A Few Trends in DFW Studies

There has been something like “David Foster Wallace studies” for a decade now, maybe longer. Stephen Burn’s reader’s guide to Infinite Jest was published in 2003. A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies was published in 2013. The first academic conference on Wallace was held in Liverpool in 2009. The Second Annual David Foster Wallace Conference was held last week, in May 2015, at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois.

I didn’t get to attend half as many panels as I’d liked to, but I did get to read several other papers that I missed (in the past two years of conferences) after the fact and I noticed that there are some clear trends emerging in the scholarship, now in 2015. So what follows is just my own general impression of what people are doing at this point in time. It’s way more complicated and there are tons of mini-niches that I’m not even touching on here, but this is a broad-strokes overview of my own thoughts.

1. Fogle

My own paper at this year’s DFW Conference was about Section 22 of The Pale King (the story of Chris Fogle), so I was attuned to other mentions of Fogle’s story. In fact, there were at least two other papers that talked about Fogle’s conversion from a wastoid to a tax examiner. In previous years, I think it was Don Gately’s story that was used as the most common example of Wallace’s fictional project about redemption and adulthood. I was happy to see Fogle mentioned in so many places because I believe that section of The Pale King contains some of Wallace’s finest writing.

2. Baudrillard

Several papers talked at length about Baudrillard’s simulacra and the phases of the image. This is a rich subject for engaging much of the post-post-modern (or whatever) literature out there today and so it’s not too surprising that so many scholars have brought it to bear on Wallace’s work.

3. Theology/Religion

Wallace’s relationship to religion and the supernatural, both in his work and in his life as an artist, is fascinating because of how it evolves over time and how that belief or concept of the supernatural is reflected in his work. Current work in this area shows that theology / religion stands as a major element in Wallace’s fictional works.

4. The Letters

Stephen Burn’s keynote address at this year’s conference was centered around his effort to assemble a collection of Wallace’s letters on writing (rather than personal letters). Because of some difficulty securing permissions, it’s unclear when and if Burn’s manuscript will be published. It might take a couple of more years before we see this book, but it stands to be a major contribution to DFW studies. Burn separates out Wallace’s correspondence into three eras: The Apprentice Years, when DFW wrote to older masters; The Genius Years, when DFW wrote to contemporary writers; and the Emeritus Years, when DFW wrote to younger writers. The letters also reveal a lot about what Wallace was reading at each stage in his career.

Pale Winter

The great DFW Italian site Archivio DFW is hosting a group read of The Pale King called “Pale Winter” (aka #palewinter). I contributed a short essay (here: “Always Another Word“) that was translated into Italian by Roberto Natalini. Below is the English version of that post. Many thanks to Roberto and Andrea Firrincieli.



Like any posthumous novel, The Pale King comes to us from the hands of an editor. All novels are edited, but those assembled by editors after an author’s death face the dual burdens of shaping a narrative and a legacy. At their core, novels are sequences of words laid out end-to-end. The sequencing matters. Infinite Jest would be a different novel altogether if the first seventeen pages were moved to the end of the book—or if the end notes became footnotes. We have no way of knowing how David Foster Wallace wanted the various sections of The Pale King assembled. The version we have now was painstakingly assembled by his longtime editor, Michael Pietsch. Pietsch’s care and attention to detail are apparent—as are the challenges of his job.

The Pale King is made up of two long sections, several short-story-length sections, and dozens shorter fragments. There is basically no plot. There are scenarios and situations and parables and character-developing background stories, but The PaleKing defies any attempt at figuring out of what might be happening in this tax office in Peoria. In that sense, it feels unfinished. Yet, as a novel of characters and ideas, it feels full and rich.


