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: 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


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