The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Shallow/Deep, Depths/Surfaces: Reading and Writing The Pale King

Shawn Zhang

This thesis is concerned with the theoretical impasse between two modes of reading that operate at different levels of the text. On the one hand, spearheaded by the likes of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Fredric Jameson, is suspicious reading – a method of analysis that eschews obvious or stated meanings in order to uncover hidden and often sinister subtexts. In response, surface reading congregates diverse reading practices and philosophies (including Franco Moretti’s “distance reading,” Sharon Marcus’ “just reading,” and Bruno Latour’s actor-network-theory) to suggest that productive relationships with texts do not necessarily entail a cynical or suspicious stance towards objects of critique and that attention and respect paid to textual surfaces too can yield valuable insight. How might we think about the terms of this debate in a productive manner to yield more robust reading practices? I contend that this readerly concern with interpretation finds its counterpart in the writerly works of David Foster Wallace that deal with issues such as irony, sincerity, and interpersonal communication. Ultimately, I argue that the surface/depth reading binary is founded on a mistaken understanding of the relationship between reading and writing that is remedied in Wallace’s fiction through a model of dialogic bothness. This bothness, I posit, may also provide new hermeneutic pathways that can perhaps rejuvenate our relationship with the literary humanities.


From around the 1960s to the 1990s, literary departments across the U.S witnessed the rise of vast, totalizing theories. That is, Marxism, feminism, New Historicism, posthumanism and various other -isms vied for attention in esoteric academic journals and undergraduate syllabi alike. Broadly speaking, these myriad schools of thought that together comprise the amalgamation that is critical theory might be roughly divided into two broad camps, each with its own distinct set of ideas, methods, and goals while also interfacing with the other in interesting ways.

On the one hand, there is poststructuralism – a strand of theory that began as a response to the structuralist thought that had developed into a full-blown critique of structure, language, and presence. In the introduction to the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Leitch lists some of its main features including “the problematizing of linguistic referentiality, and emphasis on heteroglossia, the decentering of the subject, the rejection of ‘reason’ as universal or foundational, the criticism of humanism, and a stress on difference” (Leitch et al, 22). Being first and foremost an exploration of language and referential meaning, poststructuralism – particularly as practiced by Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man – has often been charged with being apolitical compared to its contemporary theoretical counterparts like Marxism, feminism, et cetera. But a brief glance at the theories of Judith Butler and écriture féminine would quickly dispel this view and prove to the contrary that a critique of textual or linguistic difference could easily be appropriated into a critique of sociopolitical differences that underlie systems of power founded on essentialist notions of gender, class, race, and sexuality.

On the other hand, there is the vibrant field of cultural studies, which is marked by an omnivorous interest in all objects in the socio-cultural sphere. In their effort to glean a comprehensive view of culture, the proponents of cultural studies look both high and low: from conventional objects of critique such as art and literature to new areas of inquiry such as advertisements, pop music, video games, and pornography; nothing is beyond or beneath the scrutiny of the critic. This totalized approach to studying culture comes from an understanding of cultural objects as symptoms of their sociohistorical context. In examining literature and other forms of cultural expression, cultural studies practitioners hope to diagnose the state of society – a project that is, at some level, irreducibly political. As such, cultural studies is especially interested in exposing systemic oppression and showing that conventional practices are never as natural, essential, or ideologically neutral as they appear. Wielding the twin-blades of ideology critique and institutional analysis, cultural studies approaches the world with the aim of understanding and potentially ameliorating its constructions.

Reading Surfaces, Reading Depths

While diverse in their methodologies and political sympathies, these approaches converged upon a certain set of axioms and practices that have since become endemic to literary studies and provided it with a raison d’être: reading, or the act of literary criticism, was a way to diagnose, expose, and ultimately subvert systemic social oppression otherwise hidden from the uncritical eye. Altogether, these tenets form what Paul Ricoeur terms the “hermeneutics of suspicion,”[1] which share a commitment to unmasking the illusions and lies of consciousness (32-34). This critical approach has come to designate a style of interpretation that eschews a text’s obvious or stated meanings in order to uncover hidden and often unflattering truths beneath the surface. As such, critique under suspicious hermeneutics means reading against the grain – a move that is driven, as Rita Felski observes, “by the conviction that appearances are deceptive, that texts do not gracefully relinquish their meanings, that manifest content shrouds darker, more unpalatable truths” (“Suspicious Minds,” 216).

In this spirit, Marxists demystified ideology to uncover the economic base of culture; psychoanalysts dug beneath the overt contents of dreams to retrieve latent dream thought; poststructuralists deconstructed binary oppositions to reveal the instability and absence underlying closed systems; and minority-studies critics looked for omissions in the canon and other forms of cultural production to expose the covert, systemic oppression of marginalized groups. In many of these instances, suspicious reading took for granted that conventional practices and common sense are never natural, essential, or ideologically neutral. Rather, it was assumed that the manners and logic of the oppressor (be it the capitalists, the patriarchy, or heteronormativity) had always had a hand in the construction of our social reality and that the only effective way of resisting these subtle forms of power was by exposing their constructs through a critical, symptomatic mode.

Despite its univocal presence, the turn of the century has seen increasing backlash against suspicious or depth-based hermeneutics. The full list of reasons for this are various and beyond the scope of this introduction, but there are a few dominant voices in the dissenting discourse that provide a general sense of the pitfalls of suspicious hermeneutics.[2]

From How’s to Why’s

The methodological debate between surface and depth-based hermeneutics draws out a larger set of questions concerning the existence and relevance of literary studies, both as a discipline with specific epistemological claims and as a pedagogical program within the university struggling to define its place in the neoliberal machine. Hence, the question of how literature should be read is fundamentally inextricable from a larger inquiry into why it should be read.

As previously mentioned, the suspicious paradigm offers an account of literary interpretation as anti-authoritarian activism: to read for hidden omissions in texts is tantamount to a direct engagement with the larger systemic injustices that also operate in the shadows. Hence, in bringing to light the ways in which texts unconsciously circumvent or misrepresent certain issues and perspectives, the critic is effectively interrogating the latent attitudes and beliefs of the socio-cultural status quo from which texts emerge. In doing so, the act of critique also presents a means to recognize and champion the grievances of the marginalized whose interests are not addressed by the dominant forms of cultural production. Such was the rationale behind much of the work done in literary departments over the last couple of decades. Ideology critique, discourse analysis, the reclamation of lost voices: whatever form it took, symptomatic reading instilled the highly influential idea that reading was in fact political and that intellectual social justice was what literary scholars did or produced.

Beneath this account of literary studies’ teleology is a set of assumptions regarding the relationship between literature, culture, and the world. At root, symptomatic readers operate under the notion that texts are a product or symptom of their socio-politico-cultural context.[3] Consequently, texts can be read as indications or symptoms of problems in the ‘real world’ and studying texts enables us to better understand both our material reality as well as our role within it. Thus Edward Said reads Mansfield Park as a symptom and product of Western imperialism, much like how gothic genre can be symptomatized to expose the repressions of the Victorian era.[4] This emphasis on text as primarily a fragment or vehicle of culture necessarily deemphasizes any inherent value of texts in their own right. As such, literature as a mode of expression is no more (or less) special to the cultural critic than film, music, or billboard commercials. What follows is a more capacious conception of the discipline that treats cultural objects at large regardless of their origins. This in turn necessitates a critical outlook that dismisses essentialist notions of aesthetics or artistic value – under the expansive rubric of cultural studies, nothing is too lowly to be subjected to critical scrutiny.

However, fast-forwarding to the present, it seems clear now that suspicious critique has failed to bring about the kind of social impact that it had promised. The diagnosis has not led to a cure, exposure of oppressive social conditions has not led to the amelioration of those conditions. In short, reading books and writing papers have not changed the world for the better. As it is beyond the scope of this thesis to speculate on the reasons for literary theory’s political failure,[5] it would suffice to say that by the time surface reading arrived, the political impetus of symptomatic reading had all but vanished:

We find ourselves the heirs of Michel Foucault, skeptical about the very possibility of radical freedom and dubious that literature or its criticism can explain our oppression or provide the keys to our liberation. Where it had become common for literary scholars to equate their work with political activism, the disasters and triumphs of the last decade have shown that literary criticism alone is not sufficient to effect change (Best and Marcus 2).

