"The Pale King" and the Midwestern Canon

"The Pale King" and the Midwestern Canon

David Foster Wallace | The Pale King | Back Bay Books | April 10, 2012 | 592 Pages


With its achingly-realized descriptions of place and its interrelated attempts to unpack a particular form of heartland-hewn angst, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King stands as an essential entry into the canon of Midwestern literature. The book’s characters, an assortment of neurotic IRS examiners who eventually arrive at an examination center in Peoria, IL, are lost in a uniquely Midwestern way: walled in by fathomless open spaces, and feeling trapped despite willingly arriving from somewhere else. The novel, although unfinished, cements Wallace’s status as a chronicler of Midwestern despair and attempted revelation.  

In his essay on The Pale King for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Tom McCarthy describes the novel’s setting as primarily “the innards of the Internal Revenue Service.” McCarthy only mentions the external landscape in passing to underscore what he sees as the novel’s pervasive sense of loss, arguing that “nostalgic images of childhood lakes and ponds, since algaed or cemented over, crop up repeatedly.” The immense landscape of The Pale King holds more than loss, however. It holds an ongoing anxiety, a panic of being self-paralyzed-in place. In his review for The Guardian, James Lasdun writes that Wallace was a master at capturing the “physical textures of the American landscape.” This is certainly true, but the bandana-clad Illinoisan was also adroit at bringing the psychological texture of the people who inhabit this landscape into sharp relief. Just as his previous novel Infinite Jest was, in some ways, a dissection of New England by way of Boston, so The Pale King is a devotional to—and deconstruction of—a majestic yet troubled Midwest.

However, The Pale King’s fidelity to its setting is stronger than Infinite Jest’s. While that madcap book gleefully swerved into a speculative alternate reality with its junk-filled Concavity and corporately-subsidized timeline, The Pale King is, as Marshall Boswell notes, Wallace’s only novel which takes place in a “carefully reconstructed historical past.” The care Wallace takes in rendering this world negates any sense that he is mythologizing it. Consider the book’s lyrical opening: “past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat …” Instantly, the reader is pulled into a verdant environment. But there seems to be something amiss here. Canted rust. Tobacco-brown rivers. These are not words the Romantics would have chosen to rhapsodize their own tranquil biota. Wallace’s novel rejects blind pastoralism. In fact, the novel’s narrator remarks, “for those who've never experienced a sunrise in the rural Midwest, it's roughly as soft and romantic as someone's abruptly hitting the lights in a dark room.” Wallace’s Midwest is a real, breathing land. A world filled not only with rivers and trees, but also convenience stores which a character ruefully describes as “ramp tumors,” not to mention home to innumerable mosquitos, which the survivor of a corporate cookout from hell deems “needles with wings.” In Wallace’s facsimile Midwest, beauty, harmony, decay, and discomfort freely intermingle. 

Land in The Pale King is more than a backdrop— it acts as the pulsing connective tissue between the characters, all of whom are alienated from one another. As one character remarks, “how odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.” Historically, Wallace has faced ample criticism—much of it warranted—for his problematic depictions of women. In her feminist critique of his oeuvre, Clare Hayes-Brady argues that Wallace’s female characters are almost always depicted as unknowable Others. They are, per Hayes-Brady, what “Žižek, in his interpretation of the feminine as Lacanian real, refers to as ‘an inhuman partner in the precise sense of a radical Otherness which is wholly incommensurable with our needs and desires.’” While this is persuasive, it is worth considering that virtually every character in The Pale King, men and women alike, is Othered. From themselves. From their friends and acquaintances. Like the roaming “adventure”-seekers of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, OH, The Pale King’s denizens are often unable to make themselves understood. They therefore look on the world they inhabit with dismay.

In Winesburg, OH, a Midwest Modernist ur-text, one character surveys a field and feels depressed, the narrator tells us “if you knew the Winesburg country in the fall and how the low hills are all splashed with yellows and reds you would understand this feeling.” Like Anderson’s, Wallace’s Midwestern landscape is not a panacea to alienation. If anything, the melancholia of Anderson has morphed into full-fledged dread in Wallace. At one point, a character in The Pale King spies some innocuous-seeming birds and imagines that their “twitters and repeated songs sounded so pretty and affirming of nature and the coming day, might actually, in a code known only to other birds," be the birds each saying… 'This tree is mine! I'll kill you! Kill, kill!” Elsewhere, another character imagines “the grass and insects my decomposition will go to feed will die, and their offspring, or if I’m cremated the trees that are nourished by my windblown ash will die or get cut down and decay.” These are profound reminders of our inability to totally comprehend the intricacies of the natural world and its own inevitable manner of thwarting our best intentions. Nature, Wallace suggests, is a character in our lives, ever-present but ambivalent. And yet, sometimes, it has the power to bring us together. 

Take a particularly wrenching vignette (originally published in The New Yorker as a standalone story, “Good People”) set at “a picnic table at that park by the lake, by the edge of the lake.” This is a bucolic tableau, but, like the book’s opening description of the field, Wallace tempers it with painful touches of reality. We are told that “it was springtime, and the park’s grass was very green and the air suffused with honeysuckle and lilacs both, which was almost too much.” These fine floral scents bathe the olfactory senses such that they nearly sting. 

At the table sit future IRS examiner Lane Dean Jr. and his girlfriend, Sheri, each ruminating about an unwanted pregnancy. While Lane is able to describe Sheri’s features, her “little notes or reading assignments in Bic in her neat round hand on the rubber elements around the sneaker’s rim…[and her] barrettes in the shape of blue ladybugs,” he admits that he cannot “read her heart.” Sheri, despite her familiarity, is Othered. Lane is blocked off from his own desires as well, however, as “he might not even know his own heart or be able to read and know himself.” Lane and Sheri sit in mostly silent stasis, mired in beautiful nature, and wait to learn how to access one another. Wallace eventually lets the landscape bring them together, writing that “when [Lane] moved his head, a part of the lake further out flashed with sun—the water up close wasn’t black now, and you could see into the shallows and see that all the water was moving but gently, this way and that—and in this same way he besought to return to himself as Sheri moved her leg and started to turn beside him.” By viewing the lake, Lane merges from mournful abstract thoughts back into the moment, back to his awareness of Sheri as a concrete being. 

This is the power of the Midwest world of Wallace. It can help us. A return to the “very old land” of the novel’s first section reveals a profound truth. Here, the narrator instructs us to “look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.” This simple phrase challenges the rampant fears and dread that pepper the novel. It invites us to enter into communion with not only the characters, but the chorus of voices which populate the landscape of Midwestern literature. 

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