Racist humor in The Pale King

Today in the Antiracist Book Club, mixed feelings about David Foster Wallace.

When I blogged about “Lost,” I referred to “the cracked majesty of any very long-running fictional enterprise”; I’m not sure I phrased that in the most felicitous way, but I’m drawn to feats of endurance in literature as well. Combine this with my ambivalent but enduring love of certain male artists whose work can be downright offputting (Kanye, Axl Rose, William S. Burroughs), and you’ll see why I was psyched to read David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel about tedium and taxes, The Pale King. Aside from the pure challenge of it, I’m a bookkeeper and my first-edition hardback of Infinite Jest was one of the coolest reading experiences of my life.*

The Pale King really is a challenge, and it rewards attention (the problems of sustained attention being one of its major themes). I’m pretty squeamish, so this anatomically explicit chapter about a small child contorting his body for years on end was hard to get through, but the three-sentence ending was worth all the pain:

He did not yet know how, but he believed, as he approached pubescence, that his head would be his. He would find a way to access all of himself. He possessed nothing that anyone could ever call doubt, inside.

What gets me about this tiny paragraph is not only its music but the way its power actually depends on your having gone through thirteen (it felt like 50) pages of grotesquery beforehand. Suddenly you feel the book itself is somehow forgiving you for its own difficulty.

Much of Wallace’s humor resides in this kind of grossness. Often the gross stuff pays off; sometimes, especially when his cockeyed humor depends on racism, it doesn’t. A cringe-worthy example is the longish set piece involving a “visibly ethnic” woman who greets the character David Wallace at the Peoria REC (which I think stands for Rote Examination Center, but I’m really not sure). There’s another new hire named David Wallace, of much higher status, and our David has been mistaken for him. “Ms. F. Chahla Neti-Neti (according to her ID badge)” might be considered a nod to “diversity” among the book’s mostly white personnel, were she not treated like an object and a punchline. We find out that her nickname is “the Iranian Crisis,” and she ends up in a closet giving David “a rapid, almost woodpeckerishly intensive round of fellatio.”

Childhood trauma is another theme of The Pale King, and the long footnote in which this event occurs suggests that “Ms. Chahla Neti-Neti” (the narrator repeats the name while describing her breasts) has been sexually shaped by growing up in pre-Revolutionary Iran, where she “had to basically ‘trade’ or ‘barter’ sexual activities with high-level functionaries in order to get herself and two or three other members of her family out of Iran.” The narrator goes on to say that because of this trauma, she misinterpreted a superior’s request to “extend every courtesy” to the new employee. So she gives him a blow job because she’s Iranian? I’m not buying it. She gives him a blow job because it’s funny—to Wallace, the author—and her being a woman of color makes it even funnier—to Wallace.

For all that, let’s admit right here that I might not have written this post if, elsewhere in the book, Wallace hadn’t footnoted the phrase “he and All Right Flowers’ attorney” with the words “(a female Jew).” Inhumane humor sure is easier to notice when it’s aimed squarely at you.

*At that time (1996) all employees of the Borders bookstore in Austin, Tex., received $40 in monthly credit. Infinite Jest was the first thing I used it on.


  1. Denny O'Donnel says:

    Hey, Cath.

    I come here as a long-time reader and passionate student of Wallace’s work, so it may be advantageous to take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt.

    I kind of have to disagree with the idea that there was any sort of racism or sexism about Wallace’s work, which has made itself evidently empathetic and influential throughout everything of his that’d been published. “Gender and Racial Insensitivity” probably isn’t something we could attribute to Wallace directly, and even if it’s represented in some of his fiction, the man himself would have had no such convictions. [This can be proven by reading a lot of his nonfiction essays, as well as listening to various readings and interviews he had given over the years.]

    You have every right to root out this kind of anti-cultural nonsense wherever it may be– And it is in a lot of places, just not here.

    • Cathy says:

      Hey, Denny. Thanks for your comment. I love Wallace as well, although, as I say, with mixed feelings. In talking about racism, I and many others make a distinction between someone’s personal beliefs and the ways in which they may be propping up or participating in a racist system without realizing it—in other words, between personal and institutional/cultural racism. Of course this goes for sexism as well, and always (in my mind) doubly so for fiction. I may not be a “racist person,” but I can be supporting racism by the way I move through the world, in real life and on paper.

  2. Johnny Wink says:

    Along with Cathy, I’m not buying that Ms. F. Chahla Neti-Neti gives the fictionalized DFW a blowjob because she’s Iranian. Fortunately, I don’t have to buy it. I can buy instead that she’s giving him a blowjob because she grew up and got educated in a crooked way that led to her feeling like she needs to do things like this. That’s the way it was laid out to me in the footnote. If somebody gives somebody a blow job in a novel, that somebody’s got to be from somewhere. I just can’t see the racist dimensions here. However, I’m an old guy without very good eyesight, so I may indeed be missing something that’s actually there in the book.

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