Posted by: dougery | October 31, 2011

Drudgery and Design

Last week my wife and I were discussing how so many of our favorite writers have immediately recognizable styles. That you can grab any of their works, flip to a random page and straight-away tap into their own very distinct literary reality. For my wife there is Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway and Nabokov (and just to show she’s no snob, her unabashed affection for Stephen King and the Charlaine Harris books). For me, there’s Pynchon, Westlake–brief formative infatuations with authors like Vonnegut, Kafka and yes, King again (we’re a very pro Long Walk household)–and finally the topic of this post, David Foster Wallace.

For nearly all of my life I remained ignorant of DFW, with some brief exposure to his essays while I attended Syracuse. I’d heard glowing things (and terribly condescending things) about Infinite Jest which I tackled at the beginning of the year at the advanced age of 32, about a decade after most who will ever read the novel attempt to. I have written about that book in this space already, and if you did not read my thoughts about it, suffice to say, I bought The Pale King, DFW’s posthumous unfinished novel that Little Brown published earlier this year, the day after it was released.

I did not dive in directly, there is something forbidding about 500+ page novels that I associate with cooler temperatures. And there were those huge caveats to consider. DFW was not finished with the novel and we will never really know what the final form might have looked like. I went in knowing full well this was a DFW novel for DFW aficionados and that isn’t entirely inaccurate. But there are a host of things the book does that extend well beyond the ghetto of unfinished works, chief among them the central premise: How does one write about boredom?

However before I talk about The Pale King and its success or failure at writing boredom, there was one other strand to the conversation my wife and I had about author style. Namely that not only are certain authors easily identified by their style but also by the themes they endlessly pour over throughout the course of their careers. I reflected upon my own writing and its easy to spot the 3 or 4 main themes that crop up continuously. I asked my wife, are we doomed to write about the same things over and over until we get them right? And if master writers like those listed above and many many more are never satisfied with their attempts (or at least never ceased picking at those wounds) what chance do we have?

Infinite Jest is about a lot of things, but it takes zero effort to notice it kind of is an obsession about entertainment. How we entertain ourselves, how we entertain others, how far we will go to accomplish these goals whether this be robbing folks to get money for drugs or becoming semi-pro sports stars through peer and family pressure. And there’s that titular video floating around the text said to be so entertaining and wonderful that a viewer ceases to be capable of doing anything else ever again. Imagine to be so thoroughly entertained as to never want to eat again! There’s a sublime terror to this pursuit (of even minor enjoyment) which is never lost.

Entertainment, one supposes, is opposite of boredom. Entertainment is what we seek to dispel boredom (which I think DFW would argue is a central, unavoidable part of modern life, boredom that is). So in a lot of ways The Pale King is a natural extension of Infinite Jest or a kind of shadow novel. Gone are the, well I suppose ‘thrilling’ isn’t quite the best word to describe them, but whatever, drug addicts and their escapades as well as the teen tennis phenoms. call these ‘professions’ what you will, they are far from boring. Instead, here on the dark side of the human experience moon, we get employees of the IRS. Auditors and ‘wigglers’. Folks who for whatever reason have gone out of their way to work a job that is as boring as humanly possible.

So how does one make a story around these folks that is, you know, readable? I’m not sure DFW fully figured this out. There is an obvious structure built into The Pale King that mimics an anecdote told at the heart of the novel. In said anecdote (a ‘chapter’ which is far longer than what most NaNoWriMo-ers will produce next month) a young man relates how he waded in out of a snowstorm into an IRS recruitment center where he was given, among other things, a huge packet of stuff to take home and read through. The packet is full of some of the most circumlocutory technical legalese, and written to such length, that part of the interview process is proving you have the endurance to wade through the text and make it to the end because here there be dragons and those dragons are named Tedium and Boredom.  The reader is mercifully spared the packet in full, however the ‘chapter’ itself functions as one huge, sprawling digression and though infinitely more readable than the packet, is the narrative equivalent. It simulates, or at least attempts to simulate the no-way-out sensation of slogging through the packet. The reader, or at least this reader constantly thought if I could just get through this interminable aside I can get back to the short, sad, funny chapters about all these poor souls and their terrible childhoods.

The accounting teacher who encouraged the young man to visit the recruitment center in the first place likens today’s tax professionals to heroes. He calls them paladins and says there is no purer evil in this world than boredom. That few are capable of withstanding true boredom.

I suspect a great many have and will grab The Pale King and give it a go. Most won’t ever finish it, especially if they are looking for the zip and polish of Infinite Jest. I don’t suppose that makes them any less heroic because at its core the novel can never really achieve the kind of drudgery its characters willingly endure. Instead we get tortuously long impressions of the Regional Exam Center and its horrid landscaping and architecture. DFW can mimic the drive up to these kinds of fortresses of tedium, but he is far too entertaining a writer to give us what it feels like to actually enter them.



  1. As the husband of an auditor, I’m a little skeptical of the trope of the accountant as a byword for the bored (and this may be something DFW explores in “Pale King.” In fact, though I haven’t read PK yet, having read other DFW, I’d be surprised if he didn’t explore this wrinkle). I think it speaks more to our cultural bias, especially as writerly people, that we assume accountants are bored and engaged in tedium, than it does to the actual work of accountans.

    Certainly, “accounting” in our culture is essentially a synonym for “boring tedium” or “tedious boredom,” but all the accountants I know, including the one to whom I am legally bound, actually *like* their jobs. They like the actual work of it, in the same way we lit nerds love picking through texts, like “Infinite Jest” or “Ulysses,” and looking for meaning. The impulse is, I think, identical, though the material is different. And I dare anybody to find me an accounting ledger more obtuse, obscure, maddening, and tedious than “Finnegans Wake.”

  2. I think DFW’s argument is that the technical language of tax law is designed to be purposely deadening. That they go out of their way to make it impenetrable and that the best way to avoid scandal or nuisance or hassle (in tax law or just about any other policy) is to hide things in plain sight by burying it amidst documents no human being should ever have to read.

    He describes working in at a Regional Exam center, so maybe you are correct. Maybe he (the writer) found everything so tedious because he was not in fact cut out to be an auditor. He does describe people who seem immune to boredom and these span the gamut from overly friendly and nice human beings to person who are themselves frighteningly dull.

    In the end I felt he had the most tremendous respect for people who have the fortitude to work in fields others find intolerable.

  3. I think DFW’s right that tax law and accounting books are purposefully tedious and obtuse, but so is “Finnegans Wake,” and I think the pleasure of the work comes in digging in and teasing out the truth. And it’s not that accountants have fortitude or are immune to boredom. It’s that many of them truly enjoy this work, as much as I enjoy rooting around in Virginia Woolf’s brain. Which I found shocking when I entered their world. Because if I had to do my wife’s job, I would go truly mad in days. But she likes it, and after a while, I recognized that same impulse, that same pleasure, when she does her work that I get in my academic trysts. The pleasure of the research, of decoding. And a lot of the language is the same. Auditors have various methodologies and theories that they implement on the text in question and see where that leads, and in the end, they produce a report not unlike a thesis.

    So, I guess my objection is that DFW seems (and again, I come from a place of ignorance, having not read “Pale King”) to equate the work of accounting with tedium, and his respect for the accountants comes in their seeming ability to stoically overcome that. But I don’t think they deserve that respect or its attendant pity. What they deserve from us English nerds is for us to say, “wait, you actually enjoy doing that? What a weirdo,” and then roll our eyes and twirl our fingers in a circle near our temples. They do the same for us.

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