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The Pale King

Posted 09-03-2011 at 11:50 AM by Steve Bucknell
Reading the Pale King


I buy The Pale King on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Sheffield. It seems to suit the general pallor of the city. I read the first few sentences and know I will buy it. Will I read it? I get home and turn on the Open golf. Darren Clarke looks to be winning easily. At times, as he waits on the tee for the match ahead to clear he looks bored. “Calm, focused, relaxed” is how the commentators describe him.

Feeling the monument-like presence of The Pale King I set up and take two photographs. One of the book and one a self-portrait using a Venetian mask under a cowl. I’m not sure about the results, but I like the veiling and the milky light surrounding the book and the unnerving look that wearing the mask gives me. I post them on Flickr. With that done I can settle down for an hour to read.

I feel a kind of restlessness going on in the book: a searching into identity and meaning, a puzzling of what it means to be alive, to be human. (That’s the kind of redundant sentence that really shouldn’t be written.) A phrase that stays with me: “everybody’s always going round all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it.”

I like the story of the IRS worker” dead at his desk for four days before anyone asked if he was feeling all right.” This has echoes of Bernhard and Melville for me.

The reading is easy, things split down into vignettes which ask together: “What if the truth is no more than this?” I stop reading at page 52: “creatures just did what they did.” I hurry to get together an evening meal of chicken, new potatoes, carrots and broccoli before Adi gets home.


The story of the trailer-park girl hits a new note: “Her inner life rich and multivalent.” She seems inventive, empowered, offering a way through the difficult world; but like so many of these initial stories the narrative stops off in mid-air
In all this reading the author feels very close, his figure standing at the blurred edge, just beyond the book. Is he The Pale King? Hamlet and The Waste Land shift in his white robes and through the regalia of his pages.

I have to go and choose tiles for the bathroom and shower. In the car I jot down: “The Pale King in his kingdom rides between fear and boredom.” I wonder how quickly I will forget this book. What do I remember now about reading Infinite Jest? I remember passages about tennis that I really enjoyed, that felt were a new way of writing and looking at things, but am I remembering the right book? What is left after you put a book away? I think of keeping this diary to record my journey through the world of The Pale King.


I set off from the house at 0730 on my way to a Training Day on Improving Services for Survivors of Sexual Abuse. After a few steps down the path I realise I am missing something. I go back and retrieve The Pale King. It’s a mild day and my mind is mild and blank as I wait for the bus. I read rapidly once I’m in transit. The pages seem to take to the air. Page 128: “And Desk Names are back. This is another plus under Glendenning. Nothing against the Pale King...”So He mysteriously appears for a moment and is gone again!

I’m totally involved in the Studs Terkel-like accounts the IRS agents give of their lives and their work. It makes me think I should write my own novel using the NHS as the core of the story. The story of the dog on the chain on page 117 chokes me with emotion: “The dog hated that chain. But he had dignity. What he’d do, he’d never go out to the length of the chain.” ...”He didn’t hate it. The chain. He just up and made it not relevant. Maybe he wasn’t pretending—maybe he really up and chose that little circle for his own world. He had a power in him. All his life on that chain. I loved that damn dog.”

I feel as though I’m reading some kind of latter-day Wisdom Literature, some kind of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. There’s a grand push to find meaning and virtue through the human and desk-bound world of the IRS. When I look up the girl beside me is reading Die Trying by Lee Child. I’ve read that too and enjoyed its dream-fulfilling “fantasies of competence”, but the book I’m reading has me pale in its grip.

The long elevator conversation between the IRS executives is a tour-de-force and farce, a deep analysis of the psyche of the United States and of all those who live there. What is being argued for? I feel it’s looking for a way out of solipsism, looking for each of us to take some responsibility, not be overwhelmed by our smallness. Just paying your taxes, using your vote, doing your job as well as you can...these become acts of civic bravery that define us against the onrush of transience and selfishness.

The Training Day consists of ten small quiet people sat in hushed room thinking about staff fears when working with victims of abuse, particularly sexual abuse. The objective is to equip staff to routinely and consistently be able to explore issues of violence and abuse in assessment and care planning with clients. It’s worth doing. It might just help someone in a situation when they would welcome the question being asked:”Have you been abused?” I get the feeling David Foster Wallace is with us in this enterprise. Yes, part of it was boring, some of it gets tangled up in the bureaucracy of the NHS, but it has a virtue. It was a day well spent.

On the bus home I’m too tired to lift The Pale King from my bag. I watch the familiar streets pass. A dark haired girl on the seat in front is deep into Ian Rankin’s The Black Book, which I haven’t read.
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