Seeing is Believing

David Foster Wallace spent a decade trying to transcend boredom by facing it head on. But did he succeed?

by Ethan Cutler; illustration by Charlotte Wall


"The pasture’s crows standing at angles, turning up patties to get at the worms underneath, the shapes of the worms incised in the overturned dung and baked by the sun all day until hardened, there to stay, tiny vacant lines in rows and inset curls that do not close because head never quite touches tail. Read these.” 

That’s how “The Pale King,” an unfinished novel by David Foster Wallace, begins. Or more accurately, that’s where Wallace’s editor decided it would begin. His editor, Michael Pietsch, arranged a neat stack of manuscripts Wallace left on his desk after he killed himself in 2008. The papers were labeled “For Advance,” so Pietsch decided to publish an only slightly modified version of them as “The Pale King” in 2011. “The Pale King” really does start off by commanding us to read worm trails in dung patties. That might be because the entire novel goes on to explore the intricacies of life’s dung patty equivalent: the IRS. But the more interesting suggestion behind the direction to “read these” is that the only way to transcend the unbearably boring (i.e. shitty) parts of life is by facing them head on. The way through boredom is, Wallace claims, to look the most boring and unattractive stuff of life, the turd patties, right in the face. 

Why, though, did an author who never shied away from big, terrifying questions spend ten years on a subject so dull as dullness itself? Well, we know from his notes and his fiction that Wallace came to regard boredom as Kierkegaard did—as the “root of all evil.” Early in “The Pale King,” a chapter begins, “Author here,” and David Wallace proceeds to tell us the long, seemingly true (but actually false) story of his life. “Author” even claims that the entire story of “The Pale King” is a memoir. This fictional stand-in for Wallace will come back into play later, but for now what matters is that he has something to say about the importance of boredom: “Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.” 

Everyone can relate to the unique pain of boredom. Even if you haven’t yet experienced the most boring parts of adult life, you’ve surely suffered the uniquely horrible tedium of high school. You’ve probably felt in a position to say, as a Wallace character does, that “hell has nothing to do with fires,” but clearly has something to do with creaky desks and monotony. Wallace connects that boredom to some "deeper type of pain" we cannot name. Boredom might be the only way to even begin talking about that deeper type of pain. Hence the centrality of boredom in Wallace’s thinking. 

Wallace would probably go so far as to say the challenge to overcome boredom is the most important task a modern person faces. His own way of meeting the challenge was to write a novel about the IRS and boredom itself. The challenge was important enough that this novel became the defining task of Wallace’s late life. 

“The Pale King” is about a group of IRS agents, how they arrive at their jobs, and how they tolerate the unimaginable boredom that accompanies sorting tax forms for years on end. And yet the book is thrilling to read, which is in some way the whole point: throughout the book we read the minutiae of the boring lives of boring people who work at the IRS. But it’s soon revealed that each person has a rich, multivalent inner life. Because of course they do—we all do. A character nicknamed “Irrelevant Chris Fogle” spends a key hundred pages of the novel answering an IRS interviewer’s yes or no question by giving the entire (irrelevant) story of his life. Immediately after that chapter, the fictional David Wallace reappears and promises the reader he won’t tell the long and surely boring story of his life: “I have no intention of inflicting upon you a regurgitation of every last sensation and passing thought I happen to recall,” he says. And then he does exactly that for about fifty pages. The fictional Wallace shows us that we all find ourselves endlessly fascinating, but are obnoxiously bored by the tedium of others’ lives. And yet, Wallace (the author) ensures that both of those characters’ stories are great reads. Wallace makes the stories deeply engaging, and in doing so he proves what Shane Drinion, another IRS agent, says later in the book: “Almost anything you pay close, direct attention to becomes interesting.” If this novel could ever be said to have a thesis, that’s it. 

Wallace set out to write a book about the dullest parts of life in order to prove Drinion’s claim both to his readers and to himself. In writing "The Pale King," he’s done some of the hard work of facing tedium for us by paying such close attention to his world that he could construct the beautifully detailed fiction he’s given us. In the attention and freshness of his writing, Wallace shows us the rewards of truly paying attention. All of the most interesting parts of the IRS as written by Wallace seem to say, “look what I’ve found on the other side of boredom.”

