An Excerpt of Commentary on DFW’s The Pale King, sections 8-13

Some errors below, but for posterity:

Section 8

Although I have yet to read all of DFW’s corpus, this may very well be the most heart-wrenching and depressing chapter of his narrative work (in my opinion, it surpasses (sub-passes?) even the grotesque descriptions of heroin withdrawal and digestive functions in IJ). In fact, it’s this section’s ability to convey narrative through subtlety and omission, rather than explicit detail, that makes it so impactful. Later sections will describe in horrifying accuracy what exactly befalls poor (literally impoverished, at the very least) Toni Ware and her mother, but it’s the awful hope we have for Toni, only to be dashed in later sections, that makes her plight so distressing and nauseating.

Re: Daniel’s excellent point that DFW’s use of POV impacts how we view Lane Dean: I think this technique comes to its climax here. From an objective point of view, Toni is literally a mass-murderer. She’s used shards of glass and/or sheets of asbestos to kill at least three people, and while one of these people is a rapist and another a potential rapist, it must be objectively admitted that this is a particularly ferocious brand of “justice.” (I may even have some pity for the boy so deranged that he’d be willing to proposition a girl while handling her sewage.) Yet having read little Toni’s murderous story, with its homeless and starving for 8 days under a cloud of ash (a rather obvious metaphor for DFW to have used, I think?), I can’t help but feel sympathy, and even some admiration, for this child. She’s a survivor. I’m curious to see if I’m just all-around too empathetic here, or if you all share some of these views.

I think one of DFW’s masterful tricks here is in the manipulation of our intuitive sense of narrative. The “American Story” is one of triumphing over obstacles, and we read Toni’s story with a sort of implicit contract with the author that she’s going to have some catharsis or victory. Instead, and I’ll avoid narrative spoilers here the best I can, she ends her story with a disgusting and absurd bit of petty fraud. Then again, maybe so does Lane Dean, and maybe so does CS, and maybe so does the Pale King himself.

This leads inevitably to the largest question regarding Ms. Ware, which is: what the hell is she doing in this book? She doesn’t seem to have any narrative connection to the IRS, or to any of the other characters (this is only my second read of the book, so if I’m missing something obvious, please call me out with all of the attendant scorn as would be appropriate), but lacking a clear narrative connection, the remaining conclusion must be that Toni W bears a thematic connection to our poor bumbling drones and ghosts and supernaturals at the IRS center in Peoria.

I’ll add one superficial narrative rhyme, which is that both the IRS and TW+mom seem to have an affinity for “repossessing” vehicles for which they are ill suited. Not sure the significance of this, but I welcome your thoughts. An ill-suited vehicle on an ill-suited journey for an ill-suited goal?

Without offering any real insight, I do want to take a moment and point out the genius of TW’s critique of “The Red Badge of Courage.” DFW knew, clearly, that true submersion in horror allowed for any means of escape, and that’s something Mr. Crane never seemed to grasp. (It reminds me of Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” where Christoph Waltz’s Nazi remarks how willing humans are to degrade themselves for the sake of survival.) Toni W is able to exist outside of herself, unblinking and unfeeling, to survive her traumas. The first time she’s raped, it appears that something was put in her pop (date rape drug, clearly), and she then seems to take that same sense of unfeeling and apply it to future situations which happen to her outside of her control. To survive, she stops feeling. To live, she stops living.

Dragging that thought out, I’m wondering if DFW’s goal was to draw an association between the horrors little Toni W faced and the horrors of daily droning under immense bureaucracy, which inevitably deprives its workers of agency or ambitions or feeling. On one hand, that seems incredibly uncaring, a cruel comparison between violation and boredom, but on the other hand – DFW suffered immensely from mental health issues, and I don’t know if anyone can blame him for trying to draw connections between the pain he suffered in his life and the pain suffered by IRS employees or homeless teenagers.

I pause in my writing of this because I’m disquieted by this association, the thought that perhaps Toni Ware and her sexual assault and poverty exist, narratively, simply as a foil, a reflection, of the oppression of the IRS – I welcome other interpretations!

(N.B.: after considering the grotesque symptoms listed in Section 11, I’m more inclined to have sympathy for a connection between Toni W and workers at IRS centers who have postings in excess of 36 months.)

