Below is a version of the paper I presented at the Second Annual David Foster Wallace Conference in Normal, Illinois, on May 29, 2015. I’ve removed the page citations, bibliography, and images in this version.
The Fogle Novella: Catalysts in the Conversion Narrative
There is a moment in Section 22 of The Pale King when “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle feels he must change the course of his life. This moment comes, appropriately enough, when he is “doing nothing” – simply watching television. As a self-confessed nihilist, all of his life’s choices up to this point seem equally irrelevant to him. He takes pride in his ambivalence. But the great spinning ball of “As The World Turns” (“You’re watching As The World Turns”) is an epiphany for him: his carelessness has cast him as an observer of his life rather than its chief actor. He says:
I knew, sitting there, that I might be a real nihilist, that it wasn’t always just a hip pose. That I drifted and quit because nothing meant anything, no one choice was really better. That I was, in a way, too free, or that this kind of freedom wasn’t actually real — I was free to choose ‘whatever’ because it didn’t really matter.
Throughout his lengthy narrative, Fogle explains how he ultimately turned away from his life as a wastoid nihilist and became a responsible citizen and IRS tax examiner. How does this happen? The process was gradual and then rapid, but he attributes this change partly to “unexpected coincidences”, “changes in priorities” , and “making a choice of what was more important.” If we think of The Pale King as an explicitly religious novel, Fogle’s choice and his overall narrative of change can be interpreted along the lines of a conversion, like a sinner who is redeemed.
This essay discusses the structure of Fogle’s conversion narrative, the catalysts that force a change in his story, and the similarities his story shares with early American Puritan conversion narratives. Fogle’s Section 22 is long enough and self-contained enough to stand on its own and so I refer to it in places as “the Fogle novella” or just “the novella.” Throughout Fogle’s narrative, there are three main catalysts that instigate change within his life: 1) his father’s “Ozymandias” statement, 2) hearing the As The World Turns tagline, and 3) the Jesuit substitute’s speech at DePaul. As a literary construct, Fogle’s narrative mirrors the structure of Puritan conversion narratives, which Patricia Caldwell’s work has shown to be a primarily literary form masked as a religious element. Fogle’s story arc follows a surprisingly similar pattern and still adheres to the greater project of The Pale King: boredom as religious experience.
Like Infinite Jest, The Pale King is concerned with how we should live. Fogle’s story is vast and contains many important points about religion, Christianity, 1970s American history, drugs, tax, etc. Fogle is an aimless, lost young man, committed to the ethos of the 1970s: whatever. He grows up with divorced parents—a serious and stern father who is killed in a horrific train accident, and a freewheeling lesbian mother who smokes pot with him and opens a bookstore. With a transcript that looked like “collage art”, he tries to go to several different colleges, but nothing interests him. One day he stumbles into the wrong classroom and hears a lecture that changes his life. Eventually he finds his life’s purpose in the form of service to the IRS.
After high school Fogle drifted in and out of three different colleges, just going through the motions, bored to death. The first of several wake up calls that catalyzes and motivates Fogle to try to find a purpose in life is his strait-laced father inadvertently discovering him and his friends high, smoking marijuana, and covered in beer cans. It is the clichéd father coming home early and discovering the party scene. His father then quotes Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” – “Look on my works ye mighty and despair,” a poetic admission of failure in his own parenting and an embarrassment to the young Fogle since he doesn’t really understand the reference and feels small. But it provokes within him a moment of perfectly clear self-reflection and empathy with his father. In fact, Fogle says that his one occasion “sums up the whole period for me now, when I think of it.” The father’s flippant comment, combined with his lack of anger about the situation, gives Fogle a sense that true adults are capable of controlling their emotions and reacting to the world in a mature, meaningful way. Fogle realizes at this point that he has completely neglected his own emotional (and intellectual, and moral, etc.) development. The consequence of this neglect is that he is stunted, an emotionally underdeveloped child and still a burden to his parents.
