The next few bits of TPK unpacked for your reading pleasure:
Section 6 (36-43):
Section 6 introduces two new characters, Lane Dean and his girlfriend, Sheri, as they struggle to come to a big decision in their lives. We swiftly figure out-- without Wallace overlty telling us-- that the decision is about whether or not Sheri is going to get an abortion. As in a lot of Wallace, here we're trapped within one character's head as they think certain things and then interrogate those thoughts.
Oddly enough, given the subject matter, it is Lane Dean's head we are trapped in and not Sheri's. Sheri, in fact, remains largely opaque throughout the chapter, and the mystery over what she will say is what motivates Dean's rising meta-epistomological (sorry) hysteria. For you see, Dean and Sheri are devout Christians, met through their Church etc. but Dean finds himself really, really wanting Sheri to get an abortion, realizing he is not, in fact, in love with her, and trying to figure out how to subtly manipulate her into wanting an abortion too without ever making his own preferences clear.
It appears that the impulse to read Christianity into earlier sections of The Pale King was a good impulse on my part, as now that faith explicitly rises to the fore. Dean's passive-aggressive attempted manipulation of Sheri leads him to a crisis of faith. "He was starting to believe he might not be serious in his faith," Wallace writes, "He might be somewhat of a hypocrite, like the Assyrians in Isaiah, which would be a far greater sin than the appointment." This is a bit strange as the Assyrians are not the hypocrites in Isaiah, the Jews are (the Assyrians are the instrument of God's wrath, plundering Jerusalem to punish the Jews for their hypocrisy and drifting from the faith).
Assuming intentionality here for a moment, what we have is a portrait of a very devout person going through a crisis of faith, with a little hint that perhaps their faith wasn't as rock-solid to begin with. We also get this interesting thing going on where Lane Dean really wants Sheri to get an abortion, but cannot face the thing he wants, nor call it by name.
The crisis builds when LD Jr. realizes that he cannot tell Sheri he doesnt' love her, a failure on his part that leads straight to thoughts of hell:
She believed he was good, serious in his values. Part of him seemed willing to more or less just about lie to someone with that kind of faith and trust and what did that make him? How could suck a type of individual even pray? What it really felt like was a taste of the reality of what might be meant by hell. Lane Dean had never believed in hell as a lake of fire or a loving God consigning folks to a burning lake of fire-- he knew in his heart that this was not true... but sitting here beside this girl as unknown to him now as outer space, waiting for whatever she might say to unfreeze him, now he felt like he could see the edge or outline of what a real vision of hell might be.
Lane Dean Jr. then gets trapped in the kind of recursive thought loops Wallace specializes in. Dean is literally frozen, unable to move or make a choice or say or do anything. He is so stuck in poinderings the why of thoughts, and then pondering his answers to those quesitons that he cannot move forward. In this case, the question is why he is so desirous that Sheri get an abortion which leads him to the conclusion that he does not truly love her which then leads to a question about what love actually is and whether he as a college student actually has any idea what it means to be in love and whether or not maybe just maybe he actually is in love with her.
Wallace employs an interesting technique here at the end of describing action that's about to happen without telling us whether it actually happens or not. In this case he does it through Lane Dean Jr. having a moment of divine grace and a vision as to what is to come next. The moment of divine grace is seeing him and Sheri as Jesus might see them, feeling that he is not a hypocrite but "blind and groping, wanting to please God despite their inborn fallen nature." And then the vision is of Sheri turning to him and saying that she knows he doesn't love her and that she's not going to get the abortion but does not want anything from him.
The doubt expressed implicitly here is that the religious revelation is, of course, entirely self-serving. Lane Dean Jr. is letting himself off the hook here and then he's granted a vision in which he's left off the hook. Normally, I don't think the reader would be drawn to this level of doubt, but given the kind of thought-spirals Wallace engages with, we're invited to read each knew thought a character has through its opposite.
(Brief side note: Wallace was explicit in his nonfiction about being anti-abortion, although cagey about whether he thought the State should be involved in preventing it.)