Section 9

A tonal whiplash, as this is my favorite and most enjoyable section. It’s clear on reflection that the “author” here is separate from the actual human being DFW, but even so, I can’t help but to feel a friendly affinity for the man. In fact, if it weren’t for the absurd little bits (like the idea of the IRS assigning its agents a new SS number), this section is written so believably and emotionally that I’m often tempted to think of its author as the real DFW, as opposed to the character of DFW.

Before going into a deeper thematic or narrative analysis, I want to pause for a moment and discuss style. I’ve spent quite a while thinking about footnotes in particular and DFW’s use of them across his work. As I said, I haven’t read all of his work, but I’d like to point out three instances of heavy footnote use:

1) In IJ, DFW doesn’t use footnotes but endnotes, which I think constitute a crucial distinction. I welcome dissention, but I believe that the vast majority of IJ’s endnotes exist as bits of encyclopedic knowledge which serve to make the world more real, more lived in. However, as endnotes, they aren’t necessarily essential to the story and are often overlooked by readers.

2) In his non-fiction work “Everything and More: A Brief History of Infinity,” these footnotes serve to *humanize* the author (the actual DFW), who seems perpetually ashamed of his intellect. Some of his footnotes contain tangential bits of trivia, but many more of them add personality and pathos to the author.

3) Likewise in TPK, the footnotes exist only in very certain section, and then they exist, in the main, to humanize that author (the fictious one). It feels almost that the weight of his own existence is so painful that DFW has transmitted his essence into this fictional shell, doing his best to humanize it and therefore escape his own pain. It’s entirely possible that I’m projecting, but that’s my sense.

So we have an author who uses extra-clausal annotations frequently, particularly considering that DFW uses more clauses in his sentences than most authors, anyway. These most often exist to expand a thought, but specifically in such a way as to also convey emotion, tone, or personality.

Apropos of nothing, I’ll also add that there are a few sparks of grief in this section, such as when the “author” DFW discussed the final drafts of the manuscript, which of course never existed.

We start this section with an ironic lie: the idea that DFW never liked “cute, self-referential paradoxes,” and that the book is anything except a “clever metafictional titty-pincher,” which of course it is (magnificently so).

The section then accomplishes two primary goals. The first is to build sympathy for the fictional construct of DFW as he recalls his long and mostly-unjust journey to the IRS, during which he was punished by his college much more ferocity than his customers were.

Secondly, however, is a profound idea: that we’re afraid of “dullness” because silence fostered by dullness allows us to ruinate on our fears and deeper psychic pain. The implication therefore is that our only hope to stay happy is to avoid the silence of our fears.

I’m afraid I don’t have much to add here, though I suspect this section stirred emotions for many readers of the novel.

Section 10

While the next section makes it abundantly clear that I am neither a doctor nor a psychologist, this section reveals my lack of legal training.

So – I assume the “Fourth Appellate Court” is the same as the “Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals,” which operates out of Richmond and covers part of Maryland, North and South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia (per Wikipedia).

A Google search showed me a number of cases entitled Atkinson v. US, but none of them have decisions or dissents from a Justice Mealer, and they were in Texas (unknown appellate level), DC (the Fifth Circuit), Hawaii (Ninth Circuit), and the US Supreme Court.

Which begs the question – why did DFW chose the Fourth Circuit? Why the name HH Mealer? And most importantly – what does this quote, which exists only to be dissented from, do for the novel?

I suppose we can start with the fact that this quote is just silly and factually incorrect – as odious and labyrinthine as the US Government Bureaucracy surely is, it’s not larger that the US itself (the host to the parasite). Particularly in light of the fact that the bureaucracy of communist China or the USSR actually may have been larger than those countries, and this is almost certainly the case of, say, North Korea.

The only conclusion I see, therefore, is that the silly quote exists as a way to establish a silly truth in its reflection – that the bureaucracy (of which the IRS is an essential member) acts as a “parallel” system, operating as a puppet master on us poor citizens – and that, by metaphorical connection, the powers of the IRS operate as parallel puppet master on their droning employees.

These two points, the quote and its foil, lead to what DFW helpfully calls the “crucial part of the analogy” : the mastermind of this system of pullies and leavers is not uncaused.  Something larger than it, perhaps an uber-bureaucracy, is operating on the bureaucracy, which in turn operates on us (Bilderberg, anyone?).