Surface reading can be considered a result of symptomatic reading’s failure to be political. As such, where symptomatic reading had made the leap from the text to the real world with ease, surface reading finds itself both struggling to find alternative ways of making that leap as well as dubious about the possibility of the leap in the first place.[6]

Consequently, surface readers espouse what might be considered a more literarily focused approach to the discipline. That is, literature should be studied on its own terms and be safeguarded from the social, the economic, and the political. Amongst other things, Lesjak notes within this movement a return or reclamation of various positivist, essentialist positions that had been previously discarded by the constructivist, symptomatic paradigm. Some of these notions include aesthetics (Elaine Scarry), human nature (Stephen Pinker and New Darwinism), and the inherent complexities and virtues of the text (New Formalism). At the same time, there is a resurfacing of traditional humanist answers to why we study literature that emphasizes, amongst other things, the inherent pleasures of reading, appreciating the history of human civilization through the classics, the ameliorating effects of literature that makes us better, more empathetic human beings, and so on.

The point is, while symptomatic reading seems to be inherently political, it is much less obvious how or why surface reading can (or wishes) to be political. It is this ambiguous relationship with politics that leads Lesjak to dub the contemporary turn against symptomatic traditions “disciplinary conservatism” wherein “the overarching message seems to be: scale back, pare down, small aims met are better than grand ones unrealized, reclaim our disciplinary territory and hold on to it” (20).

So What’s This Thesis about Anyways?

To recapitulate, this thesis is interested in a contemporary theoretical impasse to do with how we read, or the methods by which we infer meaning from texts. At the heart of this impasse is a binary between two hermeneutic paradigms. On one side, suspicious reading has been the dominant method in literary and cultural critique and seeks to dig beneath the overt, surface levels of textual meaning to get at covert, unconscious, ‘deep’ truths about culture and history at large. Opposite and antithetical to this is surface reading, a conglomeration of methodologies and philosophies that oppose the ubiquity of suspicious thought by offering a range of interpretive alternatives emphasizing amongst other things the critical agency of textual surfaces, a cooperative or even submissive approach to reading, and a less politically ambitious agenda.

On the one hand, suspicious reading naturally suspects that surface reading itself is a manifestation of certain systemic conditions. Lesjak, for one, groups recent developments such as new formalism and surface reading together into a larger movement against theory. Reading Best and Marcus’ introduction to surface reading, she argues that “surface readings have no real capacity to understand themselves as symptoms even though they are, as Marcus confirms, at the very least symptoms of once-dominant hermeneutic models of interpretation (27).[7] In this view, surface reading’s call for more literal, descriptive modes is tantamount to a return to the naïve empiricism of a pre-theoretical age characterized by an indiscriminate acceptance of what is given as true, commonsensical, natural et cetera., without considering how subtle socio-historical forces intrude and invent our seamless reality.

Conversely, surface readers are just as apt to accuse suspicious reading of practicing a naïve cynicism that fails to recognize its own limitations. Indeed, in its obsession to find ever-deeper explanations, suspicion is always susceptible to self-reflexivity and infinite regression. How might one know, for instance, that one has really reached the bottom of everything and one has proved once and for all that one is too shrewd to be duped by deceptive surfaces? Besides, even if one can somehow know that they have found the deepest ‘truth,’ who’s to say that exposing it will do anyone any good? Or as Sedgwick wondered, “What is the basis for assuming that it will surprise or disturb, never mind motivate, anyone to learn that a given social manifestation is artificial, self-contradictory, imitative, phantasmatic, or even violent?” (141).

Of course, like most quarrels, there is much more to both sides of the story than what each has to say about each other, which tend to be caricatures of each at its worst. As such, it would be out of the question to outright deny the value of the discoveries made by suspicious thinking. For instance, one can hardly imagine anyone would disagree with the contention that the conspicuous absence of women and minorities in canonical literature revealed an entrenched gender and racial bias and that the subsequent work of discovering or recovering women and minority literature was significant for readjusting the focus of literary studies. Likewise, to understand the surface reading movement as simply a fetishistic, naïve mode that uncritically believes in whatever literal meanings one fancies is also to miss the point. Rather, surface reading is more about validating texts and what they have to say about themselves, giving literal meanings a place in the larger critical discourse and reorienting the relationship between author, text, and reader to demonstrate that there are other hermeneutic relations outside of suspicion’s mandated critic versus author/text.

There is nothing wrong with reading suspiciously or literally, per se. Rather, there seems to be a problem when one decides that being critical entails a commitment to one particular way over other ways. Surely, the reasonable thing to do is to navigate between the relative merits and inadequacies of each, administering them in a flexible manner. The present thesis, then, is about finding the ways in which these two models can meet half-way to produce ways of reading that are critical, but not paranoid, able to acknowledge surfaces without dissolving into blind faith.

Given this larger discussion surrounding the methodology and raison d’être of literary studies, the writings of David Foster Wallace provide a remarkable counterpoint to the impasse between the surface/depth binary. Known for his nuanced engagement with concepts such as irony and sincerity, Wallace is in many ways working with the same epistemological-affective issues considered by suspicion and surface readers. Indeed, his staunch refusal to regard cynicism and naïveté as mutually exclusive terms[8] seems to espouse a third way of thinking that does not resort to an either/or choice between surface and suspicious modes. At the same time, as an author who is attuned to the larger critical-theoretical discourse surrounding literary production, Wallace carries with him a critical intentionality that brings the surface-depth binary into crisis. By entering into the critical conversation surrounding his works and the literary landscape at large, Wallace shows that both surface and symptomatic readers fundamentally misunderstand writing and writers as well as their relationship with reading and readers.

Reading Readings: Surfaces and Depths in The Pale King

Besides denoting “the quality of being deep,” the OED also defines ‘depth’ as “a measurement or distance from the top downwards.” The term as such refers both to a unit within a scale as well as the scale itself. In the context of this second meaning, it is possible to conceive of surface as not so much the absence or the opposite of depth but possibly a shade in its spectrum – in other words, even the shallowest surface has some (if minimal) depth. At the same time, to consider depth as a continuum implies that what is ‘deep’ is also just a unit of depth that happens to be deeper than ‘shallow,’ but can be plausibly shallower than surfaces that are potentially deeper. What implications does this have for the surface/suspicious binary that relies on an oppositional difference between shallow and deep, surface and depth?

To begin, a relative (as opposed to absolute) conception of depth suggests that not all surfaces are equal in depth – that some texts may in fact be deeper than others. Likewise, to consider depth incrementally also suggests that critique is layered – that some symptomatic projects can conceivably be shallower than others. This in turn begs the question: must criticism be deeper than fiction? In these and other ways, we may problematize the binary opposition between surface and depth and discover alternate means of framing their debate. I will begin this process in the section to follow by examining some of the existing interpretations of The Pale King and the ways in which they embody different levels of surface and depth.

Reading Before Reading: Deep/Shallow Surfaces

It is almost impossible to begin one’s reading of The Pale King without first being informed by one source or another that the novel is at some fundamental level ‘about’ boredom. Indeed, how can one escape this reading when just about every review[9] takes boredom as the key to The Pale King and when Michael Pietsch so eagerly proclaims in the Editor’s Note that “David set out to write a novel about some of the hardest subjects in the world – sadness and boredom”(ix-x)? Or consider the blurb on the dust jacket to the American hardcover edition:

The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace. But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling.

In addition to the print edition, this particular summary is also circulated on digital surfaces such as Amazon, Encyclopedia Britannica, and Wikipedia, which is to say that any potential reader of the novel will almost certainly encounter boredom as the novel’s supposed primary theme before they even have the chance to read the book for themselves.

Now, anybody who has actually read the book from start to finish would know that this blurb is more or less all false. To begin, the agents are anything but “ordinary.” David Wallace’s[10] first encounter with IRS employees in §24 includes an extended uncomfortable car-ride next to David Cusk, whose sweat drenches half of his suit; one Ms. F. Chahla Neti-Neti who performs “a rapid, almost woodpeckerishly intensive round of fellatio” (308) for his welcome; and some 150 examiners in an “Immersives Room” whose absolute silence and concentration strike our narrator as “kind of traumatic” (289-292). Likewise, nowhere do we see David Wallace take part in the drudgery of work at the IRS, and there is, much to the present author’s disappointment, no “boredom-survival training”.