In several notes to himself, Wallace referred to the novel as “tornadic” or having a “tornado feeling” with pieces flying at the reader from all angles, and I think, with Pietsch’s help, he achieves this. There are metafictional asides, voice exercises, fake news items, novellas, suspense, and civics lessons all swirling about. With a tornadic structure, the exact sequence matters less than the fact that the random pieces do fly at you, the reader, and feel random and real. The sections spin in and spin out, but ultimately move higher, deeper, building toward a more complete understanding. At the bottom of the tornado, in the smallest circles, there are backstory formulations of childhood naivete. The circle widens through adolescence and we follow the wider circles of life in the IRS. Then we spiral up to a wider circle of life outside of work and finally to the widest, most windblown, most adult territory: Truth. At the center of the cyclone is a calm hole of enduring boredom. Or maybe a better distillation of the idea of engaging with boredom is: what you give your attention to. Wallace talked about this in his Kenyon commencement address in 2005:
It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. . . .”Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. . . . .The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline.
Attention is the holy grail. Our lives are collections of how we choose to spend our attention. The constant choices we face can seem overwhelming, but so can the monotony of everyday life. What is the responsible, adult way of coping with the boring and monotonous parts of life?
The tornadic/thematic structure of The Pale King bears some resemblance to Infinite Jest insofar as we see the lines build and blur between adolescent struggles and concepts of maturity and adulthood and responsibility. Both novels are ultimately about a search for Truth: What matters to you? Why does it matter? Stay focused on what matters, even if it is boring–especially if it is boring.

I don’t believe there are any real clues to Wallace’s suicide within the text of The Pale King. The related questions that arise seem far-fetched: Would Wallace have been a different person if he’d finished The Pale King in, say 2001, and published several more subsequent novels? Of course. Does that mean Wallace would still be alive in 2012? Who knows? There are too many variables in trying to re-imagine history, and the sad questions are just that: hypotheticals.
Part of the truth is that DFW always struggled with how to end things. One of his earliest stories published in The Amherst Review ends in the middle of a sentence, as does his first novel, The Broom of the System. The ending of Infinite Jest frustrated thousands of readers. The ending of The Pale King frustrates just as many, partly because it represents the ultimate frustration: the end of David Foster Wallace, the end of his novels. In his memorial tribute to Wallace, Don DeLillo said:
We see him now as a brave writer who struggled against the force that wanted him to shed himself. Years from now, we’ll still feel the chill that attended news of his death. One of his recent stories ends in the finality of this half sentence: Not another word.

But there is always another word. There is always another reader to regenerate these words. The words won’t stop coming. Youth and loss. This is Dave’s voice, American.

I take comfort in that. There is always another word and another reader. And today that reader is you.

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 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, 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

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’s 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: Analyzing “Good People”

The first excerpt of The Pale King appeared in the February 5, 2007 issue of the New Yorker under the title “Good People.” At the time, there was no indication that this was a novel excerpt and Wallace had not published anything in the New Yorker in a long time (since 1995, I believe, when a couple of Infinite Jest excerpts appeared). And it seemed a little odd. As a story it had a lot of things going on in terms of character, diction, and themes, but, to me at least, it seemed like a slightly new trajectory for Wallace after Oblivion.

You can read the story here.

When the story came out, it generated a lot of discussion on our listserv. The following analysis was written by a former list member and I’m republishing it here (with permission) to spark new discussion about this four-year-old story and to start thinking about some of the themes and ideas in The Pale King. I’m sincerely interested in what people have to say about this story, so you if you have something to add, please leave a comment.


1. The story is full of references to division and dichotomy.  The two main characters, the “two great and terrible armies within himself”, “Two-hearted”, “their shadow a two-headed thing in the grass before them”; the downed tree being “half hidden” and “all half in the water”; Lane’s and Sheri’s praying over the phone “in a kind of half code”.  The sounds of chainsaws dividing up the past week’s storm’s downed trees.  The two opposite sides of the lake.  The binary either/or nature of the issues Lane and Sheri must weigh — abort or carry, love or not love, truth or lie, goodness or sin.

Even the title, “Good People”, is a plural word used as a description of a single person (“she was good people”, “he was desperate to be good people”), suggesting the divisions within ourselves.