(Second BSN: There's an interesting thing going on throughout this book where Wallace will leave out key verbs in sentences. For ex. on page 3: "It was still early yet and all the shadows wheeling right and shortening." Given Wallace's famed grammar stickiness, it's an interesting gesture to repeat all over the place.)
Section 7 (44-52):
Back to Sylvanshine, now in a van with a bunch of other IRS agents.
There are odd intentionality problems that arise with an unfinished-- which is to say, unfullyrevised-- text. For example, Sylvanshine says that he can't recall the names of the two forensic accountants sitting in front of him in the van. And we appear trapped within his POV. But on page 46, we get this: "The slicker of the two CIDs in the window had an almost kite-shaped face, both square and pointy at the cheek-bones and chin; Bondourant could feel the sharp pressure of his chin in his palm and the way the edge of the window's casement dug in a straight line between the bones of his elbow. Everyone but Sylvanshine knew where tehy'd all been and what htey'd been doing..." The sentence in bold is in Bondourant's POV, rendered in close third, before we go back to Sylvanshine (we know this because Sylvanshine can't remember Bondourant's name.)
So what's going on here? Mistake that would've been fixed through the editing process? Could DFW not figure out a way to give you Bondourant's name, given that Bondourant is about to get a little section entirely in his POV within this section? Is Wallace signaling simply that POV is going to be more in flux than it generally is in his work? Do these questions even matter?
Anyway, the thrust of this section is introducing more of what we're coming to realize will probably be the spine of the book, namely Sylvanishine's misadventures within the IRS. We we also learn why Sylvanishine is there, namely to prepare the way for his mentor Lehrl to come in and take over. He's secretly sussing out the department to see who is trustworthy or not, "cultivating good relations and uncluttered lines of communication for Merrill Lehrl to exploit when he arrived-- to mediate for Merrill Lehrl and to at once gather information on as many aspects and issues involved in the examination of the returns as possible..."
We also get some light comic business about the IRS. It turns out they're all riding in a seized van-- all their forms of transportation appear to be seized resources from other companies-- in this case, an ice cream truck. Yep, that's right. They're in an ice cream truck and it's really killed morale. Oh, and also the ice cream company? None other than Mr. Squishee. Is this is the first moment of intertextual reference within Wallace's work? I'm not sure, having not read all of it. I wonder whether the story predates this section or the other way around.
We also pass a billboard that says "It's Spring, Think Farm Safety." Remember this.
Anyway, then we switch into Bondourant's POV for a longer paragraph as he stares out the window and thinks back to his high school years and college years, about being a beloved baseball player and his girlfriend Cheryl Ann Higgs, who refused to fuck him on prom night but later was in a kind of obsessive relationship with him. Again, the attention theme: Bondourant can remember vividly what it felt like to score the winning home run for a key baseball game in college but cannot actually remember what it felt like to ahve sex with Cheryl for the first time, although he does remember "the look on Cheryl Ann Higgs's face as her posture and supine position became acquiescent and Bondurant had known he was home free as they say but had avoided her eyes because the expression in Cheryl Ann's eyes... was one of blank terminal sadness, not so much that of a pheasant in a dog's jaws as of a person who's about to transfer something he knows in advance he can never get sufficient return on." Yikes.
We return then to Sylvanshine and this rather hilarious (given what we already know of Sylvanshine's thought patters) statement: "Britton had, without any sort of throat-clearing or segue, asked Sylvanishine what he was thinking, which seemed to Sylvanshine grotesquely and almost obscenely inappropriate and invasive, rather like asking what your wife looked like naked or what your private restroom functions smelled like..." We then watch Sylvanshine watch Bondurant sink into the memory of Cheryl Ann, without knowing what the memory is. This is a great use of POV switching, as it teaches us about both characters simultaneously and gives us some information as to what Sylvanshine's assumptions about other people are, including his forgiveness for Britton's invasive questioning, as "creatures just did what they did."
Two other quick side notes: You get a lot more of DFW's love of jargon in this seciton, particularly on pages 47 and 48. The man just loved a good piece of industry insider-speak, no doubt. Second, Sylvanshine (and thus Wallace through him) keeps referring to the IRS as simply "the service." This might be what IRS agents actually do-- who knows?-- but it's interesting within the Christian threads of this novel that a tax collection agency is referred to in this way.
