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)?

12 Apr 2011, 6:36am
by Keith Rondinelli



I felt the same way when “The Author”, David Wallace, blatantly and intrusively interrupts the narrative of The Pale King, and it’s interesting to me why DFW chose this course. Part of me thinks that what we are witnessing is Wallace’s struggle to extricate himself from morass of his own style. We’ve read that one of his battles during the years of writing TPK was the battle to break free of the shackles of what had become the series of writerly tics that comprised “David Foster Wallace” – the footnotes, etc. By writing himself into the narrative, and making the “David Wallace” sections almost parodies of that style, he seems to be compartmentalizing himself, so as to allow the other sections the freedom to exist outside of his established and by-now-cliched writerly style and persona. Perhaps I’m just overstating the obvious, but I allowed myself to forgive him these sections because I can feel the struggle in them, and it keeps them somewhat alive on the page.

This occurred to me as well. I commented on it at my site:

“It occurred to me that the self-consciously used dullness of the IRS–that is using it as a hidden-in-plain-sight veil, is a bit of a tongue and cheek comment on Wallace’s own work.” is what I said, and I agree that this section seems to be a parody of his style. I go on and say
“Not that I find it dull or boring or tedious, but being the self-aware writer that he is, I’m sure Wallace was aware that his previous novel was considered impenetrably tedious by some, and this novel, particularly this footnote-heavy author’s forward, again uses Wallace’s technique of engaging his reader by making their experience/narrative purposefully difficult, to focus their attention, with the hopes that such focus and attention is ultimately rewarding.”

There’s a quote in this section, the “author here” section, that says something like (don’t have the book with me right now) peering into the tax code is akin to peering into the heart and moral centre of the nation, it just requires some rapt attention.

I think this section and the section I’m currently reading (22) really tie together the themes of the book in a fairly explicit and obvious manner, which is I’d say a contrast to the usual Wallace method of doing things, and thus having some irony. Maybe. I don’t know.

I’ve purposefully read very little (a few reviews only) about the his writing process during this book and hence can’t comment, but it is fairly obvious his trying to break that style and, though i’m only a couple hundred pages in, it seems like a simpler and more lucid style (or styles plural would be more more accurate).

13 Oct 2012, 6:55am
by Elizabeth Sulzby


What a hoot. I just read this section on the Pale King and googled “Sales taxes in Illinois 1977” and this was the first hit!


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