One possible reason for this, posited by Marshall Boswell and others, is that this description of the novel fits with a certain preconceived understanding of Wallace as a particular kind of writer who produces a particular kind of fiction. As such, Boswell prefaces his reading of the novel with the observation that Pietsch’s introduction “limns seamlessly with the unfortunate popular conception of Wallace as a technically dazzling and intellectually sophisticated writer of self-help narratives designed to ‘save us’ from solipsism, loneliness, addiction, and so on,” and that such a reading results in a “blindness to one of the book’s central concerns” (“Trickle Down Citizenship,” 465). In likewise skeptical fashion, Luc Herman and Toon Staes in their introduction to an issue of English Studies dedicated to The Pale King accuse the Wallace industry of being “almost cynically geared to enhancing and exploiting the author’s status as a young and benevolent sage” (2).

In one sense, criticisms such as these are standard operating procedure in the critical tradition whose mission often involves ‘problematizing’ and ‘complicating’ apparent interpretations in the hope of developing deeper and more robust readings. Within this methodological framework, Boswell and others are clearing the hermeneutic field to forward their own critical agenda – a process that necessarily requires a certain degree of overstatement or caricaturing to create a dialectical other against which one’s own arguments can gain traction. For all this to work, it is crucial to recognize that blurbs, by describing elements of plot, characterization, and themes, do in fact make interpretive claims that are at the very least intended to sway the reader’s decision to purchase the book. In this sense, in suggesting that The Pale King is about boredom, the reviews and summaries are performing – in place of the reader who has yet to open the book – a surface reading of the novel that takes at face-value David Wallace’s explicit claim in the fictional “Author’s Foreword” (§9) that the novel is “about dullness, information, and irrelevant complexity” (85).

While also eschewing an actual ‘reading’ of the text, the kind of paratextual and meta-textual descriptive-interpretations embodied in reviews and blurbs are fundamentally different from, say, Moretti’s quantitative methods in that they are external to the reader. While Moretti’s disavowal of ‘reading’ only pertains to traditional methods of close reading, it still asks for a sustained personal, authentic engagement with texts that is clearly not in play for the customer who has no real choice but to rely on the information provided by the blurb.[11] Yet, these quasi-objective descriptions are powerful or useful precisely because the reader, in her ignorant position, expects them to be non-interpretive, value-neutral, and self-evident. And so, we might say that the summaries, reviews, and editor’s introduction all come together to form a sort of ‘hyper-surface’ that performs a surface reading which precedes but also informs the reader’s own reading of the novel.[12]

However, if what paratexts do is not so much describe but interpret texts, and the potential reader has little choice but to accept blurbs at their face value, what if the blurb turns out to be mistaken or misleading? It is within this context of unequal reader-publisher power/knowledge relations that the earlier objections made by Boswell and others become particularly salient. To be sure, in claiming that the surface-oriented ‘The-Pale-King-is-about-boredom’ reading plays into a marketing scheme that capitalizes on (mis)representing Wallace as an intellectual-yet-sentimental self-help guru, Boswell, Herman, and Staes operate within a suspicious epistemology. Yet, to suggest that the publishing industry is actively involved in the construction of a particular ‘brand’ of fiction under Wallace is to also imply that the reading public has some sort of longing or demand for that particular kind of fiction. This, in turn, seems to suggest that the demand itself is symptomatic of some repressed discontent in society’s collective unconscious, which, to take it a step further, can be seen as a sign of certain socio-historical-cultural conditions in contemporary American life. Thus, the floodgate of suspicion is opened and the logic quickly becomes self-perpetuating and recursive (Figure 1).

Interestingly, in spite of such classic symptomatic maneuvers, the critical readings of Boswell and others are actually surface in nature. For Boswell, the exposure of the simplicity and shortsightedness of the boredom reading is not so much the beginning of a comprehensive account of the socio-cultural conditions that led to the construction of “a popular conception of Wallace” but is rather a cue for alternate forms of thematic and literal engagement:

But a brief glance through the “Notes and Asides” included at the end of    the published text of The Pale King clearly confirms that the novel has to have what Wallace describes as “2    Broad arcs,”

  1. Paying attention, boredom, ADD, Machines vs. people  at performing                                      mindless jobs.
  2. Being individual vs. being part of larger things – paying taxes, being ‘lone                                 gun’ in IRS vs. team player (Pale King 545)

This second “broad arc” –      which the novel treats as unavoidably political – has thus far received very scant    attention, perhaps because Wallace is  not generally   thought of as a political    novelist. (“Trickle Down Citizenship,” 465-466)

Much like the hyper-surface account, which employed a literal reading of the “Author’s Foreword” as its basis, here Boswell also invokes the “Notes and Asides” section (539-547) at its overt, surface level (such that even “a brief glance” would “clearly confirm” its meaning) to make an entirely different argument about what the novel is about. Here the problem surfaces: if both readings (Boswell’s politics versus the paratext’s boredom) are, in the end, literal and surface-oriented, how can Boswell be confident that his reading is any less suspicious than the reading he suspects? Phrased otherwise, in the same way that Boswell condemns the boredom reading as a reduction of Wallace along the lines of a particular group’s mistaken understanding of him as an author, can’t we also say that Boswell’s political reading is also guilty of the same process of essentializing Wallace, albeit with an emphasis on politics rather than self-help?

Figure 1. Suspicious spiral (Print only)

Thus, the critique of critique present in Boswell’s writing lends credence to a model of surface hermeneutics that is not flat but terraced, with a dimensionality and layered-complexity that surprisingly evokes the digging and uncovering ways of suspicious reading. Though both the boredom reading and the political reading rely on a literal reading of the novel, Boswell’s reading nevertheless seems to operate at a ‘deeper’ level by exposing the ways in which the act of interpreting The Pale King along the lines of boredom is ‘shallow’ and naïve. At the same time, by instilling a sense of depth in surface reading, Boswell’s interaction with the boredom reading reveals a problematic feedback loop in the symptomatic rationale. There is no guarantee that any given symptomatic account is ever suspicious enough as there is always the possibility that symptomatizations can be symptomatized. Leaving the implications of this point to a later section in this thesis, I now turn to another reading of The Pale King to problematize a different facet of the surface/suspicion division. Whereas the boredom-politics dynamic just outlined demonstrates the presence of depth in surfaces, the upcoming boredom reading will suggest that suspicious readings can also invoke the literal and descriptive practices of surface reading.

Suspecting Suspicion: Deep/Shallow Depths and Wallace’s Critical Intentionality

In “The Politics of Boredom and the Boredom of Politics,” Ralph Clare employs a historicist-etymological approach to examine, or rather deconstruct, the concept of boredom. Tracing its development through history as a term that originated in Christian monasticism (“acedia”) but was eventually secularized and democratized in the modern era (“melancholy,” “ennui”), Clare eventually makes the following claim:

 Wallace is primarily interested in exploring the roots of “boredom” as a specific historical formation of late capitalist American life. What Wallace does in The Pale King is conduct a thorough analysis of how boredom has functioned, and continues to function, socially, culturally, and politically in the age of neoliberal capitalism. (429)

Here and elsewhere, Clare argues that the very concept of ‘boredom’ is indicative of larger structural changes and processes. At first glance, this looks like a classical suspicious move: contrary to what one may think of as an innocent, inherent, or even natural part of the human psyche, it is revealed that boredom is constructed. It is a symptom or sign that leads us to see something larger, deeper, and potentially pernicious within the status quo that is “late capitalist American life” or “the age of neoliberal capitalism.” At the same time, Clare establishes for himself a critical vantage point from which he can continue to complicate and denaturalize boredom. So far so good, one might say, in the symptomatic scheme of things, yet, despite how revelatory or perhaps even subversive (for those who see boredom as an inalienable part of themselves) such a claim may seem at first, Clare’s critique is conducted in concord with – not in opposition to – The Pale King’s own reflections on boredom. In fact, the essay draws substantially on §33, the chapter where Lane A. Dean Jr.’s extreme boredom at work summons the ghost of a former IRS tax examinee – Garrity – who performs the same sort of etymological investigation as Clare:

Philologists say it was a neologism – and just about the time of industry’s rise, too, yes? of the mass man, the automated turbine and drill bit and bore, yes? Hollowed out? … Look for instance at L.P. Smith’s English Language … Posits certain neologisms as arising from their own cultural necessity – his words, I believe. Yes … the word invents itself … Smith puts it as that when anything assumes sufficient relevance it finds its name. The name springs up under cultural pressure. (384-385)

In light of Garrity’s breakdown of boredom that follows (or rather anticipates) Clare’s rhetorical and theoretical movement in his article, the distinction between literal surface and symptomatic depth begins to blur. If Clare’s symptomatic reading of boredom relies on a surface reading of The Pale King, is the approach still symptomatic, properly understood? In other words, what happens when the suspicious, interpretive task of exposing boredom’s construction becomes indistinguishable from the surface endeavor of describing Wallace’s symptomatic treatment of boredom in his novel? While Wallace is reading against the grain and critiquing an essential, ahistorical understanding of boredom, Clare, in agreeing with Wallace, is in fact doing a literal reading of the text. Hence, in producing a text that proves to be just as, if not more paranoid as critique, Wallace has effectively defused Clare’s claim to symptomatic exposure.

