The King Is Dead
David Foster Wallace's Last Novel
Giovanni Giovannetti / Effigie
Every computer up until now that has existed—from those room-sized monolithic metallic beasts of the not-so-distant past to the tiniest MP3 player you can imagine—communicates and computes with one ridiculously simple language. They're binary. Everything boils down to yes and no, on and off.
As best as I can understand it, here is what makes quantum computers, which scientists are working on right now, so exciting: They will add one more element to the binary equation. It could possibly be the biggest leap in computer science that we'll see in our lifetimes—the addition of and/or. Something can be on and off at the same time, or on or off simultaneously, throwing a computer-science version of Schrödinger's famous cat in between the zeros and ones, multiplying the possibilities for computing by what amounts to infinity.
David Foster Wallace took his own life in 2008, approximately halfway through the writing of The Pale King—producing a quantum novel. Michael Pietsch, Wallace's longtime editor, assures readers in the foreword that unlike, say, Kafka, Wallace intended for us to read this book; he left it in a complete state—an "astonishingly full novel" on its own. But "there was no list of scenes, no designated opening or closing point, nothing that could be called a set of directions or instructions." The chapter that Pietsch chose to open the book—a pastoral scene in which horses stand in a row according to some unknowable animal hierarchy, where "one horse smells at the other's behind, the lead horse's tail obligingly lifted"—originally featured a footnote that indicated it was intended to "arrive well after the novel begins."
And so the whole book is basically the product of a million Schrödinger's cats typing on a million typewriters. Because Pietsch believes The Pale King was to be structured like Infinite Jest (where chapters were at first an array of disparate information that eventually fell together into a very intricate framework in what appeared, through very deliberate and intelligent effort, to be randomness), this selection of these chapters in this specific order is basically an editorial whim, an act of chance in the hazy lands between yes and no. Wallace may or may not have wanted a specific version of one chapter to go in the final draft; even specific word choices reportedly varied drastically from draft to draft and might bear no resemblance to The Pale King as Wallace would have wanted it. The novel you're reading simply doesn't exist; it shudders and fluxes and redefines itself with every new mark on the page. And that's why it's somewhat chilling that the epigraph that Wallace chose—or did he?—to begin the book, from Frank Bidart's "Borges and I," is such an eerie provocation of Heisenberg's inescapable principle: "We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed."
The Pale King is about the IRS. Or, in a broad sense, The Pale King is about the IRS as observed through the actions and thoughts of a handful of IRS agents based out of Peoria, Illinois. We visit the agents in their childhood—one, for instance, was so sociopathically eager to please that adults physically assaulted him in order to stop him from doing nice things for them—and at work and at leisure. The focal point seems to be the year 1985, when the IRS became the "New IRS," an organization whose first point of order was not to produce Byzantine regulations that would inspire fear in taxpayers (called TPs by the agents—affectionately or dismissively, depending on how you read it) but rather to aspire to good customer service, like a retail store with no products to sell that takes your money anyway.
One of the agents—the agents hate that term, "agents," by the way, preferring to say they are "in the Service" instead—is named David Wallace. In the author's notes to himself loosely sketching out where the second half of The Pale King will go, the only parts of the book we can be reasonably sure are, for lack of a better term, "real" on some level, this fictitious Wallace is to develop a "thing where he'll look out the window and see, in the other, more elite building, someone at a window in the computer center looking back. Wearing thick glasses. Their eyes meet but they never meet or say anything." Then, on page 66, at the beginning of Chapter 9, Wallace inserts himself as another character, the author, in a self-described "Author's Foreword." He claims that The Pale King is a memoir of his own time in the IRS, and that every word in the book has been vetted closely by lawyers and is guaranteed to be absolutely true.
It's been well documented that one of The Pale King's major themes is boredom. ("It is the key to modern life," he writes. "If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.") And Wallace, who reportedly took accounting classes in order to get the logistics just right, does drop a few stultifying swamps of fiduciaries and forms with names like "3IR plus 12(A)" into the text. One whole chapter consists of almost all the book's main characters sitting in a room, turning pages, in a literal recounting of what a day in the life in the Service is like: "Ken Wax turns a page. Harriet Candelaria turns a page. Matt Redgate turns a page. Ambient room temperature 80º F. Sandra Pounder makes a minute adjustment to a file so that the page she is looking at is at a slightly different angle to her. 'Irrelevant' Chris Fogle turns a page. David Cusk turns a page."
