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Joshua HrenAugust 05, 2022
David Foster Wallace reading at All Saints Episcipal Church in San Francisco in 2006 (Steve Rhodes/Wikimedia Commons).

“We—under our own nihilist spell—seem to require of our writers an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to...make jokes of profound issues.”

-David Foster Wallace (Review of Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky)

“‘Irrelevant Chris’ is irrelevant only on the subject of himself?”

-David Foster Wallace (notes for The Pale King)

David Foster Wallace strung gallows humor throughout much of his final, unfinished novel The Pale King. A short section entitled “IRS Worker Dead for Four Days” queries “why no one noticed that one of their employees had been sitting dead at his desk for four days before anyone asked if he was feeling all right.” The deceased’s supervisor supplies the painful punch line: “He was very focused and diligent, so no one found it unusual that he was in the same position all that time and didn’t say anything.”

Something to Do With Paying Attentionby David Foster Wallace

McNally Editions
152p $18

Something to Do With Paying Attention, a standalone novella culled from The Pale King’s 1,100 pages, is decidedly not devoted to bureaucracy’s banal hilarities. Instead, it renders the improbable-but-believable reformation of “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle, a self-described 1970s “wastoid” who discovers his calling to the I.R.S. when he mistakenly wanders into a DePaul University tax class taught by a “fearful Jesuit.”

David Foster Wallace strung gallows humor throughout much of his final, unfinished novel The Pale King.

The priest summons his students to a new species of valor found within the invisible army of I.R.S. accountants. Here, stripped of fanfare or histrionic pomp, heroic feats are accomplished by “you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer.”

In the wake of his own father’s horrific accidental death on a Chicago Transit Authority train, the restless Fogle finds solace and direction through the priest, the “first genuine authority figure I had ever met.” The priest was someone who proved that “real authority was not the same as a friend or someone who cared about you, but nevertheless could be good for you….” Such authority, though not “‘democratic’ or equal…could have value for both sides.”

Judith Shulevitz of Slate considers Fogle’s experience “the most unusual conversion experience in confessional narrative,” and she may be right. But Wallace weighs down the graceful arc of conversion, making us wonder whether grand retellings of impactful past events are reliable or driven by self-delusion. The text is tempered by contrapuntal tensions; almost constantly the reader is pulled in two directions—sincere belief and resigned skepticism—inducing a kind of elevated attention.

Wallace deliberately parallels “irrelevant” Chris Fogle’s own dramatic reorientation with the conversion story of his college roommate’s girlfriend. “Fervent Christians,” Fogle claims, “are always remembering themselves as…lost and hopeless and just barely clinging to any kind of interior sense of value or reason to even go on living before they were ‘saved.’”

According to the roommate’s (nameless) girlfriend, prior to her conversion, she too was a “wastoid.” Listless, one day she wandered into an evangelical service just as the preacher announced that “there is someone out there with us in the congregation today that is feeling lost and hopeless and at the end of their rope and needs to know that Jesus loves them very, very much.”

In her shared dorm lounge, the girlfriend describes her spiritual rehabilitation, her certainty of being unconditionally known and loved. Fogle pushes back, reminding her that “pretty much every red-blooded American” during the “late Vietnam and Watergate era felt desolate and disillusioned and unmotivated and directionless and lost.” To him the preacher’s proclamation that someone in the congregation “is feeling lost and hopeless” dovetails with a drugstore horoscope, whose “universally obvious” prophecies exploit that “special eerie feeling of particularity and insight…. Most people are narcissistic and prone to the illusion that their problems are uniquely special.”

Something to Do With Paying Attention, a standalone novella culled from The Pale King’s 1,100 pages, is decidedly not devoted to bureaucracy’s banal hilarities.

Here, just as Fogle’s college-age sneering reaches the high point of demystification, his grown-up, retrospective self questions the motives of his youthful, knee-jerk nihilism. In hindsight, Fogle concedes, he “actually liked despising” the convert, a sport that sharpened his own cynicism and delivered the dopamine rush of feeling “superior to narcissistic rubes like these two so-called Christians.”

Like a latter-day Augustine looking back at adolescence, “Irrelevant” Fogle finds that he—though a “feckless” failure—was somehow “nearly always the hero of any story or incident I ever told people,” something that “makes me almost wince now.”

