Reading Note:
A Preliminary Concern About The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace

In the middle of his rich and warm appraisal of The Pale King and its author, David Foster Wallace,”Too Much Information,” John Jeremiah Sullivan argues that Wallace was a man who knew too much, one whose consciousness grasped more than could be comfortably borne. 

Wallace’s beat-by-beat breakdown of what happens to a table full of ordinary men and women when an extremely physically attractive person sits down (in this case, at the bar where the IRS workers hang out) is both painful and darkly humorous, an example of what I was trying to say about his observational power, and of how discouraging it must have often been to find yourself stuck in Wallace’s head, not in the illness of it, but in the clarity of it:

Sullivan then quotes a chunky passage* from the novel (you will find it in the middle of this page) that, if nothing else, reads like a gifted field naturalist’s notes. The effect of a beautiful woman on a table of men (with a few more ordinary women among them) is not only observed but captured, so that the brio of the men’s display (sometimes manifest as the discernible pretence of no display) is matched by the brio of the writing. 

Some of the male examiners are, by the second round of pitchers, performing for Meredith Rand, even if the performance’s core consists of making a complex show of the fact that they are not performing for Meredith Rand or even especially aware that she’s at the table.

There is something diminishing, almost tragic, about what happens to these men when Meredith Rand takes a seat among them. They could be deer, or any other animals that fall into a competitive frenzy when presented with a sexual challenge. We’re told that Rand makes the men “self-conscious,” and it’s clear that the scope of this consciousness, while intense, is reduced. As indeed Wallace puts it in a metaphor at the beginning of the passage, the men are “involved in a game whose stakes have suddenly become terribly high.” They’re self-conscious insofar as they are themselves the pieces in the game that they have fallen into playing. Their consciousness is in any case limited — focused, concentrated —  to the rules and play of a game. They have become a great deal less conscious than the observer, who is conscious of all of them. Perhaps — this might be what Sullivan is trying to say — Wallace’s gift (or curse) was to remain fully conscious even in circumstances such as these; while ordinary men were obliged to narrow their view to exclude everything but the elements of a problem (how to win the regard of Meredith Rand), he could watch himself pretending not to jockey for attention, and not lose sight of their doing the same thing. 

To me, however, the passage suggested not a hypertrophic consciousness but a mislaid one. 

It is undoubtedly a valuable cognitive nugget to savor the way in which these men pursue by pretending to ignore the object of their pursuit. Indeed, “pursuit” seems wrong. The men are more like girls at a prom, making a great show of admiring each others’ pretty party dresses while apparently turning their backs to the boys. Perhaps there is, finally, no gender issue here at all: Wallace is merely describing what hip, intelligent people of either sex do. He doesn’t go into why they do what they do (not here, anyway), but that’s no mystery: the smart person’s first response to the arrival of another smart person who happens also to be attractive (for any reason and for any purpose in the world) is to make it clear that he or she, the first person, leads a life that would interest the attractive person. Smart people know that good relationships require mutual regard. The moment a smart person perceives an attraction to another smart person, the fact itself loses all interest; it’s time to move on to the next question: will that attraction be reciprocated. Stupid people are often quite preoccupied by the fact of their own attraction to someone else. Young people, who start out stupid, always begin by thinking that it’s wonderful to be in love with someone. Smart people know better. Smart people pretend that Meredith Rand isn’t there because they already know that and are busy making an appeal to someone who can’t be acknowledged. 

This is all very interesting; but is it fiction? Fiction writing, I mean. Has Wallace shown us anything that hasn’t been captured in any number of movies made over the past ten or fifteen years? It would be nice to point to an example, but the grip that today’s filmmakers have on this kind of social observation is so firm that it would probably be difficult to find a smart romantic comedy or recent vintage that does not present men pretending to ignore the object of their pursuit. That is where the laughs lie today; as in a sort of updated Candid Camera, today’s romantic comedies set out to capture images of bogus and disingenuous behaviors and to label them clearly for the audience. It seems to me that film is a better medium for this kind of reporting, if for no other reason than that it’s likety to reach many people who don’t read serious fiction (or essays about the curiosities of cognition). If you’re going to write about this sort of thing, though, then keep going, and do the anthropology. And then, figure out what to call it. 

You can see that Wallace was worried about what he was doing in the sentence that precedes Sullivan’s extract: “The specifics of these sorts of changes are familiar enough to everyone not to spend time enumerating.” This sentence, with its startlingly awkward constructiion, would certainly have been rubbed out had Wallace lived to complete The Pale King. How much else would have gone with it? 

*As if by some sort of miracle, when I opened the novel in search of this passage, I found myself at the beginning of §46, three pages from the one on which the passage appears, 447.