But that does the book a disservice; despite all the talk about boredom, there are some lively, profane, funny passages, as when one of the agents tells a story about a college friend named Fat Marcus the Moneylender who liked to sit on the faces of fellow students for cheap laughs until one fateful day when he made the doomed decision to sit on the face of a man they all called Diablo the Left-Handed Surrealist. This is not the work of a dead man, or a depressive personality sinking into a desperate meditation on boredom. This is pungent and alive.
Wait, actually, you know what? Forget all that quantum stuff. That gives the wrong impression. Say, instead, that you're wandering in the desert. (You're not thirsty or lost, you're not frightened, you're just out for a stroll. You know that if you head back a few dunes or so, you'll find the resort in which you're staying looming large over the beach.) And you're surprised, then, when you come upon the dead body of the largest creature you've ever seen. It's not rotting—there are no vultures in sight—and, no, wait a sec, if you look at it from the proper perspective, it appears to be under construction. It's like a sperm whale with legs, turned belly up, its bare ribs shining white in the sun like narrow skyscrapers. The thing you will never be able to fully get across to another human being is the level of detail to this thing: acres of scaly gray skin like an elephant, but the toenails seem to be made of ruby, and where the flesh is peeled away, you can see ropes of gummy muscle and the faint suggestion of a pearlescent bulb deep inside the chest, and if you glance at it from the very corner of your eye, you can swear you see the barest suggestion of a thrum, a heartbeat.
The dead-ended tunnels Wallace digs out of this text suggest a nest where greatness was going to roost, something that might have become something we've never seen before. These particular agents, we learn, all have peculiarities, or psychic talents, like a bargain-basement X-Men. One of them can divine pointless facts from total strangers, another appears to have been born without emotions. A greater plot is suggested, involving a scary, mythological creature called the Three-Personed God. Is it a code name, lifted from a sonnet by Donne, or a literal monster? And does this God have anything to do with the Pale King, who might be a real human being or might not? And why are these superheroes of mundanity being assembled?
Wallace's fiction has always suggested, just off page, a certain indefinable Lovecraftian menace, and while reading The Pale King, you can feel those dark, ancient gods breathing down the back of your neck. Characters claim to want to tear at their skin and reveal something horrible that lies beneath. The real-life IRS center in Baton Rouge apparently doesn't exist in the world of The Pale King; instead, a few passing mentions are made of the center in the fictional Louisiana city of Rotting Flesh. One character is a recovered cutter. One of the Wallaces has a debilitating skin condition, and another character sweats so much it's like a dark ocean is inside of him, trying to flood the world. (For some reason, he barely seems to notice that nobody else ever seems to notice his torrential sweats.) Or does this book call back to a yearning that is older than Lovecraft? There's another enormous American book, one by Herman Melville, about a certain distant pale king who, when he deigns to actually arrive in the narrative, pushes an entire boat full of humans around as though they were bacteria. Is this a monster story, after all?
Actually, you know what? Forget all that stuff about monstrous leviathans. That quantum stuff I was talking about before is definitely the right track. Sorry.
When you read a book, you're engaging in some kind of a conversation with an author. The surprising thing about The Pale King is it appears to have foreseen a lot of the current political landscape—characters in the book continually discuss paying taxes and how much people hate paying taxes, and they are edging around the concept of how, in its own way, the IRS is—as Wallace notes in his notes—a "moral" organization. And while you're reading those passages, you're thinking, "Oh, cool, DFW is writing an argument against the Tea Party." And then you remember that even though his book meshes perfectly with the news you just watched a second or two ago, he died before the 2008 elections, before anyone could have imagined something as ghastly and improbable as the Tea Party. And then you realize that you're deep in conversation with a dead man and you have to take a little break and maybe go lie down in the darkest room of the house for a minute or two.
A perfect tribute to this beautiful quantum mess would be if the publisher commissioned another author to finish The Pale King, to write the entire second half of the book. Wait, hear me out! So say they publish Colson Whitehead's The Pale King, Part 2. And then, the year after that, they publish a second part two, this time written by Stephen King, and it doesn't bear any resemblance to Whitehead's. And then six months after that, you're walking around a bookstore and you see Toni Morrison's The Pale King, Part 2 sitting there on a shelf. And then there's a flood of them, by Tom Clancy, by Haruki Murakami, by Zadie Smith, by Chelsea Martin, and then it's authors you've never heard of, just dozens of different conclusions to the book, until, finally, bookstores have to make a separate section just to contain them. Imagine you're looking at this wall of possibility staring you in the face. It would be more endings than you could ever possibly want.