key to bureaucracy is dealing with boredom

§45 – p. 439 – Toni Ware’s mom; catatonia

§46 – p. 444 – Meredith Rand’s story (with Drinion the levitator)

§47 – p. 510 – Toni Ware incident at the convenience store

§48 – p. 517 – Someone dosed the iced tea (or knives?) at the picnic

§49 – p. 527 – Fogle is debriefed by Sylvanshine and Reynolds

§50 – p. 537 – You become aware of the body; it is nothing like sleeping


11 Apr 2011, 7:35am


Ulrich Blumenbach on The Pale King

[Ulrich Blumenbach translated Infinite Jest into German (Unendlicher Spaß). Here are his first impressions of Wallace’s new novel.]

The Pale King is a sad novel. And it is a novel about boredom. Everybody knows that by now. But it is funny, too, and I liked the way Wallace connects the two. What surprised me and what I didn’t like was his use of metafiction. Let’s start with the first observation: Take the passage from §22, for instance, where Chris Fogle describes some skull-crunching intricacies of American tax law:

The easiest way to define a tax is to say that the amount of the tax, symbolized as T, is equal to the product of the tax base and tax rate. This is usually symbolized as T = B × R, so you can then get R = T/B, which is the formula for determining whether a tax rate is progressive, regressive, or proportional. This is very basic tax accounting. It is so familiar to most IRS personnel that we don’t even have to think about it. But anyhow, the critical variable is T’s relationship to B. If the ratio of T to B stays the same regardless of whether B, the tax base, goes up or down, then the tax is proportional. This is also known as a flat-​rate tax. A progressive tax is where the ratio T/B increases as B increases and decreases as B decreases. (p. 193)

Fogle goes on to illustrate the consequences of a progressive sales tax with a pseudo-historical example from Illinois in 1977, using as an aid “a fundamental rule of effective tax enforcement” – which I’d rather call a psychological law of nature – “that the average taxpayer is always going to act out of his own monetary self-​interest” (p. 195):

The result was retail chaos. At, for instance, the supermarket, shoppers would no longer purchase three large bags of groceries for $78 total and submit to paying 6, 6.8, and 8.5 percent on those parts of their purchases over $5.00, $20.00, and $42.01, respectively—they were now motivated to structure their grocery purchase as numerous separate small purchases of $4.99 or less in order to take advantage of the much more attractive 3.75 percent sales tax on purchases under $5.00. […] So, at the store, you suddenly had everyone buying under $5.00 worth of groceries and running out to their car and putting the little bag in the car and running back in and buying another amount under $5.00 and running out to their car, and so on and so forth. Supermarkets’ checkout lines started going all the way to the back of the store. […] I know gas stations were even worse,  […] fights broke out at gas stations from drivers being forced to wait as people ahead of them at the pump tried putting $4.99 worth in and running in and paying and running back out and resetting the pump and putting in another $4.99, and so on. (p. 195f.)

Wallace being Wallace, he doesn’t stop here but starts to really turn up the heat and triggers off some comic pyrotechnics which with good reason can be called post-pynchonesque slapstick:

From the perspective of administrative costs, the worst part came when enterprising businesses saw a new opportunity and started using ‘Subdividable!’ as a sales inducement. Including, for instance, used-​car dealers that were willing to sell you a car as an agglomeration of separate little transactions for front bumper, right rear wheel well, alternator coil, spark plug, and so on, the purchase structured as thousands of different $4.99 transactions. (p. 196)

Another example of Wallace’ genius is §24 when the IRS-workers sit in the car and get stuck in a traffic jam. The prose slows down and the text goes nowhere for ten or twenty pages: a brilliant example of the fusion of form and content.

As I said, what I either don’t like or don’t understand in The Pale King so far is the author’s intrusion into the text in §9. I side with those people who think metafiction spoils a story even if it’s meant to criticize or parody metafiction. When I came across these twenty pages of the “Author’s Foreword” I thought “Why this?” For me, Wallace is the author who definitively laid metafiction to rest in “Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way.” Now twenty years later he of all people exhumes the corpse with just the same kind of “really blatant and intrusive interruption” (Girl with Curious Hair, p. 264)?

The Pale King – Section 1: Will it Play in Peoria?

The Pale King opens with a prose poem-y thing originally published in Triquarterly in 2002 under the title “Peoria (4)”. (I’m not sure why this previous publication is not credited on the copyright page of TPK. I guess TriQ is just not on the same level as the New Yorker.) Supposedly, one of the alternate titles of The Pale King was “What is Peoria For?” Maybe that “(4)” is Wallace’s sly way of getting us to ask What is Peoria (4)? Well, what is this thing? Has Wallace ever written anything like this before? It’s a curious opening to a novel about the IRS. It seemed like a weird thing for DFW to publish way back in 2002 (frankly, it was a bit of a disappointment. When one is expecting a new DFW story in a literary magazine and is confronted with a short, but plentiful description of a field in Peoria, IL, a natural response might be What is this?). Really, though, the opening was Pietsch’s call:

“Ultimately there were chapters that could have gone anywhere,” he says. “Like the first chapter — that was not the first chapter. It was just a beautiful love letter to an Illinois cornfield in fallow time. I don’t know if he intended it as an opening, but it just felt like a beautiful way into this novel.”

Wallace mentions Peoria a lot in his writing. He mentions it in one of the first stories he ever wrote: “The Enema Bandit and the Cosmic Buzzer.” The story has never been published anywhere (yet) {he wrote it as an undergrad at Amherst}, but it resides in the Wallace archive at the Ransom Center (container 27.9). The enema bandit (probably a reference to Frank Zappa’s song “The Illinois Enema Bandit“) is called “The Purging Scourge of Peoria.” [Zappa’s bandit is supposedly from Bloomington, IL. Peoria and Bloomington (where Wallace lived for a long time) are only 60 miles apart.]

Peoria is somewhat well-known for being the standard-bearer of Midwestern values or at least middle-American demographics. The famous phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” refers to the idea that for something to be mainstream in the U.S., it needs to succeed in somewhere as “average” or “common” as Peoria. So, in reality, Peoria is not home to an IRS Regional Examination Center—it is America’s Test Market. And I feel like that Harry Potter and Twilight and Dean Koonz play well in Peoria, but that The Pale King is not the sort of novel or book or entertainment that would  likely appeal to mainstream America. And yet. And yet… The Pale King is a bestseller. It reached up to #4 on Amazon’s list of the top 100 books and will likely debut high on the New York Times hardcover fiction list. It does appeal to many, many people who take reading seriously and that mysterious “general reader” who still, in fact, reads for pleasure. But the scale is way different and far fewer people will buy The Pale King than will see The Hangover 2 or watch American Idol or buy whatever Stephanie Meyer writes next, so therefore it is a little easier to get on the NY Times Bestseller Hardcover Fiction list than it is to win the weekend box office or set Nielsen ratings records (and it helps when the publisher keeps the ebook release date 4/15, driving folks to cancel their kindle orders and buy the hardcover two weeks early instead).

The local press in Peoria has acknowledged the book at least once: this blog entry by Dave Haney on pjstar.com:

I actually did not know the book or name until I ended up in one of Wallace’s classes in 1998 or 1999 at Illinois State University. It was a grammar for writers class. You kind of suspect something is different about a professor who on the first day (and many after) arrives in sweatpants cut into shorts; who wears a well-fitted white T-shirt on a not-so-well fit torso; who wore a bandana and rarely seemed to shave; and who spit chewing tobacco into a styrofoam cup he brought along.

He gave the class grammar handouts he said were the same his mother used for English classes she taught to prisoners.

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