Thursday, July 14, 2011

Boredom, Death, Royalty, Taxes, and Jews

I have not yet finished "The Pale King", David Foster Wallace's posthumously published final novel.  It is not due to lack of time, as I have achieved a somewhat embarrassing high score on Word Bubbles, but to re-reading the middle section of the book.

As a fast, practiced reader, I rarely return to the same chapter more than twice.  However, "The Pale King" does not reveal its secrets easily.  It is a frustrating, brilliant, and unsettling work that is clearly unfinished yet nearly perfect.  DFW began researching the book in 1997 and writing it in 2000.  When he died in 2008, he left over 1,000 pages for his wife and editor to compile into a novel.

Large sections of "The Pale King" are boring.  This is a novel largely revolving around accounting and the IRS, so this is unsurprising. While the first 20 pages are beautiful and engaging, huge swathes of the next 100 pages are consumed by lengthy, meandering interviews and numbing technical terminology.  There is no central narrative to follow; scenes with no definitive time or place circle around the accounts of various people drawn to work for the IRS.

This is by design.  You, the reader, are supposed to be bored.  Yet if you dig deep, really deep, bones of the Earth deep, and pay attention to these stories, you will be rewarded.  There is a gorgeous, searing chapter in which nameless IRS employees converse during a smoke break.  If you didn't pay attention and simply skimmed the previous chapters, you might skim past portions of this chapter as well.  You might notice the startling prose ("Everything is on fire, slow fire.").  But then you will move on, untouched and oblivious.

You will have failed, both as a reader and as a person.  You will have failed because you will have missed the difficult idea at the center of "The Pale King"; some truth can only be found through boredom, through pain, through careful attention to minute details over long periods.

When my Dad talks to me about the law, he is filled with light.  He is transformed by his love of the cold, technical language that instills dread in law students and everyday citizens alike.  Yet to him, there is poetry in the law.  There is meaning and mercy and problems to be solved.

At some point in his studies, after countless hours of reading, writing, and thinking, a change occurred.  It wasn't a big change, at least in a cosmic sense, but it was an important one for him.  The law was no longer just "the law".  It wasn't a set of statutes to memorize or briefs to analyze.  It was a source of meaning.  It was a way to illuminate the world.

He had achieved expertise beyond expertise, knowledge beyond knowledge.  He had drunk and drunk and drunk until the law seeped into his bones, into his organs, into his soul.  Like the IRS agents in "The Pale King", he had wrestled the great beast of boredom and won.

Attention, real attention, hurts at first.  When I watched the devoted pray at the Kotel or Wailing Wall, I was always amused by the davening of teenage boys.  They rocked back and forth, imitating their elders while shooting furtive glances all around.  They checked on the prayers of their peers; they made sure others could see that they were, indeed, praying.  And when they did try to focus, their pinched expressions betrayed their effort.

I watched young men in their twenties and thirties pray.  They shut their eyes and rocked back and forth with purpose.  They were no longer distracted by their surroundings but by the maelstrom in their heads. Praying wasn't painful, but it was work.  They knew they had to pray but could not find the transcendence they desired. They were, and are, like I am.  Their expressions blank, they scrabbled in the dark for something they could not name.

It was the old men who knew the truth.  They talked to friends, neighbors, and family.  They checked up on past acquaintances and swapped stories about their grandchildren.  When they did turn to face the Wall, they sidled up to it like an old friend.  Here I am, they seemed to say.  It's another day to live by the grace of G-d, to bathe in the light.

"Everything is on fire, slow fire."  That's what DFW's commencement address at Kenyon College is about; it's what "Parokhet" is about too.  We only have so much time to live and love.  What do you love?  Because what you pay attention to is what you love.  So pay attention to what you pay attention to.

You cannot find joy, real joy, in Facebook status updates or talking dogs on Youtube or British tabloids or reality TV or any of the trillion fleeting contrivances of the moment.  Grace is found through hard work.  Grace is found by paying attention to important things even if they're boring, especially if they're boring, until the attention feels like pain, and then it feels like nothing, and then it feels like praying. Because we're all praying to something.

What do you love?  Whom do you love?

Pay attention.