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The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
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Apr 21, 2011

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Read from April 21 to July 11, 2011

I really struggled with whether to read this or not. Wallace had always come across to me as highly self-conscious and self-effacing in interviews I've seen, and I can't help wondering if he would have really wanted this to see the light of day in its clearly unfinished condition. And, of course, looking at any of his work through the lens of his suicide distorts it on an unavoidable level. I finally came down on the side of giving it a go, and I'm not sure if I'm pleased that I did.

It's clear that Wallace was onto something promising. The Pale King is largely an examination of the boredom of human life, seen mostly in the routines of IRS examiners and auditors at an IRS office in Peoria. It's a study of the ability to maintain utmost concentration through the most menial and tedious of tasks. "To be, in a word, unborable.... It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish." Wallace suggests in his chapter notes that happiness is achieved by those who are able to push through the most mind-numbing, soul-crushing boredom and emerge unscathed on the other side.

"It turns out that bliss — a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you've never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it's like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom."

The novel was pieced together from reams of handwritten, painstaking notes left by Wallace by editor Michael Pietsch, who has done about as well as could be hoped for. The weaving is raw, not intricate, which has to be expected. But most of Wallace's more challenging, lengthier works were intentionally fragmented and fractal-like in structure, so that's not really a detraction. Here, some of the pieces work well, others don't, and many seem out of order. There are brilliant moments (e.g., very funny descriptions of Stecyk's nauseatingly pleasant, helpful and polite persona as a child, and Rand's memories of her time in a mental hospital as a teenage girl), but a sadly unsatisfying experience overall.
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Reading Progress

06/01/2011 page 280
50.0% "...or thereabouts. (Sorry, Kindle book w/o page numbers.)"

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