There are several implications here. If Wallace really did at some fundamental level intend The Pale King to be ‘about’ boredom and included a deconstruction and/or symptomatization of boredom to be part of that exploration – where does this leave critique? What happens when a discourse that revolves around speaking critically about, against, or on behalf of a text and/or author suddenly finds that they (the texts/authors) have the capacity to speak reflexively about their own ideas in an equally critical way? What follows, as Adam Kelly and suggests, is a resurgence of authorial intentionality not seen since new criticism and Roland Barthes’ sacking of the author some fifty years ago.[13] Singling out Wallace’s “genius and encyclopedic knowledge”, Kelly posits:

Whereas the rise of theory was initially viewed as the conclusive destruction of intention, the final nail in the coffin of Barthes’s dead author, here intention is birthed again to co-exist with theory, resulting in fresh forms of critical engagement…When theory was at its zenith in the academy, what a writer thought he or she was doing in their fiction was not a decisive factor for critics; but when major writers become willing to engage the discourses of theory itself – to speak the language of the critic, and challenge that language on its own turf – it is impossible not to take notice. (“Death of the Author and the Birth of a Discipline,”)

Whereas previously the writer’s authority was foiled by critical theory that deconstructs the supposedly ideological surface of texts, critically informed authors such as Wallace challenge critique with writing that anticipates and reproduces the same gestures and discussions as those of critique. In doing so, Wallace puts writing on equal footing with reading – suggesting that fiction also possesses its own critical consciousness and is just as equipped to engage in symptomatic hermeneutics as criticism. By stepping into the critical conversation in explicit and implicit ways Wallace’s intentionality forces us to recognize that he is also engaged in critical projects that may very well intersect with or anticipate our own.

In fact, nowhere is this critical intentionality more evident than in Wallace’s immense influence on the way he is read. It is now a generally accepted fact within the field of Wallace studies that “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction” and an interview with Larry McCaffery– both appearing in the 1993 edition of Review of Contemporary Fiction – are keystones for understanding and evaluating Wallace’s literary project.[14] It is in this essay-interview nexus (to borrow Kelly’s term) that Wallace first expresses some of his key ideas regarding self-reflexivity, sincerity, fiction as being about “what it is to be a fucking human being (McCaffery, 131,),” and the non-mutual exclusivity of cynicism and naiveté that set the path of critical discourse for the years to come.[15] Here again, we see Wallace’s intentionality working in such a way that seems to anticipate and thus neutralize critique. Whereas earlier Wallace makes Clare’s point before Clare could make it himself, here Wallace is directly telling his readers how to read him before or as they read him – a gesture that is often found in his fiction too.[16]

To summarize, Wallace in the essay-interview nexus describes the obsolescence of metafictional reflexivity as a viable critical tool for fiction writers in the age of television. In particular, he argues that the same ironic, absurdist tactics originally employed as a mode of resistance to “illuminate and explode hypocrisy” by postmodern forefathers such as Pynchon and DeLillo “have been absorbed, emptied, and redeployed by the very televisual establishment they had originally set themselves athwart” (“E Unibus,” 65-68). By anticipating and preemptively employing ironic techniques on itself, TV beat critique at its own game. In the end, Wallace calls for a group of anti-rebels in a world where rebellion has become fashionable, for authors who would risk sincerity, “eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue,” and “instantiate single-entendre principles” (81).

Sound familiar? In many ways, Wallace’s post-ironic/anti-ironic/meta-ironic[17] manifesto recalls[18] surface reading’s objections to suspicious hermeneutics. As such, both cases provide an account of how things are done in the present (Wallace in this sense provides the “How We Write Now” to Best and Marcus’ “How We Read Now”). Both identify an impasse in the status quo caused by the obsolescence of a previously dominant method that operates through a logic of exposure (symptomatic reading and metafiction), and both suggest that the solution to the problem involves a return to some notion of certainty, be it through faith in authorial sincerity or in textual surfaces. Once again, Wallace’s critical awareness leads to a direct engagement with the critical trajectory and suggests a potential affinity between reading and writing. In sum, while literary scholars such as Sedgwick and Lesjack are busy thinking about how to negotiate between suspicious and non-suspicious modes of reading, Wallace also turn out to be wondering about similar issues with his own vocabulary.

Nevertheless, there is a key divergence between Wallace and the surface readers in terms of their attitudes towards suspicious thought. For the surface readers, the turn against symptomatic reading entails a partial or complete abandonment of its practices altogether in order to get at fresh forms of textual engagement. In fact, it is this fundamental rejection of suspicious thinking that gels otherwise diverse and incongruent practices together under the name of surface reading. Hence, while radically different in their rationale and methodology, Marcus’ ‘just reading’ and Sedgwick’s ‘reparative reading’ agree in their disagreement with symptomatic reading.

Wallace, in contrast, is embroiled in a more complicated exercise that aims obliquely for sincerity in the presence or excess of the very self-reflexive metafiction that makes sincerity difficult to ascertain to begin with. Scott, in his essay on Wallace observes that “If one way to escape from the blind alley of postmodern self-consciousness is simply to turn around and walk in another direction … Wallace prefers to forge ahead in hopes of breaking through to the other side.” Echoing this sentiment Kelly notes that instead of abandoning the sinking ship of cynical paranoia (as the surface readers seem to do), Wallace’s return to sincerity is “informed by a study of postmodernist fiction, in order to properly take into account the effects wrought by contemporary media, particularly TV and advertising” (“New Sincerity,” 134). What this ultimately means for Wallace’s approach, as Boswell puts it, is that he “opens up the cage of irony by ironizing it, the same way he uses self-reflexivity to disclose the deceptions at work in literary self-reflexivity” (Understanding David Foster Wallace, 207, emphasis in the original). That is to say, meta-fiction is the proverbial cake that Wallace is both eating and keeping.

This counter-intuitive, meta-metafictional approach is part of a larger ethos of “bothness” that demands the balancing of different or even conflictive binaries that does not end up as an either/or choice or synthesize into a larger dialectic whole. We see this framework at play throughout both Wallace’s fiction and non-fiction, which is often characterized by an ambiguous relationship with metafiction, irony, and self-reflexivity underpinned by a general ambivalence to his postmodern forefathers like Pynchon and DeLillo.[19] It is this both/and attitude that has led Scott to suggest that “Wallace is temperamentally committed to multiplicity… He wants to be at once earnest and ironical, sensitive and cerebral, lisible and scriptible, R&D and R&R, straight man and clown, grifter and mark (emphasis in the original).”[20] Following Scott, Boswell adds that Wallace uses the “ironic method both to disillusion his readers and at the same time to connect with them (19, emphasis in the original),” and that his fiction is intended to work “both as diagnosis and cure” (Understanding David Foster Wallace, 17). Likewise, Adam Kelly links Wallace’s new sincerity to Derrida’s concept of the gift and observes in the two a shared commitment to the “frame of paradox” as a means of delineating and navigating a multiplicitous world in which any possibility of sincerity is always interwoven with the possibility of deceit (“New Sincerity”, 139-140).

