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the pale king: a review

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Here’s a review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King by, well, you can figure it out… Lots about bureaucracy in there, no? Really like the image (above) they put with it…

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 25, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Posted in dfw

17 Responses

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  1. Btw, obviously lots and lots of people have figured out who I am, which is mostly fine. But this is officially, after nearly a decade of blogging at one site or another, that I’ve made it explicit.

    Whatever. Wish I knew what it meant to do that.


    April 25, 2011 at 1:36 pm

  2. And actually, the picture above does beg an interesting question about the gendering of DFW’s novel. Will have to look into the m/f IRS ratios…


    April 25, 2011 at 1:38 pm

  3. Nice piece. Is it the Guardian’s inhouse style to refer to him as “Foster Wallace”? Makes him seem strangely British.

    dan visel

    April 25, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    • Dan,

      Seems so. I overlooked that change in the proof. Might or might not have raised an objection to it. I certainly prefer Wallace.


      April 27, 2011 at 11:45 am

  4. I don’t think the accounting lecturer is actually a Jesuit, given that he was dressed in street clothes, nor — I suspect — was the priest he was substituting for likely a Jesuit. DePaul is a Vincentian institution, and there is an actual Jesuit university in Chicago, Loyola. I may be wrong here, but I assume the majority of priest-professors would’ve been from the actual sponsoring order of the university. He’s likely calling the professor a Jesuit just because of the associations between Jesuits and education.

    Many other aspects of the narration of sec. 22 was also off — for instance, calling commuter trains from the suburbs the “CTA.”

    My assumption is that DFW was getting these details wrong on purpose, perhaps to emphasize the shift in the narrator’s life from his listless condition to greater focus — he views his previous phase of life through his newly focused, detail-oriented eyes, but he wasn’t actually paying enough attention back then for the details to be right.

    Adam Kotsko

    April 25, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    • Arghh! Good point, and one that Catholic educated me should have picked up on. Interesting possibility that you raise with regard to the narrator’s “errors” in that chapter… Really interesting, actually.

      (Sort of reminds me of some of the strange stuff in McCarthy’s The Road where I still can’t for the life of me figure out whether things like brief and unexplained lapses into the first person are intentional or an error… Fills up seminar time at any rate….)


      April 27, 2011 at 11:47 am

      • Oh, and by the way Adam, big time congrats with regard to the job – that’s excellent, a near miracle in this environment, but on the other hand extremely deserved in your case.


        April 27, 2011 at 11:53 am

  5. The central premise is equally confused and I don’t think this is deliberate on his part. He seems to conflate computerisation with managerialistic attempts to squeeze more productivity with some weird opposition between fairness and revenue maximisation.

    Given that DFW isn’t very coherent on this, what do you think his argument, clearly stated, would ideally be?

    The heroic stuff in section 22 is narrated in what for me is a slightly mocking, sentimentalising tone, but many people seem to have taken it at face value. I think he is taking the observation already made in IJ & in some of his other stuff that idealises his strange idea of ‘simple’ people and archly derides any form of work that is commercial (like the Mr Squishy story), and then tried to find a framing device that would give him a plot engine.

    The opponents of managerialism have continually had a problem of defining what can oppose it. You say it’s an “incredibly convincing advertisement on behalf of government itself”, but is it a defence of bureaucracy? Does opposition to managerialism (which everyone hates) merely amount to this?


    April 25, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    • I think there might be a distinction in this case to be made between managerialism and bureaucracy, perhaps only a small one. But overall the issue is that due to Reagan’s economic policies, the IRS is forced into the revenue maximization model in order to cover the gap between increased spending / dramatically lower taxes.

      I agree with you about the tone in 22 – and perhaps this has something to do with with Adam’s said above. I think you’re right about the idealization of simple people, but I guess I think TPK is an interesting attempt to connect that up with a sort of politics. Simplicity isn’t quite the right word for what’s going on but it’s close.

      Yes, I think it’s a defense of bureaucracy, definitely. I think I need to hear more about the distinction that you’re making between managerialism and bureaucracy – and then I might have more to say…


      April 27, 2011 at 11:53 am

      • So old-school bureaucracy is having strict roles and well defined jobs and hierarchy, with each level in the hierarchy having a reasonable amount of autonomy over the level below. It is not very transparent (hence Kafka, etc). This rigidity had advantages (you could get to know the postman or clerk and they could forgive you the odd stamp or fix a problem for you).

        Managerialism is making all levels more exposed to scrutiny (hence all of kpunk’s form filling in his book), often in generic “business” ways that aren’t properly adapted to the task at hand. So your bosses’s boss can check up on him in new ways. Nowhere to hide, no chance to give special treatment when it is the fairer thing to do. Quantified indicators are preferred over more amorphous concepts like a public service ethos. Often accompanied by casualisation as per you Post Office post, although not always.

        Apart from general productivity, an advantage of managerialism is that in theory it can identify and prevent people abusing their professional autonomy:
        but it also makes working life much less pleasant.