I’ll add in full humility to DFW’s intellect, and cognizant that I may be missing the point entirely, that this section feels under-cooked. If his argument is indeed about a system pulling the levers of another, and that system itself being “not uncaused” and so presumably under the control of another larger system, then the key word “parallel” doesn’t fit nearly as well as something like “proportionally greater than” or “a shadow more powerful than it’s raison d’etre.” The word “parallel” seems to undercut his point.

Section 11

Few things make me quite as happy as the absurd use of abbreviations in the work of David Foster Wallace (TAUOAITWODFW), and “ACIRHRMSOEAPO” is one for the books.

I’m no doctor, and so on my first read of this book I simply gave the list a quick skim. I laughed at a few of the symptoms (I hope that’s an appropriate response?), but I didn’t recognize many of them.

For this analysis, then, I risked appearing anal and went through to decipher what I could, thanks to Google and my copy of the DSM IV (not having a DSM II handy).

“In reverse order of incidence”

Chronic paraplegia – (must be the last syndrome / symptom to appear): lower body paralysis, persistent or recurring.

Temporary paraplegia: temporary lower body paralysis

Temporary paralysis agitans: Parkinson’s Disease, which is not a “temporary” disease

Paracatatonic fugues: “a rare psychiatric disorder characterized by reversible amnesia for personal identity, including the memories, personality, and other identifying characteristics of individuality” (this one’s just from Wikipedia). My first chuckle of the section, as the idea of IRS work causing amnesia is just … wickedly, absurdly, gloriously funny (to me).

Formication: “the sensation that resembles that of small insects crawling on the skin” (Mayo Clinic)

Intracranial edema: Edema is puffiness caused by swelling, but this one in the brain. Sometimes fatal. Makes me think of a cartoon, where some angry office boss gets so angry that his head explodes.

Spasmodic dyskinesia: “disease caused by involuntary movements of one or more muscles of the voice box” (NIH). Again, laughing at the silent IRS processing room being disturbed by the random screeching and squawks of slowly un-hinging minds.  

Paramnesia: “a condition or phenomenon involving distorted memory or confusions of fact and fantasy, such as confabulation or déjà vu.” (

Paresis: Partial paralysis due to nerve or muscle damage

Phobic anxiety (numeral): This one made me laugh.  

Lordosis: Expected of people who sit too often, it’s an abnormal arch in the back

Renal neuralgia: Sharp nerve pain in the kidney (a quick google search suggests this one isn’t a particularly real diagnosis. Neuralgia is real, but I don’t see much evidence of it happening in the kidneys)

Tinnitus: Ringing in ears … an odd symptom for someone who works in an office that DFW elsewhere describes as unnaturally silent

Peripheral hallucinations: Perhaps not a symptom but simply a real ghost?

Torticollis: One of those symptoms that sounds horrible but also made me laugh out loud: “A rare condition in which the neck muscles contract, causing the head to twist to one side.” (Mayo Clinic)

Cantor’s sign (dextral): I love that this is only on the right side. As most of you probably know, DFW wrote a book called “Everything and More,” which is a lovely little journey through the history of infinity (as a mathematical concept). In it, he makes his adoration for Georg Cantor, who invented set theory, very clear. However, that’s the only link I can find to this “syndrome / symptom,” as neither google nor the DSM seem to recognize any such illness or disorder. 

Lumbago: Lower back pain, common for those who sit often.

Dihedral lordosis: Dihedral is a term for the angle which “is the upward angle from horizontal of the wings or tailplane of a fixed-wing aircraft,” and lordosis (see above) is an abnormal back arch. It seems that this is a DFW neologism (neoligstic diagnosis?).

Dissociative fugues: Again, sort of funny in the context of imposing bureaucracy: “a rare psychiatric disorder characterized by reversible amnesia for personal identity, including the memories, personality, and other identifying characteristics of individuality” (Mayo again).

Kern-Borglundt syndrome (radial): No clue about this one – the Google results I found were all about the book! No idea the provenance of the name.

Hypomania: Per the DSM IV, this (literally: under mania) is the same as a manic disorder except without delusions or hallucinations cannot be present. (Funny, as hallucinations are also listed above.) And, of course, there’s a certain irony to any manic diagnosis being called “under mania.”