At the root of all this is Wallace’s dogged insistence that literature is, above all, a conversation or dialogic relationship between two consciousnesses. First expressed in the McCaffery interview, the notion of fiction as a means to transcend the self (along with all the loneliness and solipsism that is associated with it) and access the other has remained the cornerstone of Wallace’s literary project. It is this belief leads him to conceive fiction as “an act of communication between one human being and another,” (A Supposedly Fun Thing, 144)[21] where the role of the author is “both to deny and affirm the writer is over here with his agenda while the reader’s over there with her agenda, distinct” (McCaffery, 137). In his commitment to bothness, Wallace articulates an alternate framework to think about the symptomatic/surface divide. In particular, by bringing seemingly antagonistic voices, concepts, and worldviews together in dialogic relation, Wallace goes beyond deconstructing binaries and provides a means by which one can perhaps view differences in a productive, collaborative way. I will now turn to The Pale King for an illustration of Wallace’s bothness and dialogism in action – both at a structural/formal as well as a thematic level. 


The Pale King

In The Pale King Wallace executes the aforementioned dualistic framework through a series of what one might call ‘conversation partners’. These are pairs who are in some sort of dialogue with one another, whether literally as in the case of a conversation between two characters, or conceptually, where two sets of ideas, methods, or images collide with one another in interesting ways. All this culminates in a novelistic structure that is binary and branching, full of halves that are in dialogue with one another.

According to the “embryonic outline” in the “Notes and Asides” section, Wallace planned “2 broad arcs” within The Pale King, each featuring a binary. Hence, one has to do with “Paying attention, boredom, ADD, Machines vs. People at performing mindless jobs,” and the other dealing with “Being individual vs. being part of larger things – paying taxes, being ‘lone gun’ in

Figure 2. Binaries in The Pale King (Print only)


IRS vs. team player” (545). However, the novel also bifurcates these thematic notions such as “attention” and “boredom,” creating secondary binaries for each half of the original two-pronged structure (i.e. attention vs. boredom, individual vs. collective). These secondary binaries are in turn put into tension with one another, and in some cases, undergo further mitosis.

For instance, following the description of the attention and boredom arc in the “embryonic outline,” Wallace examines attention as a function of information processing, which is to be scrutinized under the lens of “Machines vs. People at performing mindless jobs” through a contest between Shane Drinion and a computer scanner (544).[22] Yet, the human half of the ‘Machine vs. people’ is itself also split into halves: it remains ambiguous whether Chris Fogle’s ability to pay attenton in his dull working environment come from a drug-induced “doubling” he describes in §22 or from a string of magical numbers that supposedly “permits total concentration,” (541) or both.

Likewise, the boredom associated with working in the IRS is both the bane of Lane A. Dean Jr. (§33) and the salvation of Fogle (§22) –what is hellish for one is heroic and redemptive for the other. Simultaneously, the individual versus collective arc is problematized by the dialogue between the personal and the political realms of experience[23] on the one hand, and the IRS’ transition from a civic to a neoliberal entity on the other[24] (Fig. 2). In these (and many other) cases we see in Wallace a commitment to establishing, maintaining, and problematizing binaries. Consequently, there is a deep ambiguity running through the novel that precludes attempts at synthesizing or hierarchizing opposing discourses. Amongst these dialogues and dialogues within dialogues, there is one binary interaction that speaks directly to surface and suspicious hermeneutics. Together accounting for 175 pages, the Fogle and David Wallace[25] sections nearly take up half of the entire novel. Chris ‘Irrelevant’ Fogle’s long-winded chapter (§22, 98 pages in length) details his transition from a teenage nihilistic “wastoid” in the 1970s to a responsible adult and one of the few “True Believers” of the IRS. Opposite him is one David Wallace, David Foster Wallace’s narrative double whose heavily footnoted and equally rambling sections (§9, §24, §38, combined 77 pages) describe, amongst a plethora of other seemingly irrelevant items, his yearlong stint at the IRS after he was suspended from college.

Even at a first glance, there is sufficient overlap and difference between the two narrators and their narratives to suggest that Wallace intended the two to be read together.[26] On the one hand, both narrators are young, educated men whose accounts concern the personal circumstances that led them to the IRS and jobs in accounting; both spin narratives that transgress the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction;[27] and both seem to be both self-censoring, yet also contradictorily self-indulgent in their narration. On the other hand, these two narrators seem to embody ostensibly opposite narratological agendas that come together to comprise Wallace’s larger meditation on narratological method. While David Wallace operates within a framework of relevance that might be described as symptomatic, Fogle espouses a maximalist, surface-esque narratology that rejects relevance for what might be dubbed ‘experiential authenticity’.

Here, then, is an example of Wallace’s ‘bothness’ working on multiple levels. By pitting David Wallace – who goes so far as to assure us that he is not Chris ‘Irelevant’ Fogle (259) – against Fogle himself, Wallace displays an ambidextrous commitment to both a symptomatic-oriented, relevance-as-narrative-value paradigm as well as a surface-oriented, authenticity-as-narrative-holism paradigm. Yet while presenting an apparently stable binary, Wallace also problematizes their difference and renders a straightforward either/or choice between the two untenable. Instead, despite ostensibly occupying diametrically opposed positions on the issue of narratology qua relevance, Wallace demonstrates that the two narrators in fact inform and intrude on one another in surprising ways. As Fogle’s irrelevance finds its way into Wallace’s discourse of relevance and vice versa, we begin to see how the two narrators are in fact opposite sides of the same coin – with similar concerns, inclinations, and blind spots.

David Wallace’s Symptomatic Narration

As previously mentioned, the single most important narrative element for David Wallace is relevance:

 I have no intention of inflicting on you a regurgitation of every last sensation and passing thought I happen to recall. I am about art here, not simple reproduction… A 100 percent accurate, comprehensive list of the exact size and shape of every blade of grass in my front lawn is ‘true,’ but it is not a truth that anyone will have any interest in. What renders a truth meaningful, worthwhile, &c. is its relevance, which in turn requires extraordinary discernment and sensitivity to context, questions of value, and overall point.” (259)

In David Wallace’s account, relevance is an abstract ideal that demands some sort of systematic culling that reduces excess data down to size. In this sense, his narratological approach might be characterized as symptomatic. For David Wallace, relevance is like a narrative kernel of truth hidden beneath the totality of all information that is present on the surface. The role of the skilled narrator, then, is to use his “extraordinary discernment and sensitivity” to dig up or expose the latent value that is somewhere in the sea of irrelevant data. Also, note that relevance is for someone. What makes a “truth” relevant, according to David Wallace, is whether or not “anyone will have any interest.” This explains why David Wallace maintains an extra-diegetic presence throughout his sections by addressing the reader directly via self-reflexive, apologetic comments such as “I know that’s a pretty involved and confusing data-dump to inflict on you,” or “please know that none of this abstract information is all that vital to the missions of this Foreword. So feel free to skip or skim the following if you wish” (68-69). But even as he seems to toil for our sake, one cannot help but to sense something amiss in what he is doing. If David Wallace’s entire narratological goal is to be relevant and concise, why does he go to such great lengths to talk about relevance, which after all has little to do with the content of his narrative? Why does he on three separate occasions (257n, 259, 271n) go out of his way to bring up Fogle and his loquaciousness when surely the relevant thing to do would be to continue with his narrative?

Even putting aside momentarily the ironic irrelevance of his obsession with relevance, David Wallace is no Hemingway. Totaling 77 pages across three chapters, the David Wallace chapters are only slightly shorter than Fogle’s §22 but in many ways require more effort to read due to their excessive digressions, gratuitous details, and unnecessary comments – all of which unfold through Wallace’s signature, densely footnoted text. Given all this, the image of David Wallace as a kind, involved narrator who is looking out for the readers’ interests quickly becomes untenable, despite his best efforts:

I’m not going to be one of those memoirists who pretends to remember every last fact and thing in photorealist detail. The human mind doesn’t work that way, and everyone knows it; it’s an insulting bit of artifice in a genre that purports to be 100 percent ‘realistic.’ To be honest, I think you deserve better, and that you’re intelligent enough to understand and maybe even applaud it when a memoirist has the integrity to admit that he’s not some kind of eidetic freak. (259)

Readers of Wallace’s other works would probably do a double take here. David Wallace’s congratulating and self-congratulating gestures here match perfectly with the kind of self-reflexive manipulation Wallace has repeatedly railed against in “E Unibus Pluram” and other works. In the short story “Octet” from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, for instance, Wallace speaks of the type of real-world person who tries to manipulate you into liking him by making a big deal of how open and honest and unmanipulative he’s being all the time, a type who’s even more irritating than the sort of person who tries to manipulate you by just flat-out lying to you, since at least the latter isn’t constantly congratulating himself for not doing precisely what the self-congratulation itself ends up doing (125).

