Chairman of the Bored
A great deal has already been said1 about The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous, “unfinished” (according to its own title page) novel and the follow-up to the manic-depressive masterpiece Infinite Jest. For that reason, I’ll stick to the thing that I consider to be the single strangest part of this strange novel: its opening chapter.
By way of context, you should know that The Pale King is about, or happens around, people who work in a Midwestern regional exam center for the Internal Revenue Service. After writing the definitive novel about entertainment, addiction and over-stimulation, Wallace took up the subject of boredom, in his next novel2. Turned in his hands, crushing monotony and no-stimulation is made interesting, becoming the forum for tedium-induced hallucinations, bureaucratic excavations, debates about Americans’ relationship to the government, comic meta-fiction, one man who sweats profusely, one man who levitates when he concentrates on any single subject, and one man whose mind is invaded with an irrelevant and unavoidable stream of random facts, such as the “middle name of a childhood friend of a stranger they pass in a hallway. The fact that someone they sit near in a movie was once sixteen cars behind them on I-5 near McKittrick CA on a warm, rainy October day in 1971.”
But Chapter 1 has none of these elements…