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Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.

The Pale King

Posted 09-03-2011 at 11:00 AM by Steve Bucknell

On Radio 4 the news from the U.S. is of proposals to raise taxes for the wealthy and close tax loopholes, all measures bitterly opposed by populist politicians. This highlights for me the clinical accuracy of the state of the American mind described in The Pale King. I set off to get to work for seven through the quiet, empty streets. My working shift is a mix of routine tasks (medication, helping people get organised, electronic note-recording), and a weave of narratives, an interplay of voices and persons. I feel drained by the end of the eight hours and travel home like a ghost, shopping on the way, cooking the tea, and then continuing on into the book.

The next section is gruelling, obsessive and fascinating. Chapter 22 runs from page 154 to 252. It reads like a novella. It reads like Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons rewritten by Kafka and spoken by Bartelby. It is exhausting, strange, subversive and inspiring. It challenges my own nihilism: that tendency always to procrastinate and negate rather than to act. On page 154, talking about working in the IRS: “It may be that this kind of work changes you...It might actually change your brain.” I wonder how my brain has been rewired by thirty years as a psychiatric nurse. If I could only make out the map it might be interesting. This whole chapter is a classical Bildungsroman. It turns powerfully to the emerging theme of The Pale King that real heroism is to be found in facing :””Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui—these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.”

P.231.It charts the narrator’s growth from “wastoid” to IRS entrant. It is a compelling portrait of a person changing through a process of life-experience and epiphany. That the epiphany comes in a lecture on accountancy is part of the book’s comic force. “Heroism” is centrally invoked: “Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you.Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.” P.229.

I finish the chapter doubly exhausted and exhilarated, write this diary entry, look at my watch: nine P.M... The day and the chapter begin to sink in and away.


I wake up feeling sluggish. The cat has been yowling around in the night, complaining of the rain and crunching things up under the bed. Adi brings me a cup of tea before she sets off to work. I have a residual dream-memory of riding in a bus for miles before reaching my old Grammar School, going into its new, unfamiliar hall, shaking hands with teachers now strangely young. Sitting waiting there I feel that There Is No Point To This. That’s all. In the dream nothing happens.

I lift The Pale King and continue with chapter 23, pages 253 to 309.There is a kind of “whoosh” for me that these words start to give. The “hellacious” turning of the screw of perception described in the journey by bus and sedan to the Regional Examination Centre in Peoria carries me headlong into it. I find myself cackling and chuckling, feeling that this is the kind of writing that makes David Foster Wallace unique in the literary landscape. There are his characteristic sets of footnotes, but I don’t read them, the print is too small and I haven’t much time before I need to get up, write this, eat and set off to the late shift at work.

I get a feeling of flying, a feeling of power as I read. Moving half-way through the book it feels like a privilege to be in such company. It is excruciating and hilarious in its exactitude as it sits us next to the “human sprinkler” who we have met and empathised with in a previous chapter. I’m completely drawn into the consciousness of David Wallace; I experience his Sisyphean approach to the Centre, his angst and boredom. I share his sense of being “validated” when someone holds up a sign with his name on it. I am there as he looks through the office door glimpsing: “foreshortened faces over which the faint emotions played like the light of a distant fire. The placid hopelessness of adulthood.” I am there in the darkness of the electrical closet “as the Iranian Crisis’s forehead impacted my abdomen twelve times in rapid succession...” (This forces me to read back through the tiny footnotes, uncovering the extra level of farce that the Author has implanted.)

I set down The Pale King reverently, think of the day ahead and begin to get that premonitory anxiety that always comes to me before work. I look for my watch, think what clothes to wear and what to take for lunch. In the bathroom I notice the blue plastic beaker we use has cracked. It must have been cracked for a while. For the past few days I’ve noticed myself thinking I’d put more water in it than there seemed to be in it now. It suddenly strikes me as horribly metaphorical: the running away of life unnoticed from a cracked cup. I shake off the image and go to make some toast.


Vivid dreams, as if reading has sharpened subconscious eidetic imagery. I wake with a sense of loss as all-pervading as the first light through the curtains.

Day off today, with nothing I need to do. I read from 0900 to 1500, from page 310 to page 547.Drink tea, eat cereals and toast. I spin to the far end of The Pale King, concentrating steadily, drawing it in, laughing, levitating a little out of my chair, listening to Meredith Rand tell her story, becoming Drinion, becoming Ed Rand. It is an intense experience. My only distraction is a flashback to work yesterday. I’m in the Clinic Room as the patient leaves the interview the junior doctor turns to me and comments: “He’s very narcissistic.” I look her in the eyes for the first time and say: “Aren’t we all?”

Perhaps I’m reading too fast, not taking it all in. It can’t be helped: I have the time, I have the inclination. I’m pleased to meet Blumquist again and Diablo the Left-Handed Surrealist. I’m disappointed that Toni Ware isn’t more of a major player in the story. (I can’t grasp chapter 47.I’ll have to read it again.) I’m moved again by its examination of what ordinary heroism might look like: Stecyk applying emergency First-Aid to the teacher who has severed his thumb on the saw. I’ve seen it happen: the general panic, the way people flee or freeze, the way one or two people can still function usefully. Its moral seems to be like Kipling’s “If you can keep your head...” This seems to be one of the books major themes: the possibility of becoming and acting as an adult and what that might look like. And yet, at the same time, the awareness that those adults are so rare that they seem like idiots or autistic savants or even ghostly beings. Ed, the psychiatric nurse, has to be almost through death’s door to be able to communicate his kind of wisdom.

The book is a kind of pale zen brick, meant to batter each reader over the head, meant to break through our own solipsistic mental loops. Or is it a mirror for the narcissist to happily enter into?

I get a strong sense that this was not written by a writer at the end of his tether or in despair. The book uncovers new comic and convincing metaphors to describe the human condition, to pose and respond to the question: “How can we live?” I leave it feeling examined, impaled, but heartened, better able to face the next days of my life. It is such a shame that this writer himself reached a point where he felt he could not go on. Such a shame.

If you get the chance read The Pale King. It is a great unfinished symphony.
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