Viewed in this light, David Wallace becomes a narcissistic, self-absorbed narrator who performs concern and empathetic thoughtfulness as a means to court the reader’s favor and ultimately draw attention to himself. This again, seems to be a decidedly symptomatic gesture that recalls Sedgwick’s account of the paranoid critic who avoids bad surprises by anticipating them in advance: “Anything you can do (to me) I can do worse, and anything you can do (to me) I can do first – to myself “(131,). Thus, the real aim of David Wallace’s self-reflexive disclaimers is not so much to cater to the reader’s interest but to guard his narrative from potential future reproach.

Fogle’s Surface Narration

Conversely, Chris ‘Irrelevant’ Fogle’s style of narration might be described as surface-esque. At one point in his rambling, he tells us of a peculiar problem he encountered as a child: “instead of reading something I’d count the words, as though reading was the same as just counting the words” (160). This impediment is significant in that by equating reading with enumeration, Fogle is essentially opting out of the entire semiotic referential system implicated by the world of words and signs. As such, he dissociates himself from the sort of meaning that comes from retrieving deeper signifieds from surface signifiers while establishing an alternative reading method that takes meaning at a surface, numerical level. In other words, subjective, deep meaning (insofar as it is buried, encoded, and deferred within the complex system of signs) is translated into objective, quantifiable data that is apparent, distinct, and emptied out of any interpretive potential. Thus, Fogle’s ability to convert the first 7 pages of his narrative to 2,752 individual words embodies an alternate or competing narrative model that is quantitative rather than interpretive.

This inclination for or capacity to produce surface narratives is also, of course, palpable in his verbose narratological style. Responding to a relatively straightforward prompt asking how he arrived at a career in the IRS,[28] his narrative is disproportionately detailed and digressive. Spanning the events of almost a decade, Fogle’s monologue features a truly dizzying number of subjects including: individual, psychological portraits of the members of his family, an introduction to basic concepts in accounting, an explanation of the 1977 tax fiasco in the state of Illinois, his encounters with recreational drugs, and a remarkably meticulous account of the American 1970s from social, cultural, psychological, and personal perspectives. In its vast and disorganized form, Fogle’s maximalist style approximates for readers a kind of quantitative narrative that resembles more a colossal data set than a lucid and digestible story.

Along with his curious capacity to quantify narrative (for both himself and for others), Fogle also proffers an alternate conception of relevance that opposes the model espoused by David Wallace. Recalling a narrative about a life-changing moment he experienced during his college days but could not appreciate until later in his life, Fogle concludes:

I think the truth is probably that enormous, sudden, dramatic, unexpected, life-changing experiences are not translatable or explainable to anyone else, and this is because they really are unique…This is because their power isn’t just a result of the experience itself, but also of the circumstances in which it hits you, of everything in your previous life-experience which has led up to it and made you exactly who and what you are and when the experience hits you. (214)

Notwithstanding his alias, Fogle is not so much irrelevant as contra-relevant. For him, the very concept of relevance (which opposes and necessitates irrelevance) is inconceivable because “enormous, sudden, dramatic, unexpected, life-changing experiences” are irreducible and non-reproducible. Indeed, if the value or significance of an experience is the combined result of all its constituent factors occurring in exactly the temporal-spatial arrangement in which it did occur, then the act of separating the relevant from the irrelevant, much less arranging it and presenting relevance in “dramatically apposite terms” – as David Wallace claims to do – is impossible because everything is relevant. But of course, to say that everything is relevant is tantamount to saying that nothing is relevant. In this way, Fogle provides a surface model of relevance that is diametrically opposed to David Wallace’s symptomatic relevance. Whereas David Wallace operates on a notion of narrative efficiency that stratifies and values certain ‘relevant’ narrative details over others, Fogle’s emphasis on faithfulness to the original non-textual experience implies a non-hierarchical system of value where all narrative details are equally significant.

As opposed to relevance, then, what Fogle is after might be better described as accuracy or authenticity. Within this holistic framing of individual experience, narrative representation – with its practices of omission, condensation, and other stylistic distortions of reality – seems destined to fall short of the authentic reality of the experience itself. Since no two individuals’ experiences in the world are (or can ever be) identical to begin with, it is impossible for one to truly appreciate the relevance of any number of occurrences in another’s life. As such, Fogle’s opening statement in §22 – “I’m not sure if I even know what to say” (154) – is really both a succinct summation of his entire narratological philosophy as well as a foreshadowing of the inevitable failure of his attempt to communicate the series of events that changed his life over the course of the next 98 pages. Viewed thus, Fogle is also pursuing an abstract notion of narrative truth in the form of experiential authenticity that parallels David Wallace’s pursuit of relevance.

Still, even as Fogle professes that the truly personal is fundamentally unrepresentable and incommunicable, he nevertheless does not give up on telling his life story. Quite the opposite, he employs an exceedingly self-indulgent, maximalist narratological approach that attempts to capture every fleeting detail that comes to mind.[29] Perhaps Fogle does this in the hope of reconstructing a holistic narrative that asymptotically approaches the fullness of his unique experience as he had experienced it. But considering that his memory is far from perfect and the fact that the circumstances surrounding his first-hand lived experience is nothing like our own second-hand narrated experience, one has to wonder why Fogle even tries.

But this is exactly where Fogle and David Wallace meet on their seemingly divergent tracks. On the one hand, both are scrupulous enough about their narratological role and responsibility to establish some respectable narratological standards of narrative truth (relevance vs. authenticity). But at the end of the day, they both somehow undermine their narratological goals and do the opposite of what they intended: David Wallace’s discussion of relevance only serves to disrupt the relevance of his account; Fogle tells us that all personal narratives are misrepresentative only to end up trying to represent his personal experiences via narrative anyway. While wary of the fallibility of their own narratives, both narrators nevertheless seem unable to abstain from speaking – even if in doing so they fall into precisely the kind of narrative slippages they wished to avoid. Despite endorsing what seemed at first to be two diametrically opposing narrative agendas, the narratological movements of David Wallace and Chris ‘Irrelevant’ Fogle are at the end of the day strikingly similar.

Yet, this point of intersection is also where both narrators ultimately fall short. Whether opting for relevance and narrative efficiency or for holism and faithfulness to the authentic experience, David Wallace and Fogle seem to ultimately regard relevance as a predominately narratological or writerly concern. That is to say, both seem to take for granted the idea that relevance is solely the responsibility of the narrator, who amongst other things decides what is/isn’t relevant, how to present/not present relevance, and in this case, what kind of relevance – symptomatic or surface – to address. Consequently, both independently judge the possibility and limits of narratives and lose sight of the recipient of that narrative – the textual other who exists as a separate entity on the other side of the page with her own interests, intentions, and ideas about relevance. After all, who’s to say what a writer considers irrelevant or dull won’t be relevant, useful, or at least amusing to readers? All this is to say that relevance is ultimately something that occurs between the narrator and the narratee, the speaker and the listener, the author and the reader. One does not, after all, decide whether or not something is relevant on one’s own. It is not without irony, then, that despite all their fretting to guide, please, and pay respect to the reader, David Wallace and Fogle actually end up forget about her altogether.