The second catalyst that provokes Fogle into action is his inadvertently hearing the tagline of the soap opera “As the World Turns” repeated on television. This statement “You’re watching As the World Turns, You’re watching As the World Turns” has a profound effect on his sense of coasting through life as a passive observer, a witness to his own story. Hearing that phrase shakes his entire existential foundation. He says:
I knew, sitting there, that I might be a real nihilist, that it wasn’t always just a hip pose. That I drifted and quit because nothing meant anything, no one choice was really better. That I was, in a way, too free, or that this kind of freedom wasn’t actually real — I was free to choose ‘whatever’ because it didn’t really matter. But that this, too, was because of something I chose — I had somehow chosen to have nothing matter. It all felt much less abstract than it sounds to try to explain it. All this was happening while I was just sitting there, spinning the ball. The point was that, through making this choice, I didn’t matter, either. I didn’t stand for anything. If I wanted to matter — even just to myself — I would have to be less free, by deciding to choose in some kind of definite way. Even if it was nothing more than an act of will.
Although this is the moment when Fogle’s aversion to his previous way of living intrudes into his consciousness, his free will requires another, more forceful catalyst to affect real change in his life. And it happens the very day after he hears “You’re Watching As The World Turns.”
The Pale King, as structured by Michael Pietsch, introduces Fogle’s character in the middle of the novel, as part of the series of videotaped interviews with IRS examiners under the guise of producing an informational film about the agency called “Your IRS Today.” However, it is hinted that one of the higher-ups might be using these interviews not to actually produce a documentary video, but as revealing surveillance opportunities to spy on employees. In a note, Wallace questions the idea “Film interview a sham?”
Either way, it’s difficult to surmise Wallace’s original “tornadic” structure of the Pale King and how the IRS video device figures into the larger whole. One theory could be that Wallace wanted to show the path that leads the characters to become IRS examiners, since many of the characters are shown as children and then as adults. For Fogle, the interview as such functions as a narrative device for a confession, with the setup resembling a confession booth. Rather than the examiner speaking to a priest through a screen, he or she is speaking directly into a camera, alone.
“It’s an IRS examiner in a chair, in a room. There is little else to see. Facing the tripod’s camera, addressing the camera, one examiner after another.”
Responding to an open-ended interview question is therapeutic for some and requires the respondent to be self-conscious and reflective. Wallace uses the structure of the fictional IRS video to present a series of discussions on tax civics as well as the personal route toward redemption exemplified by Fogle’s story.
In fact, there are a number of actual IRS informational and recruitment videos, though none in the style of the fictional “Your IRS Today. One of the most powerful recruiting tools the IRS used in the mid-1980s was a widely-distributed pamphlet called “IRS: The Whole Picture.” It provides “Seven Good Reasons To Join the IRS”. They are: 1) Your Choice of Jobs, 2) Extensive Field Work, 3) A High-Tech Employer, 4) Great Benefits, 5) Make a Difference Right Away, 6) A Nationwide Organization, and 7) A Chance to Serve the Public Good. The seven reasons are presented as popular myths that the IRS can rebut. The real-life recruitment of IRS examiners strongly relied on the concepts of choice, free will, making a difference, and public service. The myths that the recruitment brochure tries to rebut force the potential employee to confront the reality of the world such as it really is, as opposed to the way the IRS might be represented in the media or the nation’s collective consciousness. This is somewhat similar to the function of The Pale King itself, and these are the same values and factors that Fogle cites when he thinks about the influence of the third catalyst in his conversion – the Jesuit substitute’s speech. He says:
“I think part of what was so galvanizing was the substitute’s diagnosis of the world and reality as already essentially penetrated and formed, the real world’s constituent info generated, and that now a meaningful choice lay in herding, corralling, and organizing that torrential flow of info. This rang true to me, though on a level that I don’t think I was even fully aware existed within me.”
This also matches up with Fogle’s father’s claim that there are only two kinds of people in the world: “people who actually understood the technical realities of how the real world worked (via, his obvious point was, math and science), and people who didn’t.” After this galvanizing diagnosis of the world, it’s somewhat easier for Fogle to be swayed by the incentives offered at his local IRS recruitment center. An epic snowstorm is presented as an impediment to his road to Damascus, but Fogle persists, unwavering in his need for verifiability and his commitment to thoroughly reading the manuals presented to him.
