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  • Narrative Modeling and Community Organizing in The Pale King and Infinite Jest
  • Andrew Warren (bio)

But how to make that? How—for a writer today, even a talented writer today—to get up the guts to even try? There are no formulas or guarantees. There are, however, models.

—David Foster Wallace, "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky" (274)

He'd been studying for the CPA exam for three and a half years. It was like trying to build a model in a high wind. 'The most important component in organizing a structure for effective study is:' something. What killed him were the story problems.

—David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (9)

In this essay I explore a number of narrative models as they appear in The Pale King and Infinite Jest. I look, that is, at places where those novels explicitly or implicitly model how narration works within the discourse of fiction. I limit myself to four: what I call the Contracted Realism model and the Spontaneous Data Intrusion model in Pale King; the Jargony Argot model and the Free Indirect Wraith model in Infinite Jest. The list is by no means exhaustive, but each example points towards a different way of constructing community within a novel, what I argue is a central aesthetic and ethical tension in Wallace's oeuvre. The opening section of each novel ends with an allegory of both reading and narrative: "Read these" (Pale King 4); "So yo then man what's your story?" (Infinite Jest 17). This modeling of narrative within narrative is not mere deconstructive play or postmodern recursion but instead gets at the heart of why Wallace writes fiction at all. Further, it is crucial that there exist several competing, overlapping and perhaps incompatible models at work in any given novel; such competition and incompletion prompts [End Page 389] a continual negotiation among the communities posited or contested in the novels.

Model #1: Contracted Realism in The Pale King

In a working note included at the end of The Pale King we find what appears to be one of the novel's crucial organizing principles: "Central Deal: Realism, monotony" (Pale King 546). And yet: "Drinion is actually levitating slightly, which is what happens when he is completely immersed; it's very slight, and no one can see that his bottom is floating slightly above the seat of his chair" (485). And yet: "The truth is that there are two actual, non-hallucinatory ghosts haunting Post 047's wiggle room" (315). And yet: "he, the any other GM, had cleared its throat in an expectant way in order to get my attention...and, gazing at me fiercely, said—yes, said, in a high and l-deficient but unmistakable voice—'Well?'" (393). Or: "An obscure but true piece of paranormal trivia: There is such a thing as a fact psychic" (118). And finally: "Harriet Candeleria turns a page. Anand Singh turns a page. Ed Shackleford turns a page. Two clocks, two ghosts, one square acre of hidden mirror. Ken Wax turns a page. Jay Landauer feels absently at his face. Every love story is a ghost story. Ryne Hobratschk turns a page. Matt Redgate turns a page..." (312, column 2).

Each of these moments challenges The Pale King's Central Deal, albeit in different ways. They also offer up models of reading and narration—again, in different ways. Those models, and their raisons d'être, will be this article's guiding concern, but let us first cite the note more fully: "Central Deal: Realism, monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens." In a sense, the explanation for the breaking of the Central Deal is written within it. If nothing is going to happen in The Pale King, then there needs to be a series of small readerly compensations: a couple of ghosts; a man levitating; a fact psychic; a talking baby; lyricism.

Realism, which Wallace here equates with a kind of narrative monotony, is both the novel's Central Deal and a Bum Deal, a "set-up." Hence, perhaps, the novel's continually positing alternative models for reading and narrative. They are perks, benefits that a human...


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pp. 389-408
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