The Pale King: A Review
In his prologue to Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers described the novel as “a thing that will outlast him and you and me, but will help future people understand us–how we felt, how we lived, what we gave to each other and why.” While many authors do a tremendous job at mirroring the world and allowing readers the pleasure of navel gazing, Eggers reminds us that the mark of a truly gifted writer is the ability to describe the world while simultaneously cultivating an ethic. In other words, running beneath David Wallace’s prose is the persistent question: how should one live?
It is precisely that question that haunts The Pale King. The novel provides glimpses into the lives of a group of IRS workers in Peoria, Illinois–a place very few Americans have actually been, but all can imagine. In fact, Peoria has long been a bellwether for Americanness: the slogan “Will it play in Peoria?” was popularized in the 20th century as the town became known as the perfect test-market for not just products, but plays, rock concerts, and presidential campaigns. And what better place for Wallace to set a novel whose central question is how one should live than the neutral canvas of Peoria?
But Wallace can only take us so far. He gives us characters struggling through disappointment, tragedy, missteps, and extreme boredom. These are IRS workers who are connected by a unique ability to filter out the world and intensely attend to a particular task. David Cusk, learned in high school of “the terrible power of attention and what you pay attention to” by becoming hyper-self-conscious because of his “shattering public sweats.” Toni Ware has the ability to “play dead,” which involves slowing her breathing rate and leaving her eyes open, unblinking, for more than five minutes at a time–an ability she later uses to evade detection as her mother is murdered next to her. Claude Sylvanshine is a “fact psychic” who unwittingly receives “psychic irruptions” of nearly useless information about his surroundings (“What Cointreau tasted like to someone with a mild head cold on the esplanade of Vienna’s state opera house on 2 October 1874,” for example).
We begin to see a few things. The characters, as we learn, are united not only by their affiliation with the IRS, but also by unique ability to attend to the tedious tasks they are assigned. In each character’s case, however, this ability is tied to a past traumatic event out of which they develop methods for shutting out the world through focused attention. But focused attention, as Wallace tells us, can be pleasurable:
Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you an 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.
Attention is a powerful tool when used in the proper circumstances. When used improperly, however, hyper-awareness can be debilitating. Sylvanshine often finds his world “fractious,” “overwhelming,” “like having someone sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in your ear while you’re trying to recite poetry.” In a room full of people, Cusk’s attention turns to “the room’s temperature, the location of all the exits, the locations of the sight lines of all people in the room who might be able to see it if he had an attack.”
But there’s solace to be found in the tedious, repetitive work of the IRS. The world disappears for awhile–even the self disappears. And it is in these moments of acute awareness when these characters can forget themselves and operate without self-consciousness.
Wallace hints at the possibility of translating this state of heightened awareness to the realm of social interaction and in doing so: “keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out” (from Dave’s 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address). The ability to attend to and be aware of others is crucial because the “natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me.”
So we see Cusk trapped in a cage of his own making because he is constantly aware of his profuse sweating, and, by extension, people (he thinks) are noticing his profuse sweating. This constant focus only exacerbates the situation, causing him to sweat even more. But there is no spotlight on Cusk, though he believes there to be one. Finally, we must realize that “there is no audience … Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one.” Contrary to our own sensory experience, the world is not only about us. There is no audience. There is no spotlight.
The only way outside of ourselves is to cultivate habits which work to remind us that the people around us our human beings with their own hopes, dreams, fears, disappointments, and desires. It takes patience, it takes courage, but it also takes sacrifice:
The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, ‘What’s wrong?’ You say it in a concerned way. He’ll say, ‘What do you mean?’ You say, ‘Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?’ And he’ll look stunned and say, ‘How did you know?’
He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody.
Remember we are brothers. Be wrong every once and awhile. Be gracious. Be better.
Pretend if you have to.