Mediocre Men and Pale Kings: Two Centuries of Sublime Office Tedium

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The symbolic martyr ‘mediocre man’ has trudged through two centuries of European and American capitalism and shows no sign of finishing his ghostly walk. Why is fiction repeatedly offering an escape from the mundane, through a revelling in its depiction? What moral truths does mediocre man embody, to earn his place alongside the Don Juans, villains or hunted men of our collective consciousness? Drawing on a history of portrayals of accountants, clerks and salesmen protagonists, from office fiction spanning the 20th and 21st century, this paper considers the place of Wallace’s The Pale King within this literary tradition.

Centring on striking parallels between The Pale King and Fernando Pessoa’s lifelong project (1888-1935), The Book of Disquiet, this paper situates Wallace’s work within a newly defined mediocre man symbolism. The Book of Disquiet charts daydreams of liberation from assistant book keeping, its unedited, fragmented manuscript compiled and published in 1982. George Steiner observed this work’s ‘metaphysical solitude’ and ‘reciprocities of awareness.’ Further counterparts to The Pale King reside in complex metanarrative framing. Pessoan critics still dispute the book’s structural organisation, it is ‘various books (yet ultimately one book), with various authors (yet ultimately one author).’

This comparison reveals The Pale King’s place within quotidian quest myth. From Pessoa’s book keeping protagonist musing on ‘those people who are but a series of parentheses in the book of life’ (p vii), I move to the epic sweep of Wallace’s exquisitely painful, in depth dissection of the Internal Revenue Service. Elegiac treatment of the stupefyingly dull has an enthralling legacy in Western fiction. This paper shows the seeds of Wallace’s heroics; sustaining concentration in the face of tedium, in Pessoa’s icon: ‘the sphinx of the stationary cupboard.’
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jun 2018
EventDavid Foster Wallace Conference - Illinois State University, Illinois, United States
Duration: 7 Jun 20189 Jun 2018


ConferenceDavid Foster Wallace Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited States


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