(I note there are four uses in the story of the word “individual” as a noun—its Latin meaning being “not divisible”.)

And yet the whole backbone of the story is not division but union: the union of Lane and Sheri, and the product of that union: the baby.  (One could even say that the pregnant Sheri is herself two people in one body.)

2. Lane’s references to the Biblical burning lake of fire are contrasted with the constant references to freezing and being frozen and wanting Sheri to unfreeze him.  (And possibly echoed by the fact that Sheri is a hostess at “the Embers.”)  And the lake of fire image is echoed by the lake they’re sitting next to.

3. Religious imagery?  The men fishing in the lake may be references to Christ (symbolized by the fish, the ichthus), the first apostles (who were fishermen), and to the evangelical metaphor of being “fishers of men.” Note also Sheri Fisher’s last name.

4. References to blackness and darkness: “The whole last black week had been this way and it was wrong.” Plus the darkness and blackness of the water of the shallows, which notably is caused by the angle of the sun’s light.

Plus Lane’s reference to the “blacks” fishing on the opposite side of the lake—”mostly only your blacks from the East Side”—a somewhat prejudiced phrasing, dismissive, conscious of them as others.

Possibly in the same vein as the references to blankness and hiddenness. “She was blank and hidden.”  Story’s opening line ends with: “half hidden by the bank.”

5. The old man looking out over the lake is identified as having a gray hat, not to mention being elderly himself (“gray”), and seems to make contact with the men on the opposite site of the lake.  No mention is made of his race, but since Lane’s prejudice leads him to specifically identify the fishing men as being “blacks”, we can assume that the old man in the hat is white.  The old man and the fishermen do seem to make contact across the lake’s wide gulf—one of the fishermen raises his arm in ostensible greeting.  (“raises his arm in what may be greeting, or waving off a bee”—Lane’s not a discerning enough observer of things outside him?)

The old man and the fisherman’s moment of contact and “grayness” (black in accord with white, plus the old man’s double grayness) as a contrast to Lane’s and Sheri’s frozen black-and-white view of things.

Note that the old man is also compared to Lane’s grandfather “as a young insurance man”.  Why insurance?  Safety, peace of mind?  Profiting from fear of misfortune?

Lane thinks the old man “looked more like a picture than a man” … “looked also out of place in a suit coat or jacket” … Lane’s dismissiveness of the old man suggesting Lane’s resistance to the old man’s moment of contact? Emphasizing Lane’s youth? Perhaps the old man’s evocation of an older generation echoes Lane’s thought of “He felt like he knew now why it was a true sin and not just a leftover rule from past society”.

6. The fallen tree — while it may be an illustration equating “fallen” with “sin” (what Lane calls “inborn fallen nature”), or perhaps echoing the twice-used description of Sheri as being “down to earth” — seems to be described with abortion/miscarriage/infant imagery:

a. “Looking at the torn-up hole in the ground there where the tree had gone over”
b. “The shallows lapped from different directions at the tree as if almost teething on it”
c. “and the downed elm shed cells into the water”

Further birth references in the detail about his father’s and grandfather’s birthdays.  Also the word “born” in “inborn fallen nature” and “last-ditch gamble born out of the desperation in Sheri Fisher’s soul”.

7. “the angle of the sun made the water of the shallows look dark” — a suggestion of false depth? (i.e. of their fath?)  Or of hidden stuff under the surface? (i.e. of the story, of their outward appearances)

Later: “you could see into the shallows and see that all the water was moving but gently, this way and that” — awareness of what’s under the surface.

Also: “the downed tree’s branches seemed to all bend so sharply just under the shallows’ surface” … refraction of light, subjectivity of perception

8. What to make of Lane’s train image?
“he pictured in his mind an image of himself on a train, waving mechanically to something that got smaller and smaller as the train pulled away”
Fantasies of abandoning Sheri?  Of being carried away by forces beyond his control?