        DFW’s treatment doesn’t make sense because there’s not much ‘professional judgement’ to picking out forms for audit, it’s really a number crunching exercise (or a tip-off). There’s no public service ethos which is in conflict with revenue maximisation. There’s no real relation between the Reagan thing and the sort of ‘speed up’ and surveillance made possible by computers.

        So I don’t see anywhere that DFW is defending the bureaucratic in the Weberian sense, maybe he was going to, but what we are left with is similar to reminiscing about slide rules versus electronic calculators.


        April 27, 2011 at 1:18 pm

      • “There’s no public service ethos which is in conflict with revenue maximisation. There’s no real relation between the Reagan thing and the sort of ‘speed up’ and surveillance made possible by computers.”

        Sure there is! That’s the basic institutional drama that’s playing out in the work. The IRS could be seen as an institution designed in service of justice and fair play, but instead it is transformed into one that thinks first and last about the bottom line. It’s something like taking the police force and telling them to slim down on, say, domestic violence interdiction and instead just do speeding tickets, as the latter makes money for the municipality and the other doesn’t.

        Or… closer to home, refunctioning (say) a university into one that primarily does MAs for high-fee paying foreign students rather than the public-service oriented though not all that lucrative education of undergraduates.

        I give you that the IRS is a different sort of institution, and in a perfect case the revenue / public service might be one and the same (i.e. ALL taxes collected). (On the other hand, it’d be expensive – that’s sort of the point – there’s some point on the curve that maximizes ratio of income to the cost of generating that income….) This is where the computers come in in the novel: they are machines for profit maximization rather than the pursuit of accuracy and fairness.

        Look, I’ll give you the fact that the relationship is a bit murky and somewhat stretched. But you have to see that all sorts of state institutions are shifting (being shifted) from expensive / just models of public service to cost-cutting or revenue generating business models – yep, the managerialism you describe.


        April 27, 2011 at 1:37 pm

      • God I hate how wordpress arranges the comments. What happened to good old chronological one after the other arrangement?


        April 27, 2011 at 1:38 pm

      • And of course it’s not the case that computerization is inevitably aligned with the worst. One could program the computers to seek out justice solutions rather than profitable ones. It does seem to be the case, however, that often enough the one is aligned with the other – or at least with “rationalization” in general, which is in turn in most cases linked to revenue generation / cost management.


        April 27, 2011 at 1:42 pm

  6. [I]s this a novel Foster Wallace could actually have finished? Even if his personal circumstances had been different, would there ever have been a way to sustain such detail without completely breaking the attention spans of readers?

    Modern vs. modernist readers might be a useful distinction here. Being a latter-day Proust or Musil isn’t necessarily something to aspire to, but whichever scholar said The Man Without Qualities was an “occasional novel” might say something similar of The Pale King — which, admittedly, I’ve yet to finish because I’m reading it as exactly that. From what I know of its composition — from our mutual friend, at least I think you know her, at Pomona — that’s how it went as well: he would work feverishly on the novel, put it down for months, work feverishly on it, etc. I’m not saying that its mode of production is somehow visible, formally, in the “finished” product — haven’t read enough of it to make such a claim — but in what I have read, the episodic nature of the narrative could be seen as a product of its stop-start composition, with the same idea being approached at a slightly different angle, etc.


    April 26, 2011 at 2:36 am

  7. Yeah, good point about the way he was producing it. On the other hand, even if the form is occassional / episodic now, my sense is that he was aiming for a “whole” work. Do you think differently? After all, when I write even a review like this one, my process is to sort of chip around for good lines, the interesting bit, and then later fill in the connective tissue etc.


    April 27, 2011 at 11:55 am

    • Do you think differently?

      Again, I’m only about 75 pages in, so I should bite my tongue, but … given his commitment to short form brilliance in his journalism and Oblivion, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he’d reoriented his talents to a narrower scope and was having difficulties telescoping them back out. Obviously I’m being impressionable here, but as a once and future Joycean, the idea that an author’s depth of field racks long and short isn’t altogether unfamiliar. (Point being, I’ll finish the book on the plane, and we can discuss this at length in July.)


      April 27, 2011 at 10:12 pm

  8. Yes, that’s why the IRS is about the worst example the could have chosen. The only example in that area that springs to mind is deciding not to impose a recovery because the stress could kill someone with a heart condition, or they needed the money for a life-saving operation. Revenue maximisation would normally target the higher earners and take the pressure off the little guy. Another thing he could have done is somebody wanting to go after a well connected corporation fiddling its taxes and being told not to by the hierarchy, but maybe that was too Bourne Identity for DFW. Or closer to home for DFW, talk therapies vs. more measurable and ‘productive’ drug therapies.

    Anyway, the point is that managerialism is a very difficult genie to put back in its bottle. It’s a whole different thing to say ‘the old way had its attractions’ (more discretion and autonomy, bean-counters kept in their place, less stress, more focus on the task in hand) to getting managers to give up their (often illusory) instruments of control, now that they have them. That would be a defence of bureaucracy I would find interesting.


    April 27, 2011 at 2:16 pm

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