Accountability: I review “The Pale King”

Accountability: I review “The Pale King” May 24, 2020

at the University Bookman:

At a certain point you realize that David Foster Wallace is as much a horror writer as Stephen King, and the monsters under his bed are twins: absorption and distraction. Infinite Jest, Wallace’s massive 1996 masterpiece, has as its ouroboros spine the story of a video so absorbing that it destroys the people who watch it. In Jest characters are absorbed by addiction, depression, and the screen-mediated entertainment that is symptom, cause, and synecdoche of both. But they’re also absorbed by tennis and its discipline; friendship and maybe love; and the process of twelve-step recovery, where you’re swallowed up by the old-timer “Alligators” and spend the rest of your life, if you’re lucky, nestled safely in their leathery guts. Jest is about, among other things, how easy it is for our attention to become captured by the wrong things. And attention is the microcosm of the soul.

In The Pale King Wallace returned to this theme. King, published posthumously in 2011, was left as a pile of notes and computer files at the author’s death and arranged into a somewhat schematic but undeniably compelling order by Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor. It is about paying attention, the horror of paying attention to the wrong thing, and the search for some possible right thing to attend to—the search for a good absorption. And it is also about a subject the normal person’s attention slides right off of: the assessment principles and procedures of the Internal Revenue Service.


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