9. “That Lane should please please sweetie let her finish” — they’re both trying to cut each other off, in the sense of interrupting each other. Parallel with being cut off from each other, and Lane’s inner armies being cut off from each other?  (And the neighborhood trees being cut up by chainsaws, and the reference near the end to the lawnmowers cutting grass?)

10. Lane’s constant fear of being a hypocrite, of thinking hypocrisy a sin: the word “hypocrisy” comes from “hypokrisis”, the Greek word for oration and theatrical acting.  Perhaps he considers it a sin to communicate, to take action, to play a role?  The Greek word also has its roots in “hupo” (= under) + “krinein” (= decide, judge).

11. Possible wordplay: Besides the many references to the “downed” tree, Sheri’s twice described as “down to earth”, and having “downy” arms, is “looking down” … versus Lane’s job at UPS (i.e. “up”).  Opposites? They’re going in different directions?  Salvation vs. shame?  Heaven vs. hell?

12. The two Scripture quotes:

12a. Timothy 1, “disputeth over words”
full quote: “he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions”
seems to dismiss or negate language, communication; can’t communicate in ways other than evangelical language, platitudes, prayer (in “half code”)

12b. Galatians 4:16, “Have I then become your enemy”
full quote: “So then am I become your enemy, by telling you the truth?”
the black/white view of morality, of being either “with me” or “against me”; making a contention out of telling the truth

13. “She continued to sit as if thinking, in the pose of thinking, like that one statue.” – Resembling thinking.  But not actually thinking.

14. The name “Lane A. Dean, Jr.”  Initials = LAD, a boy.  Suffix “Jr.”, suggesting junior status, named for one’s father, living in his shadow? (“the blank frozenness of his father”)  Plus note the connection with his mother’s father, being born on the same day, both being Cancers (literal cancers? malignant influences?).  What of the gray hat man, compared to Lane’s grandfather (paternal or maternal?).  References to family lineage emphasize the issue of birth.

15. The beautifully-written “two armies” passage, perhaps the crux of the story:

“But sitting here beside this girl as unknown to him now as outer space, waiting for whatever she might say to unfreeze him, now he felt like he could see the edge or outline of what a real vision of Hell might be. It was of two great and terrible armies within himself, opposed and facing each other, silent. There would be battle but no victor. Or never a battle — the armies would stay like that, motionless, looking across at each other, and seeing therein something so different and alien from themselves that they could not understand, could not hear each other’s speech as even words or read anything from what their face looked like, frozen like that, opposed and uncomprehending, for all human time. Two-hearted, a hypocrite to yourself either way.”

It reminds me, in a way, of Sartre’s famous line “Hell is other people” … only Lane’s case, Hell is the others within oneself.  Those parts of our inner selves that remain forever *other* from each other, so cut off that they’re unable to even bring themselves to the point of conflict. Interesting combination of two common Wallacean themes: the struggle to communicate with others, and the struggle to overcome self-consciousness. Instead of the self-consciousness cripple the communication, but in this case the lack of communication within oneself is what cripples the self.

Also, why the idea of Hell being two armies facing each other, rather than two people facing each other, a good angel and a bad angel, two sides of oneself?  Why the military conceit?  Something about religious views of good vs. evil, Heaven vs. Hell, always a “versus”, a contention — the idea of a battle, of life and the world as a war against something, of Hell being a place of violence and physical pain — being supplanted by another idea of Hell as being a place not of violence but of incommunication.  Not of violence but silence.  (The writer’s version of Hell? loss of language?)

What’s worse?  Conflict, or the inability to even manifest that conflict?

16. The story is yet another instance of that scenario Wallace revisits again and again: The idea of a terror so terrifying that the object of the terror comes true.  Lane is so terrified of being a hypocrite — to him it’s a worse sin than even the abortion, which would place it above Commandment #1—that of course his actions, or lack of them, handily make him one: a person who believes one thing but does another thing—or does nothing—and wants nothing more than for someone else to make the decision for him.