In this latter sense, relevance becomes something of a red herring that distracts Fogle and Wallace – leading them away from a dialogue with the narratee and into a self-reflexive, narcissistic monologue instead. I borrow this distinction between monologic and dialogic forms of discourse from Adam Kelly, who similarly draws from Mikhil Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. The key difference here is between a monologic way of speaking that “seeks to embody prior truth and persuade others of the validity of that truth” that is often found in Socratic dialogues and a Dostoveskian dialogism that “emphasizes responsivity and open communication with others in the joint pursuit of truth” (“Novel of Ideas,” 6). In this framework, Kelly aligns Wallace’s fiction with dialogism, but with a twist:

At first blush, David Foster Wallace’s fiction appears similar to this Dostoevskian model, with Wallace’s characters shown to be prone to internal division and constantly engaged in dialogue with themselves and others. But Wallace adds an extra element to the mix, which rests in the anticipatory anxiety his characters feel in addressing others. Speakers in Wallace’s fiction are often depicted as desperate for genuine reciprocal dialogue, but find that their overwhelming need to predict in advance the other’s response blocks the possibility of finding the language to get outside themselves and truly reach out to the other. (David Foster Wallace and “The Long Thing,” 7)

In their simultaneous obsession with and negligence of the reader, our narrators fit this description of “anticipatory anxiety” rather well. Even as they incessantly worry over the relevance and/or accuracy of their narratives (supposedly for the sake of the reader), what they are really doing is insulating their narratives from criticisms of irrelevance or inaccuracy by anticipating such criticisms in advance. Despite giving the impression of conducting a two-way communication with a reader, the David Wallace and Fogle sections are monologues at heart. But unlike conventional monologues that derive their authority simply from the lack of another voice, these soliloquys are sophisticated in that they anticipate and integrate others’ voices into their discourse as a way of eschewing any real contact with the other that lies beyond the text.

At the end of the day, what both narrators need to realize is that although they can strive to insinuate relevance, it is ultimately beyond their control because relevance – or meaning in general – also has an extra-diegetic existence that implies a universe beyond the text. In a particularly illuminating section of the McCaffery interview, Wallace gestures towards this extra-textual metaphysics based on a notion of reader-writer reciprocity:

We still think in terms of a story “changing” the reader’s emotions, cerebration, maybe even her life. We’re not keen on the idea of the story sharing its valence with the reader. But the reader’s own life “outside” the story changes the story. You could argue that it affects only “her reaction to the story” or “her take on the story.” But these things are the story. This is the way Barthian and Derridean poststructuralism’s helped me the most as a fiction writer: once I’m done with the thing, I’m basically dead, and probably the text’s dead; it becomes simply language, and language lives not just in but through the reader. The reader becomes God, for all textual purposes. (141)

Having just alluded to the inseparability of subject/observer and object/experiment in quantum physics, here Wallace conceives of literature as a collaborative, dynamic, and fluid relation between writer and reader with the text acting as an intermediary. In this model, meaning goes both ways: although the writer initiated the literary project, it is ultimately the reader who negotiates with the meanings of the text and carries them with her into the world. It is thus that fiction becomes for Wallace “a relationship between the writer’s consciousness and her own,” where the reader has “to put in her share of the linguistic work” in order to make it a “full human relationship” (McCaffery, 138). In this suggestive model of writer-reader reciprocity, Wallace also presents a potential solution to the theoretical impasse wrought by the disagreement between surface and depth based hermeneutics.

Coda: Beyond Reading, Beyond Writing

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important – if you want to operate on your default setting – then you, like me, probably will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars – compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things.

–Da­­vid Foster Wallace 

At root, the surface/depth binary is sustained by a false dichotomy between reading and writing. Indeed, while divergent on their understanding of how reading should be conducted, both surface and suspicious readers seem to converge on an understanding of writing as a primarily surface phenomenon. The choice that follows, then, is one between respecting and describing the critical potentials of the surface and attacking it to reveal its hidden depths. However, as we see in the anticipation of Clare’s diagnosis of boredom in The Pale King as well as his intervention – via the essay-interview nexus – in the way his works are studied, Wallace is an author who is hyperaware of his position within the larger literary critical environment. As a result, his writing often mimics and anticipates the same gestures and logic of critique, thereby acquiring the same kind of ‘depth’ as one would ascribe to a piece of symptomatic criticism.

This causes a problem for surface reading (as we saw in Clare’s case earlier) as a surface reading of a text that practices symptomatic hermeneutics is no different from a symptomatic reading of a text that treats issues at a surface or literal level.[30] In this sense, one’s position on the surface/symptomatic divide becomes meaningless. What ultimately determines the vector of the critical project (i.e. whether the entire conversation between text and criticism is suspicious or trusting) is not only how critics read but also how texts and authors read. As such, surface reading’s faith in the critical agency of texts is simply deferring suspicion to the authors. But in doing so, surface readers risk being inconsistent in that while they reject suspicion as a limited way of interpreting texts, they seem willing (by default) to accept it when texts themselves symptomatize the world and other texts. What’s the point of favoring literature over criticism when both are, at the end of the day, ideas and arguments on paper produced by human beings?

On the other hand, symptomatic readers make a similar mistake by putting more faith in critique (particularly one’s own) than in literature or the writings of others. When they are reading, they view textual surface as shallow, inadequate, and always withholding secrets. Yet, as soon as their ‘deep’ readings become textual surfaces themselves (when they are published, read aloud during conferences &c.) they seem to conveniently forget about their commitment to exposure and somehow believe that the surfaces they’ve produced are safe from further symptomatic probing. The trick, as Latour identified, is that there is never any crossover between the various contradictory positions occupied by the suspicious critic, that there is “almost no occasion so far to detect the total mismatch of the three contradictory repertoires – antifetishism, positivism, realism – because we carefully manage to apply them on different topics” (“Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?”, 241, emphasis in the original). Yet, once we start symptomatizing our own symptomatizations, there is really no end to suspicion (Figure 1).

Of course, one might rebut that surface reading was never about using a uniform attitude and/or approach to all surfaces. To read symptomatic surfaces literally would defeat the whole point of getting away from suspicion in the first place when the real aim is to approach surfaces in a critical yet respectful way. Likewise, suspicious readers may also object, saying that symptomatic reading is not just rampant paranoia but a measured, critical application of suspicion when and where it may be appropriate and productive. Fair enough. But then again, aren’t the questions “how does one know when and where to apply/not apply suspicion” and “how does one know when and where to trust/not trust surfaces” really the same question?

To think of interpretation and fiction writing as separate endeavors is to forget that our readings of surfaces in turn become surfaces to be read. Likewise, to write (fiction or not) also necessarily involves an active interpretation of the world. The point, then, is to place reading and writing on the same plane, to recognize that they are opposite sides of the same coin with the same underlying impulse to critically engage with the world through text. And so, the conflict between surface and symptomatic reading is resolved the moment that we realize that meaning is not solely contained within the expressive power of the textual surface or in the suspicious efforts of the critic but somewhere in between – in their sustained conversation with one another.

All this harkens back to Wallace’s understanding of fiction as an intimate relationship between consciousnesses. Like Fogle’s and David Wallace’s self-entangling ramblings, there is a level at which surface a­­­­nd symptomatic discourses are themselves monologic, close-minded, and narcissistic. Their interactions with each other on the issue of reading resemble a formal debate between two sides that take turns at the podium talking past and against each other. Equally convinced of their own correctness and the shortsightedness of the other, the two take turns outlining their tenets and providing rebuttals without any real consideration of what the other side is saying.

Wallace’s fiction, on the other hand, is interested in transcending precisely this kind of egocentric monologue. Speaking of the importance of overcoming one’s “default settings” in a widely circulated 2005 commencement address, This Is Water, Wallace suggests that the true significance of an education is that it allows us to choose how to think. As it turns out, Wallace has something very specific in mind in terms of what we are liberated from and how or what we’re supposed to choose to think. For Wallace, the choice comes down to one between self-centeredness and other-oriented compassion. We can, if we choose to prioritize our individual wants and need, see the entire world as “a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation” determined to get in our way. But if we choose to attenuate our egocentric default settings and instead consider the existence and experience of others with the same capacity to feel as we do, a place like the checkout lines of a supermarket has the potential to become “not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars – compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things.” (93) While Wallace’s works facilitate this mental journey from self to other by engaging in conversations with their readers, the very process of reading Wallace has become an occasion for dialogue that creates communities of readers (who are, of course, also writers).[31]

In the spirit of conversation, then, I ask you (whoever you are): what can ‘we’ learn from Wallace? How might ‘we’ conduct criticism in a dialogic way? Could critique also be the kind of “full human relationship” that Wallace argued fiction was? What would that mean, or perhaps more importantly, what would that take? ■


[1] Alternative terminologies abound: Sedgwick calls it “paranoid reading” to signify its affective defect; Best and Marcus identify it as symptomatic reading and attribute it to Jameson; Felski calls it suspicious reading/thinking; Love calls it “critical hermeneutics;” gesturing towards its ubiquity and hegemony in the critical discourse, Latour simply calls it critique. Throughout this thesis, these terms will be used

interchangeably to refer to the general practice of reading beyond the literal surface meaning.

