The Jesuit Influence in David Foster Wallace’s Last Unfinished Novel
“We—under our own nihilistic charm—seem to demand of our writers an ironic distance from deeply held beliefs or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers must … make jokes about deep issues.”
-David Foster Wallace (Review of Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky)
“‘Irrelevant Chris’ isn’t relevant only in regards to himself?”
-David Foster Wallace (notes for The Pale King)
David Foster Wallace donned gallows humor throughout his latest unfinished novel The Pale King. A short section titled “IRS Worker Dead for Four Days” asks “why no one noticed that one of their employees had been sitting dead at their desk for four days before someone asked if they were feeling well” . The deceased’s supervisor provides the painful sentence: “He was very focused and diligent, so no one found it unusual that he was in the same position the whole time and said nothing.”
Something to do with attentionan independent short story from The Pale King 1,100 pages, is definitely not devoted to the banal hilarities of bureaucracy. Instead, it makes the improbable but believable reform of Chris Fogle “irrelevant,” a self-described 1970s “wastoid” who discovers his calling at the IRS when he mistakenly wanders into a tax class in the US. DePaul University taught by a ‘fearful Jesuit’. ”
David Foster Wallace donned gallows humor throughout his latest unfinished novel The Pale King.
The priest summons his students to a new breed of bravery found within the invisible army of IRS accountants. Here, stripped of fanfare or histrionic pomp, heroic feats are performed by “you, alone, in a designated workspace.” True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, years after years of silent, precise and judicious exercise of probity and attentiveness, with no one to see or encourage.
Following the gruesome accidental death of his own father on a Chicago Transit Authority train, a restless Fogle finds solace and direction through the priest, the “first true authority figure I have ever encountered”. The priest was someone who proved that “true authority was not the same as a friend or someone who cared about you, but could still be good to you…”. Such authority, even if not “democratic” or equal…could have value for both parties. »
Slate’s Judith Shulevitz calls Fogle’s experience “the most unusual conversion experience in denominational history,” and she may be right. But Wallace adds weight to the graceful arc of conversion, making us wonder if grand narratives of impactful past events are reliable or driven by self-delusion. The text is tempered by contrapuntal tensions; almost constantly the reader is pulled in two directions – sincere belief and resigned skepticism – inducing a kind of elevated attention.
Wallace deliberately parallels Chris Fogle’s own “irrelevant” dramatic redirection with his college roommate’s girlfriend’s conversion story. “Devout Christians,” Fogle asserts, “always remember themselves as…lost and hopeless and barely clinging to any kind of inner sense of worth or reason to go on living before to be ‘saved’.”
According to the roommate’s (unnamed) girlfriend, before her conversion, she too was a “wastoid”. Listless, she once wandered into an evangelistic service just as the preacher announced that “there is someone out there with us in the congregation today who is feeling lost and hopeless and on edge. of breath and needs to know that Jesus loves them very, very much.”
In her shared dorm room, the girlfriend describes her spiritual rehabilitation, her certainty of being unconditionally known and loved. Fogle pushes back, reminding him that “almost all red-blooded Americans” in the “end of Vietnam and the Watergate era felt desolate and disillusioned and unmotivated and directionless and lost.” For him, the preacher’s proclamation that someone in the congregation “feels lost and hopeless” ties in with a pharmacy horoscope, whose “universally obvious” prophecies tap into that “special strange feeling of specialness and insight…. Most people are narcissistic and prone to the illusion that their problems are particularly special.
Something to do with attentionan independent short story from The Pale King 1,100 pages, is definitely not devoted to the banal hilarities of bureaucracy.
Here, just as Fogle’s college-age sneers reach the climax of debunking, his retrospective adult self questions the motives of his instinctive, youthful nihilism. In retrospect, Fogle concedes that he “really enjoyed despising” the convert, a sport that sharpened his own cynicism and caused the dopamine rush of feeling “superior to narcissistic rubes like those two so-called Christians.”
Like a latter-day Augustine looking back on adolescence, “Irrelevant” Fogle finds that he – though an “infallible” failure – was somehow “almost always the hero of any story or incident I ever told. to people,” something that “almost makes me wince now.