They are hamstrung by the black-and-white code their piety equips them with.  Faced with a complex moral situation that seems to demand a more nuanced outlook — something other than good vs. evil, righteousness vs. sin, “with me” vs. “against me” — they have no idea what to do, and cannot reconcile their own inner opposing thoughts, if they have them (“the pose of thinking”), and are so petrified of being hypocrites, so they remain frozen and silent and cannot communicate with each other or anyone else.

Yet they both seem to be struggling against what their beliefs and values are telling them is right, though they can’t identify or name what it is inside them that’s struggling.  Very vague language.  “He felt a terrible inner resistance but could not feel what it was that it resisted.” “Something in him, though, some terrible weakness or lack of values, could not tell her. It felt like a muscle he did not have. He didn’t know why; he just could not do it, or even pray to do it.”

17. Third sentence from the end: “What would even Jesus do?” — Is this meant to be taken seriously?  It’s such a cliche now, a platitude; my first reaction when I hit the line was that now DFW was just being mean, having Lane think this in such a serious situation, resorting to such a t-shirt slogan.  But maybe it’s meant to be taken straight; perhaps the variation, the word “even”, suggests that it’s meant to be asked as a real question and removed from its cliche context.

18. “Sometimes they had prayed together over the phone, in a kind of half code in case anybody accidentally picked up the extension.”  Is this supposed to be funny?  Seems so poignant and sad and desperate despite its absurdity … praying in code, obscuring words that already probably obscure what they truly feel, what they truly want or need to communicate to one another.  Suggestion that prayer already is a kind of coded language, intended to be spoken but not comprehended?

31 Jan 2011, 10:00pm


The Pale King Approaches

I really wish The Pale King had a different subtitle. Instead of “An Unfinished Novel” it should say “A Novel” or “An Entertainment” or “Volume 1” or anything but unfinished, half-finished, never completed, no. We can’t edit time, though. The ravages of time. What we face is a future without new writing by David Foster Wallace. There will be many, many future books examining exactly how he accomplished what he did and who he influenced and why, but no more novels by him. This is it.

Without a doubt, April 15, 2011 is one of the most anticipated release dates in literature. I predict that The Pale King will draw many more readers into Wallace’s other works, and surprise many skeptics who don’t believe an unfinished novel is worth reading. There are also a lot of haters out there who think any book by or about David Foster Wallace will now be a pure money grab and they can’t wait to make terrible pronouncements about how something is being trampled. But of course all this is ridiculous baloney; and if you’ve learned anything about the internet by now it’s this: ignore the haters. Look, I don’t pretend to be an objective reviewer. This is my Star Wars, my Harry Potter, my Steve Jobs keynote and Christmas morning all rolled into one. If there were a parking lot where I could set up a tent and a lawn chair months in advance and camp out and be first in line for this, I’d do it.

I’m going to start reading The Pale King the day it is released and I’m going to post about it on this site until I’m finished with it. No set schedule, no forums, but I invite you to share your thoughts with me in the comments here and on twitter under the hashtag #paleking. After all the buildup, I’m especially interested in people’s first impressions of the book, and then how it feels to turn that last page and close the book and set it down and consider what might have been in light of what was.

We know roughly what the book is about and to me, from the excerpts published so far, it appears to be Wallace’s most humanistic novel, one less interested in showing off and more interested in exposing nerve endings. I believe Wallace accomplished a similar thing in Oblivion, but short story collections just don’t have the cachet of novels. (I also think there is a deep, humanistic side to Infinite Jest, but have to concede that not every page of the novel burns with the same concerns.) I’ll be interested to see if the short story “The Soul is Not a Smithy” ends up as part of the unfinished novel—it does seem to fit with the boredom-tax processor theme, and how it fits in with the other characters we’ve seen in the excerpts. But I find myself coming back to worrying about that narrator and his fear of his father’s job, his despair at the prospect of facing that soulless room of white-collared men everyday of his working life. I worry that I don’t have enough of that despair, or that I’ve already conditioned myself out of any instinct to run from such a horrorshow of cubicles. Or that I have no choice. I don’t know, but I think about that a lot.


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