Object Context: Thoughts on David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King
A couple of weeks ago while visiting New York, I was riding the R train from Astoria into Manhattan. I was about to take out my copy of The Pale King when I noticed two college looking guys who already had their noses buried in it. They noticed each other too, smiled, then began chatting about the book and DFW. One of the things they kept saying was something I’d heard before—how oppressive the world of the book was, in this case an IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, IL. All those forms and all those procedures and all the names for all those forms and procedures. The guys nodded, so happy to be in the in-group of DFW experts who had an advanced copy of the book, but the problem was, they had it completely wrong.
The Pale King is a love letter to the pointless details of a life. In fact, the opening chapter is a call for the readers to see the grass, the crows, the rusted wire fence, to see the “shapeless” landscape that surrounds us (the dullness that the character “David Wallace” speaks of in the “Author’s Foreword” that begins in chapter nine). Then DFW does what we’ve always wanted of our artists – to see and document the moments in life we fail to notice. This is not oppressive. It is invigorating. By giving each detail of a mundane office in an insignificant town equal care and time on the page, David Foster Wallace has built a world, even if it’s called Peoria, an IRS office in Peoria, with perfect objects no less important than the people inhabiting it.
One way to put it is that the world in The Pale King, like the worlds created in all my other favorite books, is built inside out. The form of the objects come first, including the people as objects, then the walls that contain them in space, each detail eventually building the entire world without making me aware that I as a reader was being transported there to live. It is this respect for the concrete that broke my heart in chapter six, experiencing the young couple’s decision to have an abortion not as a mental and emotional event, but as a physical one, made up of a lake and a picnic table and her hair and the smell of her skin and the jeans worn – a permanence born of a collection of details.
And when I read the first line of the final chapter of The Pale King, I broke out into a laugh. Not a chuckle. I mean a full laugh because I was happy like when you’re coming to the end of an amazing trip you’ve taken. And I looked up from the page for a moment, looked around my room, and realized things weren’t the same anymore, that like all great art that we experience, life had been shifted in a tiny but significant way. The physical space around me felt different, changed, because DFW’s writing forces me to look at every object and the solid surfaces that stop our movements, like walls and doors and ceilings, with such clarity and specificity that they are no longer small details of my life, but each a detail as important and significant as I am.
It made me think of all the ‘still life with fruits’ painted by all the masters (and non-masters) over the years. A painting of a bowl of fruit. Or a woman descending the stairs. Or some boy on the beach. Or a face. A pipe. How each subject was equal in value to the next, although there is no logical reason an empty bedroom, even if painted by Van Gogh, should be as important as, say, a portrait of, I don’t know, anybody. And this is how I experienced The Pale King, not as the tragedy of people trapped and oppressed by these meaningless things in their lives, but the tragedy of people that have no greater importance than a 1099 form—a distinction blurred, ironically, in the hands of a master like David Foster Wallace.
“The office could be any office.” That’s the opening line of the last chapter that made me laugh in joy. It can be. But it isn’t. Because the objects living in it cannot be living anywhere else. The chair. The desk. The clock. The tax forms. David Wallace. The reader.
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