Sciatica: Another lower back issue

Spasmodic torticollis: “is an extremely painful chronic neurological movement disorder causing the neck to involuntarily turn to the left, right, upwards, and/or downwards” (Wikipedia). Notice how many of these diagnosis refer to involuntary movement of the face or neck.

Low startle threshold: Not a diagnosis

Krendler’s syndrome: The only link I could find is that “Krendler” is a character in a series of the Hannibal books by Thomas Harris, and one or two people use this as a way to acknowledge self-cannibalization.

Hemorrhoids: Not fun

Ruminative fugues: See “fugues” above, though there doesn’t seem to be any medical precedence for the “ruminative” qualifier. (Neo-diagnosis?)

Ulcerative colitis: IBD, also not fun.

Hypertension: Irony to see it so closely next to:

Hypotension : Ironically so close to the above.

Cantor’s sign (sinistral): On the left side this time, see above.

Diplopia: Double vision

Hemeralopia: “is an inability to see clearly in dim light” (Mayo). I suppose this happens if you live in a room lit by florescent lights.

Vascular headache: Also not fun

Cyclothymia: A “chronic, fluctuating mood disturbance” involving manic and depressive symptoms of insufficient severity to warrant a manic-depressive diagnosis. The second or third (or first, based on perspective) instance of manic behaviors.

Blurred vision: See “Diplopia” above. (If you can make it out…)

Fine tremors: Not hard to see this graduate into formication

Facial / digital ticking: Not hard to see how this evolves / graduates into spasmodic torticollis

Localized anxiety: Not fun, though I’m not sure the meaning of “localized”? Perhaps anxiety in reference to specific triggers? Still “localized” seems like an odd choice of words.

Generalized anxiety: Also unpleasant.

Kinesthetic deficits: A fault in your movement? Not a great second symptom to have happen, either.

Unexplained bleeding: the first system to appear, which is a bummer.

As you can see, DFW made up a few diseases, used his own terms for another few of these symptoms, and repeated symptoms often as well. I suspect a large part of this is his humor, and I suspect it’s also his tremendous ability for auto-didaction that he’s come up with these “syndromes/symptoms” outside of a traditional medical education or terminology.

Section 12

I have very little to add to this since Daniel covered Stecyk (LS) so incredibly well, but in regard to viewing him as a type of Jesus (as I think a later commentator added), I feel compelled to point out that Jesus, as a teacher, a storyteller, and a moralist, was incredibly unconcerned with consequences. He didn’t say “embrace the Leper unless you don’t want to get ill,” and he didn’t say “visit the imprisoned unless they’re bad people or dangerous,” and he didn’t ask us to “invite the stranger into your home unless it’s not prudent.” None of his moral admonitions, in fact, really examine the what next which they imply.

Likewise, LS is simply unconcerned with how people view him or how his actions impact them – he’s simply interested in these actions in and of themselves. He exhibits a complete disregard for anything except the moral value of his actions themselves (as perhaps Aquinas would have endorsed). He does, however, understand the world outside of himself, as we see when he adds in extra asterisks near the deaf and hard of hearing sections for the old lady with whom (at whom?) he is talking.

Section 13

Most particularly in the footnotes and asides in “Everything and More,” but honestly across his work, one gets the sense that DFW feels tremendous insecurity and unease in regard to his intellect. This isn’t a groundbreaking analysis, but I point it out as I wonder if his oppressive genius tortured him in the same way that attacks of the sweats attacked young Mr. Cusk (play on “cuck”?).

There must be some sort of underlying metaphor pushing the thematic and narrative trajectory here, and DFW makes it clear that Cusk feels a psychological connection to his hyperhidrosis. Perhaps being in constant fear of attacks of the sweats might feel something like a constant fear of an inner analysis: always prodding, never satisfied. I’m certainly of the opinion that DFW intended for there to be a relationship between attacks of sweats and attacks of anxiety, not simply a causal one but also a metaphorical one.

Likewise, TPK uses footnotes almost exclusively for sections written by the “author,” with this being an interesting exception and therefore making it feel more personal.

A random note, but it’s in puberty that both Cusk and Toni Ware learn “the terrible power of attention and what you pay attention to.” Both seem to prefer distractions (a body-less doll head / Dorian Grey) to facing the real world. This isn’t unusual, but I think they are the only two characters in TPK about whom this can be said.