When David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest was published in 1996, the publicity-shy author was catapulted into the literary spotlight and heralded as the heir to Thomas Pynchon. The thousand-plus page novel—whose plot is vastly sprawling and fantastic but essentially revolves around a lethally addictive experimental short film—all but cemented his reputation as his generation's best and yet most inaccessible writer, a position he earned by virtue of his beautifully complex prose, post-modern structural flair, an outrageous imagination, incisive insight into our zeitgeist, and a ten-dollar vocabulary. And yet he also happened to be a man who understood common boredom. Your boredom.
The Pale King—the unfinished manuscript Wallace left behind when he committed suicide in 2008, which has just been published—takes place in the mid-'80s, before the average office became entirely computerized, before the Internet became ubiquitous, and before the rise of blogs like the one you're reading now. But the need for distraction has been around for decades, at least since the great shift away from blue-collar work and toward white-collar office jobs, sometime shortly after World War II. So even though the characters don't waste hours honing dick jokes in the Deadspin comments section or trolling the depths of their fantasy league waiver wires, you'll recognize yourself in their universal, unending battle with tedium. The locus of action is the Internal Revenue Service Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Ill. The characters feel the agonizingly slow passage of time; they reward themselves for minor fits of production with unofficial, unnoticed breaks; and they make semi-official conversations with their work friends last as long as possible—all to avoid the oppressive weight of boredom that awaits them at their desks. Theoretically, it seems absurd that anyone would want to read a 550-page unfinished novel about boredom, but we humans—as the only fully sentient species on the planet—have developed quite a talent for examining every facet of our lives. We brought boredom upon ourselves, so we might as well look at it. This is what we do.
The question that lingered in the back of my mind as I read The Pale King was this: How did the man who wrote those outré novels and short story collections end up writing such a thorough examination of boredom, of all things? Well, here's my best guess. Infinite Jest's success brought Wallace, like many before and after him, the opportunity to become a cultural critic, mostly in the form of long journalistic essays. Lots of them. Over the course of the following decade, he wrote pieces on a wide variety of subjects, including cruise trips ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," PDF here), his childhood tennis acuity ("Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley"), and the adult film industry awards ("Big Red Son"). By all accounts, Wallace took each of these assignments very seriously, demanding almost unlimited word counts and the inclusion of his signature footnotes even when they made the spreads a nightmare to lay out. That seriousness certainly comes through in those pieces, and it's obvious that apart from going wherever he was asked to go, talking to whomever he was asked to talk to, he did an incredible amount of background research. He had an uncanny knack and interest in the details behind the story, and the writing reflected it. Whereas in his fiction he'd displayed a fondness for hyperbolically bizarre people and scenarios, in his nonfiction he demonstrated that he was, after all, very capable of exploring and revealing the lives of real people.
As it turns out, and as demonstrated in The Pale King, the focus of his fictional writing shifted a little, toward the real world, toward minutiae. He gravitated to jargon, to routine, to simpler personal and career ambitions. But ever the self-aware former philosophy student, he couldn't simply concentrate on the esoteric details of particular facets of life and happily convey them to his readers. He understood that minutiae stood for something larger in our modern world, that the accumulation of raw data and statistics, the understanding of complex systems, and the application of arcane rules of operation represented the triumph of both technocratic efficiency and tedium, even to most of the people paid to concern themselves with these details. It was why most people read books or watched movies or traveled—to forget about this stuff. And this, I feel it's safe to assume, is a subject that many Deadspin (or Gawker or any other blog) readers understand all to well.
To be clear, The Pale King certainly contains a fair amount of Wallace's trademark slight otherworldliness. There are ghosts, for example, haunting the employees, and one man is stationed there precisely because he possesses a strange ability to telekinetically obtain obscure facts about people, though the details come at him with no rhyme or reason, and are not always very useful. And though it's one of several threads that remain less-than-fully explained, there's even a speaking, demon-baby inhabiting one of the manager's offices. But the bulk of the novel is concerned with an in-depth examination of the way one particular office functions.
The IRS employees, as you'd probably guess, exist in a self-enclosed bubble. Their employer is universally loathed, their individual tasks esoteric in the extreme. And so they think nothing of relating jargon-laden summaries and opinions of U.S. tax code. They are accountants of anything and everything that surrounds them; they go into explicit detail about the patterns of behavior among the staff, including a full, minute-by-minute rundown of one group's Friday happy hour routine. And they tend to believe that their personal anecdotes, their opinions, however mundane and universal they might be in reality, are endlessly fascinating to anyone with the decency to refrain from telling them to shut up.
Like employees of any decent-sized office, they range in their enthusiasm for their work. And Wallace exploits this beautifully, stuffing volumes of IRS minutiae into the plot even when it starts to drift from its moorings. The effect is to keep the unique language of the work—and the prohibitive barrier to complete engagement that it creates for an outsider—at the forefront at all times. First there are the lowly seasonal temps—including one named David Foster Wallace who's on break from an elite Eastern college after a run-in with the school's administration for writing other students' term papers—and the more permanent new recruits. Their induction includes a sudden and shocking understanding of the notion of being shackled to one's desk, and they serve as the fresh eyes on the odd little world. And on the other end of the spectrum are the old hands, those who take the daily rigors for granted: the senior-level managers tasked with running what seems like a Brazil-like paradox: a supremely efficient bureaucracy. But additionally there's another, smaller group of newcomers to the complex—situated, of course, on the outskirts of town on an industrial park access road called Self-Storage Parkway. As revealed slowly over the course of the book, the head office in Washington has sent a few transfers there in order to implement a plan to transform the Service into something akin to a Fortune 500 company—one that maximizes "profits" while reducing "production costs." And it's these men who catalyze the plot, at least to the extent that there is one in this unfinished (by at least half, I'd guess) story. While they examine the existing policies and individual supervisor's styles and general effectiveness, the workaday employees go about their business, sharing their background stories via dedicated chapters written in the third-person omniscient point of view.
Like he did so well in his earlier fiction, Wallace fully embodies these characters' tics and obsessions and worldviews. Their cockiness, their naïveté, their anxieties all come across naturally and without judgment. They are, he seems to be saying, from afar, just normal people, not automatons. They may have the most tedious jobs you could possibly imagine, but they aren't without aggression and paralyzing fear, without pettiness, without romantic tendencies or base preoccupations. They are, like all of us, selfish and self-obsessed, like the woman who's so unbearable to be around and listen to—despite being strikingly beautiful—that the only man who can stand it is the office autistic; or like the man—afterward identified as "Irrelevant Chris Fogle" by a coworker—who spends nearly a fifth of the book explaining why and how he came to work at the IRS after being a college slacker. And they're also dealing with intense personal demons, like the woman who was repeatedly raped as a child and is now plotting some low-grade terrorism, or like the man who'd been a universally despised overachiever until he'd saved a shop teacher after a gruesome accident. They are, basically, lives that seem outwardly ordinary, uninteresting. But the volume of perspectives in the book, the scope of humanness in these characters, is Wallace's point: that as interesting as war orphans or autodidact artists or amoral professors are, so are paper pushers, if not for the details of their lives then for the substance of them, for the way they cope with a boredom that is as much a part of modern Western life as sex, war, or free trade. It's time we talked about that boredom, or at least commented on it in a story on a website we're reading while trying not to work.
Tom Roberge works at New Directions Publishing.