In Pale King—which is shorter and almost never boring—Wallace breaks boredom into its component parts: routine, repetition, pointless formalism, frustration, claustrophobia, the fear of being alone with oneself, the experience of being overwhelmed by irrelevant detail, the nagging sense of being inadequate to the task, the endlessness of it all.
As that list suggests, just because Wallace thought it necessary to tolerate boredom doesn’t mean he thought it easy to do so. He may have had a cultural critique to advance, but he was still a novelist, and a very funny one at that. So some of the shorter pieces here amount to case studies in endurance. One very short chapter is a list of “syndromes/symptoms” associated with having been required to examine tax returns for more than 36 months in a row: “Chronic paraplegia, Temporary paraplegia, Temporary paralysis agitans, Paracatatonic fugues,” and so on. You aren’t required actually to read this list—it’s more a typographic joke than a text to be parsed. Another chapter is a brief news item about a tax return examiner who died at his desk on a Tuesday and went unnoticed till Saturday night. A three-page chapter consists of the cumulatively droll repetition of sentences like these, meant to describe a day at the tax center: “‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle turns a page. Howard Cardwell turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page… ‘Groovy’ Bruce Channing attaches a form to a file.””
She’s pictured with the guy she loves now—whom she’s loved for a while, he presumes. The guy is tall, has dark hair, is enrolled at Harvard Law, was born Jewish. Everything he is not. He imagines it’s a recent photo. She looks up to the new guy, a champagne glass in her hand. The little black dress every girl needs. She’s sporting heels. These days she’s able to wear heels, something she couldn’t do with him. He’s glad to see her in heels, happy.
One touch. Then turn. Then open the defense. Then, gliding down your private corridor as the backs go screaming out, you slide in slow motion as you score, again, in the heroic present tense. As Cantona says, that’s what it’s all about. Like boxing and the blues it’s the poor man’s art. It’s where the millions possess a gift as vital as it is vicarious. While Fergie chews and struts like Bonaparte, we see the pride of London be stiffed and the victory falls on the Republic, us.
But Eric, what about that Monsieur Hyde? Your second half who shows his studs, his fangs, his disdain? Who gets sent off then nearly sent inside? The scene at Selhurst where you Ty Cobb-ed a hooligan named Simmons?
Leave thuggery to thugs and use your brain.
Now choose the stop before the ball arrives. Now chest it, tee it, volley from the D. Now Wimbledon, like extras, simply look. And even those doubters, detractors must agree: this luxury is why the game survives: this poetry that steps outside the book.