David Foster Wallace’s sprawling, painfully incomplete final work, The Pale King, and Joshua Ferris’s first novel, Then We Came to the End, share more than just a publisher in Little, Brown. The two works also situate themselves in a common milieu through their exploration of office drudgery. Wallace’s The Pale King takes place in an IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, in the 1980s, while Ferris’s Then We Came to an End moves ahead in time to an advertisement agency at the advent of a new millennium in nearby Chicago. Both novels—if The Pale King can be called a novel—flit in and out of the lives of various characters connected by their respective workplaces. They piece together narratives through water-cooler rumors and stories told over lunch breaks. They are fictions of the office, of the American working life.
However, Ferris and Wallace present visions of their corporate and bureaucratic worlds in markedly different styles and tones. Where Ferris has characters joke about misplaced roller chairs and pull pranks on one another, Wallace has characters writhe in boredom and contemplate suicide. Such a comic/tragic dichotomy, of course, is not entirely fair. Then We Came to an End contains obvious moments of misfortune (cancer, abductions, depression), and The Pale King is not without its humor (the banter in the stalled elevator in §19 comes to mind). But Wallace’s work is, without question, deeply serious. Its immense sentences wind into the minds and sorrows of its oddly named characters, from the hyper self-conscious David Cusk to the psychically disturbed Claude Sylvanshine. In the so-called AUTHOR’S FORWARD of §9, the faux David Foster Wallace, as narrator, claims that his whole account relays “something about dullness, information, and irrelevant complexity. About negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests of endless wastes.” Meanwhile, Ferris chooses a collective “we” to narrate his novel, a united cohort of copywriters and creative directors to The Pale King‘s isolated, bored crop of tax examiners. If Wallace’s writing mimics boredom, then Ferris’s embodies a kind of group gossip.
Owing partly to the unfinished status of Wallace’s novel-ish thing, the two works don’t allow for much easy comparison beyond some of these overarching features. It’s a flawed exercise from the start. Yet, I do think the overlaps are compelling. In particular, I want to highlight what I contend to be a direct borrowing between the two authors. Either that, or it’s some inexplicable coincidence.
In §4 of The Pale King, Wallace includes an “excerpt” from the Peoria Journal Star newspaper about the heart attack death of an IRS worker that went unnoticed by his coworkers “for four days”:
Frederick Blumquist, 53, who had been employed as a tax return examiner with the agency for over thirty years, suffered a heart attack in the open-plan office he shared with twenty-five co-workers at the agency’s Regional Examination Center on Self-Storage Parkway. He quietly passed away last Tuesday at his desk, but nobody noticed until late Saturday evening when an office cleaner asked how the examiner could still be working in an office with all the lights off.
Compare this to the opening of the fifth chapter of Ferris’s novel, which describes how “A man working at an office much like ours had a heart attack at his desk, and for the rest of the day people passing by his workstation failed to notice.” An unnoticed office heart attack is one thing, but there’s more. According to the dispatch, the man “wasn’t discovered until four days later, when coworkers complained of a bad-fruit smell.”
Both employees die of heart attacks, relayed through articles within the text, and both are discovered four days later? Surely this isn’t sheer independent creativity.
Then We Came to End was first released in 2007 by that famed publisher of Girl with Curious Hair, Infinite Jest, and the rest of Wallace’s fiction. Wallace continued to work on The Pale King up until his death in September of 2008. Could he have come across Ferris’s book and adapted §4 from this passage?
It’s certainly possible. Ferris and Wallace had preexisted correspondence dating back to Ferris’s college days when he interviewed Wallace about Infinite Jest for the University of Iowa’s student newspaper, as Ferris recalled in an article for the Guardian. And seeing as how they shared a publisher, it seems likely that Wallace would have heard about the debut novel. Though Wallace began writing the manuscript that would become The Pale King as early as 1998, the sections came in fits and starts and were ordered not by Wallace himself, but by his editor Michael Pietsch, meaning that this early §4 could have been written much later. Let’s leave the borrowing at “deceptively probable” for now.
The similarity that matters in the end is the two authors’ sustained interest in the meaning of work. Ferris’s subsequent two novels, The Unnamed and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, center on the professions of their protagonists, a lawyer and a dentist, respectively. Wallace’s own portrayal of the working life may seem openly pessimistic, yet it also sanctifies office labor, as a Jesuit accounting professor declares in §22: “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Sure endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism.”