The framework of The Pale King is based on the late David Foster Wallace’s employment with the IRS as a tax examiner during the mid-1980s. As an aside, I find the IRS element particularly enjoyable and relevant, as my own stint with the IRS as an IRS Revenue Agent was in the early 1980s.
Wallace’s writing is extraordinary and reflects his brilliant and keen observation of the everydayness (and frequent dullness) of life. A great irony of The Pale King is that most readers probably can think of nothing more boring than reading about an IRS tax return examiner.
Nonetheless, there are dozens of notable excerpts and ideas from The Pale King worthy of a blog entry. For purposes of this post, I refer here only to the Wallace’s commentary about dullness (at page 85):
To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly… but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUV’s backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.
For additional commentary click here for the New York Times review of The Pale King.