Section 7: 53-65
A few years back, writer and provocateur (to put it politely) Katie Roiphe penned a piece in the New York Times Book Review about how there's just not enough rogering going on in today's fiction. She has a sad that men these days don't write about fucking the way that, say, Philip Roth or John Updike did. She writes:
The younger writers are so self-conscious, so steeped in a certain kind of liberal education, that their characters can’t condone even their own sexual impulses; they are, in short, too cool for sex. Even the mildest display of male aggression is a sign of being overly hopeful, overly earnest or politically untoward. ..These are writers in love with irony, with the literary possibility of self-consciousness so extreme it almost precludes the minimal abandon necessary for the sexual act itself, and in direct rebellion against the Roth, Updike and Bellow their college girlfriends denounced. (Recounting one such denunciation, David Foster Wallace says a friend called Updike “just a penis with a thesaurus”).
Sigh... this is a real misreading of Wallace and his project as a writer, but you should just go read The Awl's very good response to/takedown of Roiphe here.
It should be said, though, that The Pale King has a lot mor schtupping than Wallace's other books, and thus far it is all deeply unpleasant. First we have the abortion-debate scene. Then we have the incredibly sad and bleak depiction of sex in the last seciton and now here we meet Toni Ware, a thirteen year old who drifts with her (perhaps mentally ill, perhaps drug addict) mother from trailer park to trailer park and who we come to learn has been raped on more than one occasion (rendered in a horrific and affecting deadpan prose) and is molested over the course of the chapter by a trucker.
There's a lot more to Toni Ware than that, of course. Toni-- often referred to as she or the girl or This Girl over the course of the story-- is a genius and somewhat of a badass. She finds subtle, untraceable ways to enact murderous revenge on her tormenters, including putting small pieces of asbestos cloth in someone's clothes dryer, wearing down a truck's breakline so that it will snap days later, fucking with a trailer's septic tank and more. She's awesome.
She is also the dark version of the boy met earlier in the novel. They're both geniuses, they're both guided by a kind of relentless precision. One of them is a monstrous model of Christian Kindness while the other is a dark avenging figure. You can guess which one is cooler.
I get the sense reading this section that Toni Ware is going to come back in a way I didn't with The Boy. This is perhaps because Toni first appears nearby the FARM SAFETY sign that Sylvanshine sees out his window. Or it might simply be that she's compelling enough I can't imagine Wallace (or his editor who assembled the book after Wallace's death) letting her go that easily.
Also this chapter is plot driven in a way no other section of the novel thus far is. We get years of backstory, actual inciting incidents and rising action and all sorts of other plot-related things. The chapter begins with Ware and several other girls creeping out into the midwestern dark to watch her mom fuck someone in a car. From there, we spiral back through a series of flashbacks detailing how Ware got to Peoria. The bulk of the chapter is given over to a particular late night ride in a truck (acquiered first by hitchhiking and later by theft) which then allows the novel space to flashback to various parts of Ware's backstory. We also modulate between being in close third (in third person but really in the character's head) and a more distant third person. Unlike in other sections of the book, we can't stay trapped in Ware's subjectivity the whole time. One gets the sense this is because then Wallace couldn't move the plot forward but also perhaps because Ware is both a child and a woman and that's a difficult POV for Wallace to remain within.
More fragmented sentences abound ("Her inner life rich and multivalent.") And we also get another one of Wallace's great Tragi-Comic Depictions Of Someone Spiraling Out Of Control. In this case, it's Toni Ware's grandmother, who thought that Jack Benny was sending brain waves out to control her mind and thus covered her house in an interlocking armor of electrified hubcaps that ended up electrocuting neighborhood birds.
As of now, I'm deeply intrigued as to what's going on with The Pale King and loving the individual sections themselves and wondering what will happen as some of these threads start to intersect. I know Wallace's fiction writing well enough to know that whatever happens will not be conventionally satisfying as a narrative, but I'm also pretty sure some braiding is going to start happening, and I look forward to it.