A Christian Scientist, a delusional messianic boozer pornographer, and a drag queen walk into a bar. The bartender says, we don’t serve your kind here.
So the Christian Scientist duct tapes his wife to the toilet, the messianic boozer plots elaborate capers, and the (after-hours) drag queen goes back to his management job at “Statistical Diagnostics.”
They all live in LA. Obviously.
And I loved it!
It starts as very broad farce. A cluster of narcissistic, deluded, quotidian folks, each with their own secret pains and dreams, each dream funny at first.
But as the plot jiggles its way through their crosses, clashes, and crashes—it’s LA, and there are cars and buses driving these characters about—each character seems more human than her often caricatured delusions make her seem.
I mean, Millet loves them. Even though she gives them outsized, stereotypical obsessions. Like the factotum whose lust for her boss manifests as elaborate Christlike fantasies of chaste mutual worship and rescue.
Or the drunk porno guy, who really does believe, with all his corroded heart, that he can save the world.
This is one of a few elements of this book that remind me of David Foster Wallace. The cartoonish characters whose florid, absurd extremities belie deep pathos.
I don’t quite understand why these authors choose such exaggerated characterizations to get readers to feel for the sad stories underneath. But I’m intrigued. The ol’ scholarly light has clicked on, and I’ll be keeping my eye out for more of it. Maybe it’s just Wallace and Millet?
The other Wallace connection: the essential absurdity of professional office life. The entirety of The Pale King centers on this. Millet’s office plots are just as full of the absurdity/pathos parfait as Wallace’s.
The way that a crew of outwardly dull, inwardly afire schmoes are crammed together into grey cubicles, grey walls, grey technological equipment and made to perform ongoing calculations for no stated purpose.
No wonder that everyone’s imagination is alight with elaborate scenarios of transcendent meaning–most obviously through Christian imagery. But less obviously through drag, through anonymous sex, through booze, through filmmaking.
More to the point, though, most of these characters were violated early on, by parents or by others close to them. I don’t see the novel as satirizing the malaise of office life as much as celebrating the ways that people try so very hard to be happy. Without any know-how, at all, about how that might happen.
I am obviously someone who’s never, ever believed for a fifth of a second that humor and depth are separate. That cynicism and irony are identical, or that absurdity has no political content.
So when Millet said in an interview that this book was shaped by satire, not by feeling, I may quibble a bit. The best satire is driven by passion.
And this book changed my mind about it halfway through. The rubber ducky moment, for example, (see the cover art) is one of the loveliest, cleverest, and most ironic scenes I’ve ever read.
I even liked the messianic drunk dude. Now, that’s good writing.