[2] Sedgwick 2003; Latour 2004; Best and Marcus 2009; Felski 2009; Love 2010; Felski 2011; Felski 2012.

[3] Mathias Nilges and Emilio Sauri, in their introduction to a collection of essays titled Literary Materialisms, call this a “materialist conceptualization of literature” and describe it as a position that insists on “the isomorphism between text and culture, and particularly between the ways in which each relates to the material world” (2).

[4] See, respectively, Said’s Culture and Imperialism and Clemens’s The Return of the Repressed: Gothic Horror from Castle of Otranto to Alien

[5] Jane Elliot and Derek Attridge discuss some of the factors in their introduction to Theory After Theory, and Lesjak discusses the “failure imperative” in Marxist dialectical project.

[6] Best and Marcus attempt this at the end of their introduction by suggesting paths forward through an ethos of neutral description. New formalism posits that texts have their own “critical (and self-critical) agency” where the role of the critic is not so much to force their critical interpretations on texts but to restore the text’s “original, compositional complexity” by describing it in a non-reductive way (Levinson, 560).

[7] But then again, this question is hardly fair: how is a movement that is founded on a refusal to think symptomatically supposed to give a symptomatic account of its own conception?

[8] Boswell notes the use of these same exact terms in three of Wallace’s major works, “E Unibus Pluram”, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” and Infinite Jest (Understanding David Foster Wallace, 16).

[9] See for instance Michiko Kakutani’s review for the New York Times, Jenny Turner’s for London Review of Books, Jonathan Raber’s “Divine Drugery” (The New York Review of Books), and really just about anything else that comes up when you type ‘The Pale King’ followed by ‘review’ in Google.

[10] To avoid confusion, I will use “David Wallace” to refer to the character/narrator within The Pale King while the author will be denoted either by ‘Wallace’ or ‘David Foster Wallace’.

[11] While conceding that any ‘authentic’ textual engagement free of external influences is impossible and perhaps even naïve to consider in the first place, there remains something to be said about the extent to which our reading experiences have become increasingly influenced by the rise of information technology (especially in the systematic cataloguing of metadata) that finds its most concrete manifestation in Amazon’s recommendations. How did things on the cover, on the back, and on the product page of the book become more reliable, accurate, and representative than what is actually in the book?

[12] For a more detailed analysis of paratext and its effects on a book’s reception, see Tore Rye Andersen’s “Judging by the Cover.”

[13] See Barthes, “Death of the Author” (1967), Wimsatt Jr. and Beardsley, “Intentional Fallacy” (1946).

[14] See, for example, Boswell’s “Cynicism and Naïveté” in Understanding David Foster Wallace, Anderson’s “Pay Attention!,” the preface to the second edition of Burn’s guide to Infinite Jest, and Kelly’s assessment of the field of Wallace studies in “The Death of the Author and the Birth of a Discipline.”

[15] Kelly identifies this as the “second wave of Wallace studies” and suggests that it began with A.O. Scott’s influential essay in 2000 and reached its peak in 2009 in a memorial tribute section of Modernism/Modernity.

[16] Consider for instance, the second-person interpellative in Pop Quiz 9 of “Octet”, James O. Incandenza’s explanation for his making of “Infinite Jest” in Infinite Jest, and the intrusive pseudo-author David Wallace in The Pale King.

[17]There is some debate regarding Wallace’s exact attitude towards irony. For post-irony, see Lee Konstantinou’s “No Bull”; for anti-irony, see A.O. Scott’s “The Panic of Influence,” and for meta-irony, see Boswell’s Understanding Wallace.

[18] Perhaps ‘anticipates’ would be more accurate here considering that Wallace’s quarrel with TV and metafiction actually precedes Sedgwick’s critique of paranoid reading Touching Feeling by a decade.

[19] For Wallace’s tenuous influences with his postmodern predecessors, see Marshall Boswell’s “Cynicism and Naïveté,” Brian McHale’s “The White Visitation”, Tore Rye Anderson’s “Pay Attention!” Also see the McCaffery interview (146)

[20] Scott’s comment draws from a piece of nonfiction about David Lynch in which Wallace discusses the filmmaker’s “bothness”:

This is what Lynch is about in this movie: both innocence and damnation; both sinned-against and sinning. Laura Palmer in Fire Walk with Me is both “good” and “bad,” and yet also neither: she’s complex, contradictory, real. And we hate this possibility in movies; we hate this “both” shit. “Both” comes off as sloppy characterization, muddy filmmaking, lack of focus… the real reason that we criticized and disliked Lynch’s Laura’s muddy bothness in ourselves and our intimates that makes the real world of moral selves so tense and uncomfortable, a bothness we go into the movies to get a couple of hours’ fucking relief from (A Supposedly Fun Thing, 211, emphasis in the original).

Notice how Wallace applauds Lynch’s bothness as a faithfulness to the “real world” which is irreducibly “muddy,” “tense,” “uncomfortable,” and eschewed in film. That this understanding of bothnesss as an integral part of reality that we go out of our way to avoid in our fictional experiences seems particularly significant in light of Wallace’s interest in instating doubleness in his fiction.

[21] See also interviews with Lipsky, Miller, and of course, McCaffery.

[22] The man/machine binary is also complicated by the fact that Drinion’s rigid mannerisms make him in many ways indistinguishable from a scanner to begin with. For a more comprehensive analysis of the man/machine binary and of posthumanism in The Pale King, see Wouters’ “What Am I, a Machine?”

[23] Hogg makes the argument that the novel is, again, both interested in maintaining separate spheres for the personal and the political while also complicating their separation by presenting characters such as Fogle where the two worlds seem to merge seamlessly.

[24] In this case, both the old, civics-inclined IRS and the new, business-like IRS defy the individual/collective binary. While in the scheme of the civic body politic individuals are both autonomous and “parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities (130),” the new IRS also finds its own individual/collective amalgamation in the notion of the corporate personhood.

[25] Again, not to be confused with the author David Foster Wallace, or Wallace as he is referred to throughout this paper. Although David Wallace opens the “Author’s Foreword” (§9) with the claim that he is “the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona,” (66) this is part of a larger self-reflexive narrative/rhetoric strategy that I will address shortly.

[26] The novel is also assembled with David Wallace’s entry-into-the-IRS narrative immediately following that of Fogle’s (§24 and §22 respectively). This seems to suggest that there is intention for the two chapters to be read in sequence. One should note, however, that The Pale King is incomplete at Wallace’s passing and compiled by editor Michael Pietsch. While one can never be sure of the novel’s form had Wallace finished it, the sheer amount of intersections between Fogle and David Wallace merits a comparison nevertheless.

[27] Fogle’s story is allegedly part of the “1984 Personnel Division motivational/recruitment faux documentary (257),” while David Wallace spends the entire Authors Foreword (§9) to belabor the point that his narrative “more like a memoir than any kind of made-up story” (67).

[28] To which others have given answers as short as: “I don’t believe I have anything to say that isn’t in the code or Manual” (116). Other entries in the IRS promo tape can be found in §14.

[29] It is in this narratological context that Fogle’s persistent concern with memory and recall throughout his narrative becomes significant: if the ultimate value of a narrative lies not in its relevance but its accuracy, then one’s ability to remember and reconstruct an experienced past becomes the single most important factor in writing. In this sense, memory is to Fogle what “extraordinary discernment and sensitivity to context, questions of value, and overall point” (259) are to David Wallace.

[30] One can imagine, for instance, that Clare could have done the very same historicist-etymological investigation of boredom on a different novel that treated boredom in a non-historical, essentialist way. In such a case, Clare’s reading would have been symptomatic and not literal, but what would really be the difference?

[31] See for instance, the group of entries collected under the title “Community” in The Legacy of David Foster Wallace which include amongst others, a piece by Kathleen Fitzpatric which argues that Infinite Summer, a collective online reading group project on Wallace’s Infinite Jest “creates pathways for ethical, empathic connection not just between reader and writer, or between reader and text, but among readers” (183).


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