Reading the 550 pages we do have, though, is, for the most part, very satisfying. Knowing full well you're not reading a complete story — and even if Wallace had finished, how "complete" the story would've been is debatable — you concentrate only on enjoying Wallace on a section-by-section, page-by-page basis. You read in the moment, and if you can do that, you'll be treated to some of Wallace's finest writing ever.
The Pale King explores the stories and back-stories of IRS "wigglers" at a Regional Examination Center (REC) in Peoria, Ill., in the mid-1980s. This setting allows Wallace to explore the themes of concentration, awareness, and most significantly, boredom. Wallace explains in a short snippet of a chapter near the end (though it was Pietsch who actually arranged the order, since Wallace left no hints about how the material should be arranged): "The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable."
The characters here are vintage Wallace. There's a man who's so generous, he's actually selfish because "...other people, too, want to feel nice and do favors...that he'd been massively selfish about generosity." There's a man named David Cusk who is plagued by a sweating problem (hyperhydrosis), and only intense concentration on a single external focal point will prevent a sweating attack.* A fellow named Chris Fogle, whose drug use increases his awareness, likens his calling to work for the IRS to a religious awakening (more on this in a minute).** A character we meet at the end literally levitates as he concentrates on an incredibly boring story an attractive woman is telling him. And a David F. Wallace appears as a character. David F. Wallace also happens to be our narrator, explaining how he came to write the book we're holding. His sections are fantastic examples of Wallace's (the novelist, not the character) unique gift to make it seem as though he is talking directly to the reader; that reading is actually a dialogue, not a one-way information download.
But back to Fogle, whose 100-page "memoir" is the highlight of the novel. It's probably the most polished, complete part and it's the one section where the themes of boredom, concentration and awareness all come together. Fogle tells us about his college-hopping and drifting, and his father's death after getting his arm caught in an El train in Chicago — which is one the better-written, most riveting scenes I've ever read in a novel. Fogle takes a drug called Obetrol which increases his awareness and concentration.*** The idea here is that by concentrating, one becomes more aware (enlightened?) and thus can deal with boredom. Or, is it that the more aware one becomes, the better able s/he is to concentrate, even on dull tasks, and thus not be bored by them. These circular puzzles, are of course, another Wallace signature — and one of the many things that make reading him so much damn fun.
As Fogle's story continues, the point he (and Wallace) is making is that dealing with boredom through some combination of awareness and concentration is a gift. "The fact is that there is probably just certain kinds of people who are drawn to a career in the IRS," Fogle tells us. But not only is dealing with boredom a gift, it's also heroic.**** Fogle, as a student at DePaul, accidentally wanders into a graduate level accounting class right before a final. The instructor gives his students a pep talk about their future careers in accounting, and Fogle is mesmerized to the point of being converted.
But these bigger chunks only make up a few of the 50 chapters of The Pale King. Much like in Infinite Jest — which, as other reviewers have pointed out, The Pale King is sort of a companion to; IJ dealt with entertainment, TPK deals with boredom — Wallace throws out a lot of pieces of stories in different forms and lenghths, and assumes you'll trust him to reveal eventually how they're related, thematically or by plot. But since Wallace didn't live to arrange these how he'd have liked, the connection to the whole isn't always clear. Some of these are fantastic. Some are as dull as Wallace hopes you'll believe an IRS examiner's job to be. For these smaller pieces, you really do have to read in the moment — enjoying Wallace for Wallace. If you like him, you'll also like most of this. I really, really did.*****
*"As Cusk discovered the year after his grades had jumped in high school, his chances of an attack could be minimized if he paid very close and sustained attention to whatever was going on outside of him."
**(This quote doesn't so much illustrate the point above as it is just tangentially related or is a set-up for the "religious" experience Fogle has later. I include it here because it's awesome and made me laugh and nod my head in agreement.) "Fervent Christians are always remembering themselves as — and thus, by extension, judging everyone else outside their sect to be — lost and hopeless and just barely clinging to any kind of interior sense of value or reason to go on living before they were 'saved.'"
***It had something to do with paying attention and the ability to choose what I paid attention to, and to be aware of that choice, the fact that it's a choice. I'm not the smartest person, but even during that whole pathetic, directionless period, I think that deep down, I knew that there was more to my life and myself than just the ordinary psychological impulses for pleasure and vanity that I let drive me."
****"Gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism."
*****Of course, the alternate meaning of "reading in the moment" here is that I never wanted this book to end — not because it's the best novel I've ever read or because I was super attached to a character or for any reason at all having to do with the book itself. I read in the moment but because I knew as soon as I finished, I'd never read another new word from my favorite writer. That's just an impossibly sad idea to try to comprehend.