Life & Death > The Pale King

The Pale King

By GREG MAFFETT
Published: December 27, 2011

The Pale King is David Foster Wallace's (DFW) unfinished novel. The fact that it was unfinished had a lot to do with his suicide while the work was in progress. But the fact that it was unfinished did not deter it's publisher from publishing it.

Since I've not read all of what is published, I'm not writing this as a review. It is a jumping off point. I got partway through something someone else sort of finished and figured it was time to start writing. This will probably be writing about writing, though philosophy could also work as DFW was a Philosophy major at his core and you have to think that suicide is reflective of a certain philosophy about the meaning of life, which as best as I can tell is the starting point of philosophy. So why not the end point too? There is a symmetry argument, I'll say that much.

The idea behind The Pale King is that it is a novel in which something is about to happen, but never does. The main characters were IRS employees. To research the book, DFW audited a number of tax accounting classes. Of course he would dig into tax law. Death and taxes, you see. Same thing. One cataclysmic, the other parasitic. At some point the host, being bled dry by the leech...hey we were all born with middle fingers.

The book is well written, DFW was among the best who walked our shores as far as writing talent goes. If you just hate maximalists, he is not your guy. But as the style goes, he got it.

He also wrote a book on infinity. He grappled with PHD level math concepts and tried to relate those ideas to the average reader in a style that a novelist would be comfortable with signing off on. There was a lot of story telling and asides. It was a solid work, as is The Pale King. At least as far as I've read.

I think the tie between math and fiction is strong. Stranger than many people realize. Here is an example. If it is raining outside, you expect that a person who goes out side will get wet if they don't have an umbrella or the like. You expect the that rain will puddle. You expect that the gutters will have streams of water coursing through them. Having been out in the rain, you know what to expect.

In math terms, this is IF A, THEN B, C and D. If it is raining, you expect a person who goes out side will get wet, and be exposed to puddles in low places and streams in gutters. That right there is the essence of fiction writing. The writer knows that by making it rain, a whole bunch of things follow. The writer can use them or twist them. But randomly negating them...ah there is where fiction fails. The writer didn't do the math at some point. Or did the math wrong. The reader doesn't buy the story and slams the book down. The whole writer reader relationship crumbles and that is that.

Life suffers from the same problem as fiction. When people do teh math on other people, they often see the same problem as the reader who sees the dry character walking down main street in a storm. There is no way that given A, can it be realistic that there is no B, C or D. And yet that is how life works. The B, C and E are too much to swallow. We all want NOT B, NOT C and NOT D. So we all agree that even though it is A, what logically follows doesn't follow.

This is called faith, belief, trust...whatever you like. Whatever it is, it isn't math. Because math tells it like it is, or at least like it probabilistically is. The IF A, then B, C and D has been seen as long as we have a common memory. So you need either a good fictional construct (sci-fi) or you need to conform to the reality of life on this planet.

Here is perhaps how this plays out. DFW is writing stuff that he knows conforms to the code. His math is solid and hence he is writing believable fiction. He is working inside this incredibly tight straight jacket of his own choosing. He has to do the math to keep working.

But in his day to day life he applies the same math to those around him. And he see that the only people who are obeying the rules of math are his fictional people. The real people spend their days trying to convince other real people of things that are not mathematically consistent. He is creating award winning fiction...to be read by people who are living a life that is little more than pulp fiction.

How long can you competantly create for people who can't competantly live? That question had to be there, skulking somewhere in his psyche.

It goes both ways, you see. You see B, C and D and you can be pretty sure that A occurred. 99.9999% sure. And sure enough, you are sitting across from a human being who is telling you, swear to god, there was no A.

And there is the problem with life. If you "do the math" you holler "bullshit" and part your ways with the offender. Or you ignore the math and keep getting more of the same.

The net result is that you can't do the math and live with people. You can't not do the math and live with yourself.

Which i think is how you find yourself dangling from a rope.

As a guy who teaches math for a living, this is not at all disturbing.

Just puzzling.

Any Comments?


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