The Pale King Reviewed

Arts, Books — By on July 21, 2011 at 3:11 pm

In 1990, in a lecture titled “Informing Ourselves to Death,” given at a meeting of the German Informatics Society in Stuttgart, and sponsored by IBM-Germany, lecturer Neil Postman—renowned author, lecturer, teacher, social critic, and luddite—concluded with these words:

“…what Confucius, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Spinoza and Shakespeare told us. It is all the same: There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.”

Indeed, the preceding lecture argued that although—thanks, first to the printing press, and in our current age, the internet—human society lives in a distinctly, increasingly so, information age. The average person, as a result, isn’t necessarily better informed as to the meaning of his life.

In his recent, posthumously published final work, The Pale King, the late David Foster Wallace attempts to find some sort of answer to Postman’s dilemma but endeavors to search for it within the context of what becomes a theses-like study on American boredom—specifically, how boredom germinates within the stuffy, bureaucratic confines and operational turpitude of the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

The character David Wallace joins the IRS for no spectacular reason other than what appears to be the prospect of an easy job. Unfortunately—and whether other IRS workers would contend otherwise (perhaps memorizing the various procedural processes for conducting different types of audits, many of which require knowledge of various deferments options to upper or lower-management or in some cases just a color-coded form tucked in some folder in some box long lost in one of the many wildly unknown abscesses innate to office space worldwide, is appealing to some)—it turns out to be quite boring. Wallace, however, learns the key to survival:

The key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for … The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes every thing vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

Thus The Pale King becomes a meditation on what fellow existentialist writers before him also pondered. Walker Percy, for instance, refers to it in the The Moviegoer as “everydayness”—a deep sense of non-distraction and a constant desire to fill the void. Why, asks Wallace, is boredom here and what do we do with it? How do we live in environments, which appear as typical workweeks, but in reality are completely devoid of the ingredients necessary for human flourishing? The author Wallace finds a correlation—in the tradition of Postman—between the problem of boredom and the aforementioned information age.

The character Wallace reminisces of a time in college when a CPA certified math professor waxed mid-lecture on the virtues of modern accounting. He referred to his students as the real hero’s of the modern age because they have the strength and stamina to withstand monotony and tedium of a job such as IRS accounting.

Therefore, according to the author Wallace, the great impediment to modern human living is boredom. He writes of its insidious and sublime manifestations, in clippings and various chapters interspersed throughout the book: simply put, boredom forces people to confront themselves. And true self-reflection—contrary to certain Greek statues that argue that self-examination is a requisite for continued living—is, in fact, unsettling. It’s scary and can often cause great anxiety.

In a 21st century society in which our corporately aroused feelings of aspiration, want, need, desire, and insecurity, are more often than not a direct result of the various messages and standards conveyed through the constant barrage of media in its various forms, the experience of which, these days, can touch all five senses, the very moment we usually come to terms with the reality of our humanness is when those stimulants are not around to distract us.

The author Wallace’s IRS is something like an organism that survives from lack of attention—it is inherently dull. It represents, for him, the underbelly of human existence, the parts no one wants to talk or even know about—because it’s painful and shapeless. “The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts [the tedium of tax policy], changes the stakes,” writes the author Wallace, “is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull.”

In that same vein, the character Wallace reflects accordingly on his IRS training:

“To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful … 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 nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.”

If boredom is so very much a fact of life and boredom is painful—at least psychically—what is there to do in confronting the issue?

The obvious, yet non-Wallacian answer is simple: further distract yourself. But, as Wallace presents to his readers in no simple language, there is an alternative. At one point the character Wallace sits through an IRS training session and is told by his directors:

“The common misapprehension is that a messy desk is a sign of a hard worker.”

“Get over the idea that your function here is to collect and process as much information as possible”

“The whole mess and disorder of the desk on the left is, in fact, due to its excess information”

A mess is information without value.” (italics added for emphasis)

“Forget the idea that information is good.”

Only certain information is good.” (italics added for emphasis)

The author Wallace draws his readers’ attention to a very important truth about the postmodern age, the validity of which Postman testified to earlier; too much information, in whatever form it may come is disorienting. The more options we have about what to believe (especially when it comes to faith, world-views, matters of morality, what is truth?) the less secure we feel about picking any specific one. This is not to say that Wallace makes the case that there is no truth; it’s simply to say that in order to know what it might be would require great attention.

Wallace further makes his point with a scene he constructs consisting of a conversation between Meredith Rand and Mr X—both IRS employees sharing drinks at the socially active—at least for a typical IRS employee—happy hour at a local bar. Mr. X is borderline sociopathic, but he’s a good person. His sociopathic quality manifests in the way he talks to people. He is brutally honest, but not in an arrogant sort of way. Rather, he possesses a simpleton’s kind of brutal honesty—he’s asked a question, he gives the unadulterated truth.

Meredith Rand is a beautiful woman, drop dead gorgeous and makes all her male co-workers go stupid whenever she’s around—all except one: the aforementioned Mr. X. Essentially, Mr. X comes off as the byproduct of a Wallacian thought experiment: he is completely unself-conscious—almost robotic-like—making him by default, fully conscious of everything else that is around him. He’s fully attentive to everything but his own conscience. Meridith Rand, in contrast, is like most people—self-conscious and therefore, self-centered and insecure. She’s beautiful and she knows it, hates that she’s judged according to it, yet loves the benefits.

The scene which ensues consists of Meredith Rand slowly revealing more and more about her life as she talks with the stoic, yet highly attentive Mr. X, who sits across the table from her. The conversation’s dynamic is consistent with that of a stereotypical therapy session. Meredith Rand talks increasingly and Mr. X gives perceptive, yet very short responses. The more he replies, the more she talks about herself. Throughout the conversation Meredith Rand transitions through a series of emotional states—she feels offended, flattered, curious, and suspicious—while Mr. X sits idly and processes what she says. He is calm, meditative.

Mr. X pays attention to everything but himself, and therefore, in contrast to Meredith Rand, seems a much more stable individual. He can’t experience psychic pain when he’s bored or under-stimulated because he has no psyche. He’s a perceptive robot. He’s distinctly boring, and yet Meredith Rand has a lengthy conversation with him—the reason being, she’s really having the conversation with herself. This is Wallace’s point: the problem with boredom is that it allows for self-reflection, and the problem with self-reflection is that it often hurts, psychically, and sometimes even physically. It gives the voice inside our head an audience and therefore makes us ever more aware of the unanswered questions that persistently exist in our minds. There is no off switch.

Joshua Cunningham lives in New York City where he’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Politics, Philosophy, & Economics (PPE) at The King’s College. Last Spring he was a weekly contributor at

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  • John Dunham says:

    Thanks a lot. Now I have to add this to my “to read” stack. Also, a very perceptive review.

  • Eric Allen says:

    oh, i like this. very nice. I’ve never read this but now i want to. You mention Percy have you read Lost in the Cosmos (chapter 10) The Bored Self: Why the Self is the only Object in the Cosmos which Gets Bored. Because I’m reading it now. Thanks…

  • Cliff says:

    Good stuff.

  • But don’t we need self-reflection in order to grow? If we are constantly shoving down emotions and finding ways to distract ourselves won’t that pain find a way to way to eventually manifest itself?

    I think if anything it’s French sculptors who were concerned with introspection. Ie, Rodin’s The Thinker.

    Great article! Sounds like a fascinating book.

  • Cayla Degler says:

    I’m not that much of a internet reader to be honest but your sites really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back down the road. Cheers

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