Sunday, March 8, 2009

DFW on Jobs

The New Yorker last week excerpted a short story length section of The Pale King, David Foster Wallace's unfinished third novel, which will be published sometime next year. The overarching theme of this book is boredom. Lane Dean, Jr., a character in the short story, works for the IRS.

Here is how Dean, Jr. works:

Then he did two more returns, checked the clock real quick, then two more, then bore down and and did three in a row, then flexed and visualized and bore way down and did four without looking up once, except to put the completed files and memos in the two Out trays side by side up in the top tier of trays, where the cart boys could get them when they came by.

And this is how he conceives of his job:

He felt in a position to say he knew now that hell had nothing to do with fires or frozen troops. Lock a fellow in a windowless room to perform rote tasks just tricky enough to make him have to think, but still rote, tasks involving numbers that connect to nothing he'll ever see or care about, a stack of tasks that never goes down, and nail a clock to the wall where he can see it, and just leave the man there to his mind's own devices.

If all this sounds familiar, it's probably because DFW has addressed these themes before. From his commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005:

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.

It's interesting to gain a glimpse into how a writer develops tropes and writes about issues that matter to him. Cool.

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