The Pale King

Writing a book about boredom is a difficult task to assign yourself. But DFW didn’t shy away from difficult tasks. Who knows what the book would’ve turned out to be if he had had time to edit, rethink and reshape parts of it, but as it is now, it has some bright moments but is mostly full of sad, difficult to get through narrative. To me, the brightest moments come in two long conversations. One between a man and a woman and another between three men, all members of the IRS center that is the focus of this novel. In each conversation, Wallace explores deep ideas about personal relationships, past trauma, the role of institutions in society, and a few other engaging topics. Wallace champions the ability to concentrate as the one true antidote to boredom, but it could be said that deep, meaningful conversation with other people is another powerful antidote. To my mind, some of my favorite memories and highest growth moments have been during boring conversations with friends, when our guards are down, when thoughts flow in and out freely and when we’re both open to new ideas and changing our minds.

As with many writers of this generation, and this genre, women are either wholly missing or woefully under-represented in this book. A few statistics I looked up suggested IRS workers, especially those in clerical positions, tend to be women. Or even women from minority communities. But most of the characters in this book looked like DFW.

The content of this book recreated its subject, boredom, very well. It’s an accomplishment to capture what is usually an internal dialog, that sounds different in each person’s head, into a book that sounds like it could be in anyone’s head. Then to place that in the context of modern day America, peg it to a notoriously boring and tedious institution like the IRS and still to come out of it revealing some universal truths is worthy of praise. But I’m afraid the praise must be limited, just as the value of boredom is limited.