Conversion narratives are as old as Christianity itself, starting with the apostle Paul. The original followers of Christ had to make an active choice to follow this new religion. Although Paul’s conversion in particular was divinely thrust upon him, the event is used as evidence of the supernatural power of God. However, the theological framework of Christian conversion has evolved dramatically from the origins of the religion, through the protestant reformation, the publication of the first English Bible, and the rise of globalization. If we look at conversion narratives in the tradition of American literature, the first surviving narratives are ‘a series of fifty-one “Confessions” given at the First Church of Cambridge, Massachusetts, between 1637 and 1645, and recorded in a small private notebook by the minister of the church, Thomas Shephard. Patricia Caldwell examined these confessions in her study “The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression” and found that early English and American conversion narratives “share some basic literary techniques – a heavy reliance on Scripture, a certain amount of objective self-examination and orderly arrangement.”
Puritanism is unique here because Puritan churches allowed only the elect to join and new candidates were required to recite a conversion story in order to gain full membership in the congregation. This reliance on story carried over to the prominence of sermons. John Cotton, one of the first theologians of the Massachusetts Bay Colony believed the Bible could not save souls only by being read. To him the first step in conversion was the “pricking of the hardened heart” of the convert by hearing the word of God in a sermon. Unlike Catholicism, which emphasized the sacraments on the altar, American Puritanism, which favored predestination, focused on the words delivered from the pulpit. Compare this with the final catalyst in Fogle’s conversion – the lecture from the Jesuit substitute teacher. Fogle ambles into the wrong classroom only to hear a sermon on accountancy that changes his life forever. Fogle is not changed by reading a novel or an essay – it is only by hearing the Jesuit minister preach about the heroism of the everyday accountant that Fogle averts a life of wasted promise. “Gentlemen, you are called to account,” he exhorts.
All of the catalysts in Fogle’s conversion narrative—the Ozymandias line from his father, the As The World Turns tagline, and the Jesuit’s speech—are things that he heard. Unlike his father, who “read constantly,” Fogle is most susceptible to change when the meaningful words are spoken rather than printed.
The structure of Puritan conversion narratives were so consistent that it was often joked that “many spiritual narratives of the period were not so much composed as recited.” Edmund Morgan summarized the most common sequence of events as “knowledge, conviction, faith, combat, and true, imperfect assurance.” I would argue that Fogle’s narrative follows a similar formula and it would be easy enough to apply Morgan’s summary to the catalysts of change in Fogle’s narrative. The common structure of these narratives often meant Puritans “had great difficulty both in defining religious experience and in believing they had had it.” This doubt about the narrative itself manifests itself in Fogle’s opening when he says “I’m not sure I even know what to say. To be honest, a good bit of it I don’t remember.” And when he blames much of his story on “unexpected coincidences” and says “Obviously these sorts of unexpected things can happen in all sorts of different ways, and it’s dangerous to make too much of them.”
The fact that Puritans also required a conversion narrative to obtain church membership parallels Fogle’s explanation of those who join the IRS. They are the elect. “It’s not a very common type—perhaps on in 10,000—but the thing is, that the sort of person who decides that he wants to enter the Service really, really wants to and becomes very determined, and will be hard to put off course once he’s focused in on his real vocation and begun to be actively drawn to it.”
Fogle delivers his testimony, his conversion narrative, back into a camera that he believes will carry his message into the world via a documentary film, but we learn in Section 24 that Fogle is widely despised for his lengthy “vocational soliloquy”, earning him the nickname “Irrelevant.” While the details of Fogle’s story might be irrelevant in the context of the IRS office, his narrative forms the core of The Pale King’s project. In one of the Notes & Asides at the end of the book, Wallace notes that “Irrelevant Chris is irrelevant only on the subject of himself? On all other topics/subjects, he’s focused & cogent and interesting?” Wallace chose to represent Fogle’s transformation from wastoid to auditor as an overtly religious conversion partly because it fits into the greater mission he was striving toward in what became The Pale King:
“Bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.”
This bliss is a type of salvation, something that must be worked toward rather than graciously received. Just as Puritans demanded of their members an explanation of how they arrived at redemption, Wallace uses Fogle to illustrate how the most complex decisions of our lives, the ones that determine our fate and our careers, evolve over time. “Aversion” comes from the Latin avertere which means to turn away from. And Fogle turns away from his old life, his feckless, wastoid nihilism, not to join the church, but to simply live a more meaningful life.