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.