Conventional wisdom pronounced that Team USA would face a quick death in this year’s World Cup: drawing into the “group of death”; no superstar players; Coach Klinsmann’s pessimistic prognosis of his team’s chances. But Team USA survived (just barely) to advance to the “knock-out” stage and so too, The Pale King to face-off Belgium’s, The Misfortunates.
A few years after his death and much later than really serious readers of contemporary American literature, I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I had mixed feelings before starting. I’ve always loved fat, dense novels—tomes of 700 plus pages are, by their very nature, projects, commitments, not something that you undertake on a whim and works that challenge your perseverance. But, experimental fiction left me cold—the effort to do something different (dare I say novel?) was too apparent, overwhelming the characters and the story. When I reached the last of its 980 pages (plus 95 pages of (very small print) endnotes), I admired Infinite Jest. I did not always enjoy reading Infinite Jest. And in any case, I was certain that I had read enough DFW to last my lifetime. Then I drew The Pale King in the 2014 World Cup of Literature . . .
On its face The Pale King is about the Internal Revenue Service and a bureaucratic snafu that creates a case of mistaken identity between two IRS employees named David F. Wallace. The characters orbit a back-story involving the mismanagement of tax returns and an IRS regional processing center’s bungled cover-up. (I don’t think that Lois Lerner read The Pale King.) But do not read The Pale King if you are looking for a novel with a strong plot. What you will find are fully drawn characters who feel alive and true, with their various neuroses, skin conditions, glandular disorders, and hardship enduring the consistent drudgery of the Service. These people (mostly men) are boring. Their work is boring. And DFW’s slow, granular descriptions, use of repetition and bureaucrat-speak make the tedium of their lives palpable. The labyrinthine IRS procedures and protocols depicted are absurd. But for these “anti-actors” adherence to them is a test of will, even heroic. Weak will is failure.
I worked for a number of years as a GS-9 and GS-11 (I never got to ride in a government repossessed Gremlin), and as I recall, my federal agency was less grim and more sensible than that depicted in the pages of The Pale King. But when your topic is the IRS, artistic license allows, even demands, some exaggeration. And this is a funny book. The Pale King is every bit as brilliant as Infinite Jest but its focus is the mendacity of office work, a world more familiar than Quebec separatists, elite tennis academies, and movies that inflict mind controlling paralysis and death on unsuspecting viewers. And, this, I think, makes it a better book.
And the writing is great: immediate, but not urgent; technical, but accessible; overly descriptive, but entertaining. All of the opposing elements combine to create something extraordinary, like eating something that is both sweet and salty. Obviously The Pale King could (should) have been written with more economy, but the effect would have been diminished. The time and attention given to the characters’ emotions, impressions and thoughts made them mine, as well. Self-doubt, pride, paranoia, hubris and many of the feelings that equate to being human, are acutely felt.
The Misfortunates is a collection of short stories about a very poor, beer-addled family in a small Flemish town, a place that I imagine as similar to the Appalachian village (yes was and still is today, officially, a “village”) where I grew up. Only in Arsendegem, the beer has to be better than Schaefer Light!
The book’s eponymous narrator, Dimitri Verhulst, shares a dozen or so tales from his childhood and early adulthood: misadventures about town, all involving mind-boggling amounts of alcohol, mostly beer. The Verhulst’s are very poor, and when the men of the house take up work from time to time, it is for the single purpose of paying-up their tab at the local pub. Dima’s mother abandons him to his grandmother, father and uncles when he is only ten. Despite the poverty, motherless childhood, and general, non-malicious neglect, Dima’s life is not particularly sad, and his story does not follow the well-trod path of an alcoholic father begetting a damaged son. Instead, Dima is loved by his grandmother and her brood of four sons—he is “our Kid,” and this brings cohesion and a weird normalcy to Dima’s life. It’s refreshing when we see Dima at the end of the book, mostly sober, mostly stable and with a woman that he really loves. The Misfortunates and The Pale King both are very funny. In The Misfortunates, the laughs are copious and frequently ribald, and translator David Colmer deserves kudos for translating Danish humor into sharp, colloquial English. (By contrast, The Pale King’s humor is dry and requires the reader to excavate the text (including the footnotes) carefully in order not to miss some of the funniest bits.) The Misfortunates is good fun, and I encourage you to read it (preferably over a beer or two). I look forward to reading more from Verhulst.
Final score: USA 3 – Belgium 1
The Misfortunates scored some fast, hard laughs, but The Pale King kicked it na gaveta with the undeniable talent of DFW whose fiction reshaped what American literature is and what it can be. Maybe Team USA can do the same for US soccer.
Lori Feathers is an attorney who lives in Dallas, Texas with her two, fat English bulldogs and (not-fat) boyfriend. She is a member of the Board of Deep Vellum Publishing in Dallas.
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