The Pale King Goes to D.C.

Choosing what to read for vacation travel is always a challenge. Mostly, I find myself feeling guilty if the reading material has nothing to do with the place I’m visiting. I mean, you can read anywhere – why have your nose in just any book when you’re off exploring someplace new? But you want something that will engage you while you wait around in airports, and for the seemingly endless hours of being sandwiched into your coach class seat on long flights.

These thoughts had me considering A Week at the Airport, which Richard reviewed recently, but the title alone is enough to give me the willies. Then I was remembering Ben Lerner’s astonishing, fractured poetry collection Mean Free Path, and his incorporation of ready-made phrases that will be familiar to anyone who has securely fastened a seatbelt upon command or otherwise spent time confined in “the cabin.” And I don’t think I’ll be able to catch a flight anytime soon without thinking of a character from The Imperfectionists who copes with air travel by slipping into what she calls her “travel coma.”

But I needed something different for my first trip to Washington, D.C. The Pulitzer-winning biography of George Washington by Ron Chernow came to mind, but then I began to wonder if something by Hunter S. Thompson might be a better fit for the D.C. political climate (or even Alice in Wonderland). I still had a week before traveling, so I let the question drop until an email announced one of my previous hold requests had come in: The Pale King – David Foster Wallace’s new novel about the lives of IRS form processors. A book about employees who suffer such extreme ennui that they receive training in boredom survival. What reading could be better aligned with the angst of air travel and a tax season trip to D.C.?

The book seemed an even more auspicious choice when, in the first few pages, I found myself deep in Leopold Bloom country, following the carefully detailed, cut-jump thoughts of an aspiring tax examiner who is on a flight to take his CPA exam. Among pre-test anxiety, queasiness at the claw-like hands of his elderly seatmate, and curiosity at the lack of facial expression on the illustrations in the seatback safety card, is this observation about clouds:

Above and below were a different story, but there was always something disappointing about clouds when you were inside them; they ceased to be clouds at all. It just got really foggy.

And then there’s this, as the plane begins its descent over an interstate highway:

…light traffic crawling with a futile pointless pathos you could never sense on the ground. What if it felt as slow to actually drive as it looked from this perspective? It would be like trying to run underwater. The whole ball game was perspective, filtering, the choice of perception’s objects. Sylvanshine tried to envision the small plane as seen from the ground, a cruciform shape against the old-bathwater color of cloud cover, its lights blinking complexly in the rain.

Five hundred pages of this may or may not be the answer for the irritations of traveling by air to D.C. But what better place to patiently delve into a painstaking wordsmith’s unflinching account of boredom and taxes – and to contemplate, too, a little, that one other certainty in life?

Wallace is best known for Infinite Jest, his influential, kaleidoscopic 1996 doorstop which acquired something of a cult following. The DFW mystique was further heightened when he took his own life in 2008. The Pale King is the big book he was working on when he killed himself, and it has now been published as an unfinished novel. It’s likely to be considered one of the big books of the year.


3 thoughts on “The Pale King Goes to D.C.

  1. I admire your ability to read David Foster Wallace on an airplane!

    I am one of those readers who needs something relatively light and easy when I fly. I regret attempting Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead on a plane. I think I would have liked it had I read it at home, but it was the wrong choice for 30,000 feet. Have you read anything by Edward P. Jones? He would be a great choice for your next trip to DC!


    • Yes, it’s all about the right book at the right time in the right place. The Pale King fit the bill perfectly for me on this trip. At half the length of Infinite Jest and grounded more firmly in realism than postmodernism, I found myself deeply immersed in the characters, dialogue, and Wallace’s style and tone. I was pretty much in the zone from gate to gate, though a few of the chapters were a bit wonky with tax jargon, and a big fat dictionary would have come in handy at times. But don’t let this or his reputation scare you off!

      I thought of Wallace as I walked past the colonnaded IRS headquarters on Constitution Avenue (though the book is set at a regional office in Peoria, and Wallace fictionalizes a different D.C. address). I was even tempted to accost a guy on the Mall about his take on the book, as his copy lay beside him on a bench – but I decided to let him thumb his gadget in peace.


  2. Pingback: Freedom Lovers— Try The Pale King |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.