But the central question that the novella leaves artfully unanswered is whether Fogle’s own “conversion” from nihilist to accountant was founded on premises as vulnerable as those advanced by the “so-called Christian.” Fogle’s arc, too, opened on the “lost and hopeless.” Wasting away slouched on a couch, spinning a soccer ball on his finger while watching “As The World Turns,” Fogle became lucidly cognizant of the world turning around him, of people “with direction and initiative” who didn’t squander hours readjusting the antenna with hopes of siphoning televisual treats.

“Whatever a potentially ‘lost soul’ was, I was one—and it wasn’t cool or funny,” says Fogle. At once he knew, “sitting there, that I might be a real nihilist”—a condition defined by being, “in a way, too free, or that this kind of freedom wasn’t actually real—I was free to choose ‘whatever’ because it didn’t really matter.”

Then Fogle stumbles across the Jesuit lecturer (that the Jesuit is a substitute teacher underscores the chance nature of the encounter). A priest whose hands help turn unleavened bread into the Light of the World, he is also an expert on advanced taxation—combining in one person both the secularly dull and the sacrosanct sublime. While Wallace describes the Jesuit as “pale in a way that seemed luminous instead of sickly,” the priest’s focus is entirely this-worldly.

A Ciceronian orator of impressive stature, the priest displays the “same burnt, hollow concentration” as veteran soldiers who have seen “real war, meaning combat.” The A/V projector in the dimmed DePaul classroom lights his face from below, “which made its hollow intensity and facial structure even more pronounced.” With absolute poise, the Jesuit delivers a “hortation” of haunting, exhilarating pathos. Accounting, a supposedly soul-crushing job that demands submission to incalculable boredom, is, he insists, the site of “true heroism.”

True, “no one queues up to see it.” True, “there is no audience.” But “enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.” This is because, declares the priest, “the less conventionally heroic or exciting or adverting or even interesting or engaging a labor appears to be, the greater its potential as an arena for actual heroism, and therefore as a denomination of joy unequaled by any you men can yet imagine.” Souls “called to account” spend their lives “serv[ing] those who care not for service but only for results.”

This peroration marks a high point in the novella: after that the story keeps at bay any unconditional celebration of Fogle’s “calling.” It does not glorify the vocation of the I.R.S. employee. Fogle’s own sentiments eerily echo those of a traditional religious convert. He concludes that “much of what the father said or projected”—about the liberating “loss of options,” about the “the death of childhood’s limitless possibility”—“seemed somehow aimed directly at me.’”

In establishing an affinity between the novella’s two conversion narratives, Wallace juxtaposes the emotional subjectivism of the girlfriend’s fundamentalism with a distinctly Catholic devotion to reasoned truth (“Please note,” the priest clarifies, “that I have said ‘inform’ and not ‘opine’ or ‘allege’ or ‘posit.’”) If Fogle finds authentic authority and ethical self-abasement within the structures of the I.R.S., though, he lacks the reliably-transcendent religious categories by which the pale kingdom he enters must be measured. The fateful speech gains persuasive power from the priest’s cadence and “carriage” rather than his priestly collar. Does Wallace thereby mean to alert us to the distance between moral and spiritual conversions? The Jesuit’s diagnosis of Fogle’s false freedom is absolutely accurate, but does he unduly spiritualize secular work? When “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle enters the Service in search of the Jesuit’s promised “denomination of joy unequaled,” he seems destined to come up short, as only the beatific vision could bestow such peerless bliss.

Celebrating “Irrelevant’s” deliverance from “wastoid” nihilism, moved by a priest’s perfectly-pitched hard truths, we yet have reason to fear that during the happy holidays, Fogle wears a face akin to the “exhausted and disheveled” I.R.S. recruiter who appears late in the book. In the novella’s final, mysterious metaphor, the recruiter receives the aspirant Fogle’s filled-out forms with “the exact kind of smile of someone who, on Christmas morning, has just unwrapped an expensive present he already owns.” To the posthumous end, Wallace animates our attention: What rich gift does the recruiter already possess, and does it write off—in the balance sheet—his bedraggled appearance?

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