“The Pale King” can’t be said to have main characters. It’s more like we delve weirdly deep into a rotating cast of background characters. The real central antagonist in the story is boredom and the protagonist quickly becomes attention itself. Shane Drinion, though, makes for the clearest human protagonist. He’s a low-level IRS agent who sorts the same forms all day, every day. He is written as the paragon of attention. Wallace’s notes (disclosed in the back of the book) tell us: “Drinion is happy. Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can 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.” This is the description of a character who actually levitates a few inches off his seat whenever he’s fully paying attention to something. Wallace makes him a kind of mundane superhero—a hyper-attentive ideal toward which we can all strive.

The optimism of that ideal might sound familiar. Most people who know Wallace’s work have read or heard his commencement speech, “This is Water.” The speech urges us all to snap out of the “automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.” This way of being is the way that most of us experience the more boring parts of life, and it’s an apathetic self-centeredness that’s central to boredom itself (maybe to that aforementioned unnamable pain, too). Boredom necessarily entails not finding anything around you really interesting. Wallace claims this unconscious way of being is necessary to any life devoted to money, power or one’s own beauty: “the insidious thing about these forms of worship" he says, "is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious.” So it follows that the solution is not so much a typically moral one as it is a matter of attention and intention. It’s about how “to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things.” But, vitally, that stuff is “not necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.” This idea is very carefully phrased. Wallace doesn’t say “you get to decide how you’re going to see it.” He inserts “try” because he understands that “It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.” Still, “This is Water” rests on the idea that we can, in fact, choose how we're going to see the world. The whole speech exhorts us to rise to that challenge. On a cursory read of “The Pale King,” the novel aligns with the heartwarming philosophy of the commencement speech. It seems to press us all to try our hardest to stay fully awake and attentive. But the novel never overcomes the terrible, lurking fear that it is impossible to escape boredom.

Wallace seems to know that Drinion—someone who is “conscious and alive, day in and day out”—is a very rare type of person. He’s not even really a believable character because his incredible ability to immerse himself makes him seem inhuman. When asked questions about himself, Drinion says “I’ve never really thought about it” because he’s always paying attention to other people, never to himself. When Drinion appears toward the end of the book, he looks alien and unrealistic next to all the other characters Wallace has drawn. Granted, this could be because Wallace never finished the book and therefore never fully wrote Drinion, but it could also be because Wallace suspects that Drinion is an impossible character.

Drinion is not the only hero in “The Pale King.” There is a whole different kind of hero of which we learn from an unknown narrator: “I’d always from early on as a child I think somehow imagined Revenue men as like those certain kinds of other institutional heroes, bureaucratic small-h heroes—like police, firemen, Social Service workers, Red Cross and VISTA people, the people who keep the records at SSI, even certain kinds of clergy and religious volunteers—trying to stitch or bandage the holes that all the more selfish, glitzy uncaring, “Me-first” people are always making in the community...I don’t mean the kind of heroes that ‘put their lives on the line.’ I suppose what I’m saying is that there are other kinds. I wanted to be one. The kind that seemed even more heroic because nobody applauded or even thought about them.” These heroes have clear enemies: “Routine repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui—these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.” These heroes are not like Drinion at all. They have not transcended boredom but still they tolerate it and suffer through it.

One way to frame “The Pale King” is as a book about people becoming those small-h heroes and fighting that lifelong fight. But “The Pale King” whispers a deep fear that desecrates the nobility of this fight. One chapter lists interviews conducted by unknown interviewers and unknown interviewees. In one of the interviews, someone recalls the dog he had as a kid: “We had us a big dog that my daddy would keep on a chain in the front yard...The dog hated that chain. But he had dignity. What he’d do, he’d never go out to the length of the chain. Nothing outside of that area right there interested him. He just had zero interest. So he never noticed the chain. He didn’t hate it. The chain. He just up and made it not relevant. Maybe he wasn’t pretending—maybe he really up and chose that little circle for his own world. He had a power to him. All of his life on that chain. I loved that damn dog.” 

This is another way to frame the choice to see the supermarket line as “on fire with the stuff of the universe.” It’s the dog learning to love its chain, the bird singing the praises of its cage. The dog in that little story would obviously love to escape the chain and run free, but because he knows he can’t, he deludes himself into forgetting about the world beyond the chain. Any good cynic has to wonder whether someone who chooses to care about the boring parts of life is doing the same thing. “The Pale King,” unlike “This is Water,” has the space and integrity to actually look for something worth our attention in the tedious parts of our lives (instead of just claiming the tedium is worth our attention). If it turns out that the boring stuff in “The Pale King” really is just boring, then “This is Water” might just be offering modern citizens a way to worship the crappy parts of their lives they can’t or won't escape. At some point, selective attention becomes self-delusion. To finally figure out whether that kind of truly awake attention is possible, or whether it’s all delusion, we have to look beyond the book. We have to look at Wallace’s life and the long process of trying to write “The Pale King.”

