Wallace, ever the seeker, wants to find the situation’s spiritual potential. Now redemption lies not amid the congregation of AA but along the thorny path of solitary asceticism. The story of the contortionist, that victor over the body, makes reference to Catholic stigmatists like Padre Pio and Therese Neumann (who was said to have subsisted on Communion wafers), as well as to a Bengali holy man. On the other side of boredom, says Fogle’s instructor (who seems to be a Jesuit priest), lies “a denomination of joy unequaled by any you men can yet imagine.” The path of corporeal transcendence is represented in The Pale King most fully by a taxman named Drinion. In the manuscript’s second-longest section—Pietsch places it near the end—Drinion listens to the confessional monologue of a fellow agent, the gorgeous Meredith Rand. (Their beauty-and-the-beast relationship recalls that of Gately with Joelle.) Listening, remember, was Wallace’s ethical ideal. Drinion’s concentration is complete, and as Rand talks away, he starts to levitate, like saints and yogis before him. But Drinion achieves his bliss at an enormous price—that, essentially, of having no self. Co-workers consider him “possibly the dullest human being currently alive.” He seems to have no interiority: no feelings, no imagination, no relationships, hardly even a past. “I don’t think I’m really anything,” he tells Rand. “I don’t think I’ve ever had what you mean by sexual attraction.” If perfect Zen emptiness is the only route to happiness, there’s something wrong with Wallace’s vision. He’s willing to try to be a grown-up, but he can’t imagine that there might be anything good about it. Tedium, deadness, drudgery, imprisonment: but no possibility of fulfilling work, or the joys of childrearing, or the increase of powers, or the growth of wisdom—no recompense at all, abundant or otherwise.
more from William Deresiewicz at The Nation here.