But the central question that the novella shrewdly leaves unanswered is whether Fogle’s own “conversion” from nihilist to accountant was based on premises as vulnerable as those advanced by the “so-called Christian.” Fogle’s arc, too, opened with the “lost and hopeless.” Wasting away slumped on a couch, spinning a soccer ball on his finger as he watched “As The World Turns”, Fogle became lucidly aware of the world revolving around him, of people “with direction and initiative” who didn’t waste hours to readjust the antenna in hopes of siphoning off TV treats.
“Whoever a potentially ‘lost soul’ was, I was, and it wasn’t cool or funny,” Fogle says. He knew right away, “sitting there, that I could be a real nihilist” – a condition defined by being, “somehow, too free, or that kind of freedom wasn’t really real – I was free to choose ‘whatever’ because it didn’t really matter.
Then Fogle stumbles upon the Jesuit lecturer (the fact that the Jesuit is a substitute teacher underscores the chance nature of the encounter). A priest whose hands help turn unleavened bread into the Light of the World, he is also an expert in advanced taxation – combining both the boring secular and the sublime sacrosanct in one person. While Wallace describes the Jesuit as “pale in a way that seemed luminous instead of sickly”, the priest focuses entirely on this world.
A Ciceronian orator of impressive stature, the priest displays the “same burnt and hollow concentration” as veteran soldiers who have seen “the real war, that is, the fight”. The A/V projector in the lit DePaul classroom illuminates his face from below, “which made his hollow intensity and facial structure even more pronounced.” With absolute poise, the Jesuit delivers a “hortation” of spellbinding and uplifting pathos. Accounting, a supposedly overwhelming job that requires submission to untold boredom, is, he insists, the place of “true heroism”.
Certainly, “no one is lining up to see it.” Certainly, “there is no public”. But “enduring real-time boredom in a confined space is what true courage is.” This is because, states the priest, “the less a work appears to be conventionally heroic or exciting or publicity or even interesting or engaging, the greater its potential as an arena of actual heroism, and therefore as a denomination of joy unmatched by anyone. men can yet imagine. Souls “called to account” spend their lives “serving[ing] those who don’t care about service but only about results.
This peroration marks a climax in the short story: after that, the story holds off any unconditional celebration of Fogle’s “calling”. It does not glorify the vocation of the IRS employee. Fogle’s own feelings strangely echo those of a traditional religious convert. He concludes that “much of what the father said or projected” – about the liberating “loss of options”, about “the death of the unlimited possibility of childhood” – “seemed to be aimed at me somehow. directly”.
In establishing an affinity between the short story’s two conversion narratives, Wallace juxtaposes the emotional subjectivism of girlfriend fundamentalism with a distinct Catholic devotion to reasoned truth (“Please note,” the priest clarifies, “that I said “inform” not “‘or ‘allege’ or ‘postulate.'”) If Fogle finds genuine authority and ethical self-abasement in IRS structures, however, he lacks the transcendent and trustworthy religious categories by which the pale realm into which he enters must be measured. The fateful speech draws its persuasive power from the priest’s cadence and “car” rather than from his priestly collar. Does Wallace mean by this to alert us to the distance between moral and spiritual conversions? The Jesuit’s diagnosis of Fogle’s false freedom is absolutely correct, but does he unduly spiritualize secular work? When “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle enters the Service seeking the “denomination of unequaled joy” promised by the Jesuits, he seems destined to fail, for only the beatific vision could bestow such unequaled happiness.
Celebrating the deliverance of ‘Irrelevant’ from ‘wastoid’ nihilism, moved by the perfectly presented harsh truths of a priest, we still have reason to fear that during the happy holidays, Fogle will wear a face similar to the IRS recruiter” exhausted and disheveled” which appears late in the book. In the novel’s final, mysterious metaphor, the recruiter receives the completed forms from aspirant Fogle with “the exact kind of smile of someone who, on Christmas morning, has just unwrapped an expensive present he already owns. “. Until the posthumous end, Wallace animates our attention: what rich gift does the recruiter already possess, and does he erase – on balance – his scruffy appearance?