Fully charting the progress of “The Pale King” takes us back to 1997, the year after Wallace published “Infinite Jest.” Scholars who have analyzed a mountain of Wallace’s notes have come to see that virtually all of his fiction after “Infinite Jest” was part of one long, interrelated project. First, he was working on short fictional interviews from 1997 to 1999. Many of the ideas in those fictional interviews—things like solipsism and boredom—reappear in “The Pale King.” In 1999 Wallace published “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” abandoning the effort to use those brief interviews in a longer narrative. Wallace then kept working on stories he was planning to tie together into a novel. Those efforts eventually culminated in a short story collection called “Oblivion,” published in 2004. The problem with “Oblivion,” as a scholar named David Hering has pointed out, is that “much of “Oblivion” essentially was “The Pale King”.” This is clear not only in the shared themes, but even in some of the plot structures and narrative voices in the stories of “Oblivion,” which have clear mirrors in “The Pale King.” Those stories all center around themes that Wallace had already sketched in an “embryonic outline” for a longer narrative as early as 1999. Here’s the outline as it’s published in Wallace’s notes:

1. Paying attention, boredom, ADD. Machines vs people at performing mindless jobs.

2. Being individual vs being part of a larger thing — paying taxes, being “lone gun” in IRS vs team player.

This outline stagnated, then grew countless offshoots and generally went nowhere for a long time. Wallace really hit a wall in 2005, when he wrote himself a directive note: “the book must be written—started afresh, and continued with.” He also wrote, “I have too much stuff, and too little.” He had just published “Oblivion,” stripping himself of a lot of material to work with. But soon after that note-to-self, Wallace buckled down for two years and wrote the bulk of what we now know as “The Pale King.” The shift, it seems, was his decision to write himself into the novel. This was also, notably, around the time he delivered his commencement speech.

Wallace inserted himself into the novel through the sections that begin, “Author here.” Those chapters are all set in 2005, and have been traced back to a notebook in which Wallace wrote two-pages titled “Fake Memoir of Job at IRS by Fake Name.” The insertion of the fictional “Wallace” makes him a memoirist who performs a curatorial role over all the stories he had amassed. Wallace probably inserted himself into the story in order to give the novel a real spine—a character to actually tell the story. But more importantly for our purposes, Wallace’s self-insertion turned his writing process into the story of the book itself. Not only was Wallace’s attempt to create the book an effort to prove its thesis; the characters in the book also fight boredom side-by-side with their author.

The fictional Wallace character ends up working for the IRS and struggling with the boredom of the job just like most of the other characters in the book. That character’s plot goes nowhere because the book is unfinished. (Wallace’s notes reveal that he planned for the fictional Wallace to have been “eaten” by the IRS and absorbed into the bureaucracy. That would have stopped the narration.) But the non-fictional Wallace’s plot goes somewhere much darker than the IRS: in 2007 he stopped writing to handle his depression. In 2008, after quitting his antidepressants, he hung himself.

There was necessarily some peril in writing a book about boredom and how to transcend it. If Wallace was ever perpetually bored by the researching and writing of this book, not only would he simply be unable to write—he would also be proving that he himself could not live up to the philosophy of attention he espoused in “This is Water” and “The Pale King.” Tragically, depression casts doubt on the most hopeful parts of Wallace’s philosophy. The hope is that we can choose what we pay attention to and we can live our lives like Drinion lives his, fully immersed in the astonishing detail of everything from the obviously wonderful to the painfully trivial. But depression strips one of the ability to choose what to see and how to see it. It’s an illness that dumps a hellish apathy onto an unwilling victim. Under the veil of depression, it doesn’t matter how much attention you’re paying because you don’t care about anything you see. To will yourself to really pay attention, you have to care. 

So what you see is what you get. But sometimes you don’t get to choose what to see—sometimes the world appears boring and awful and no amount of mental wrangling can change that. Maybe, then, the kind of blissful attention Wallace writes of in his speech and in Shane Drinion is impossible. A primary goal of “The Pale King” was to show people a path out of the mindless and boring default American life. But Wallace likely knew that he could never expect to show others the way if he himself could never escape.

The ultimate optimism of Wallace’s writing still urges us to believe that our sustained attempt to be fully awake to each other makes the whole struggle worthwhile. That even if we can’t be Heroes, we might still be heroes. It's a truth Wallace gave to us, but one he could not give himself. Again, from the first chapter of The Pale King: 

“Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.”