For the record: Some inaccuracies in §22 of The Pale King

§22 is one of the most powerful sections of The Pale King, providing an account of the narrator’s conversion from a listless burnout to a dedicated IRS agent. Crucial to this process is his accidental attendance of a review session for an advanced tax class, where the professor gives a lecture about the heroic nature of the accounting profession that has been much-quoted in reviews. The purpose of this post is to point out something that bothered me consistently about this chapter, namely its frequent inaccuracies in its references to Chicago. Whether these inaccuracies are DFW’s or the narrator’s (i.e., purposeful) is not completely clear to me, but I am inclined to think they are purposeful and will explain why after listing the primary inaccuracies I found.

  • I do not think that the professor is actually, as the narrator claims, a Jesuit. This is an area where the reviewers tend to take the narrator’s word for it, even though he expresses doubt on this matter. In point of fact, DePaul University, though a Catholic institution, is not Jesuit but Vincentian, and my understanding is that the majority of priest-professors would belong to the sponsoring order — particularly given the fact that Chicago also has a Jesuit university, namely Loyola. Even if the regular professor was in fact a Jesuit, however, it seems likely (though not certain) to me that the teacher who gives the stirring lecture, a substitute for the regular professor, is not a priest, given that he wears non-clerical garb. (Priests and other religious did loosen up their standards of dress after Vatican II, but the lecturer does not strike me as a “spirit of Vatican II” type of guy.) It is likely that the narrator is referring to the regular professor as a Jesuit simply due to the strong association between Jesuits and education, and his only reason for thinking the substitute must also be is some vague sense that the professor and his substitute must be “the same thing.”
  • His account of the public transit system does not seem to match up to reality. First, he refers to the commuter trains from the suburbs as “CTA” trains, but the CTA has never been in charge of that part of the public transit system. Second, there is not and never has been a CTA station by the name of “Washington Square.” Since the station where the father has his accident is in the subway, he could either be referring to the Clark and Divsion or Chicago and State stops in the Red Line subway, both of which are located near Washington Square Park.
  • In neither case does it seem to me that the stop in question would be a natural transfer point from the commuter rail system — the closest extant commuter rail stop is at Armitage and Clybourn, over a mile from either stop. Given that he characterizes their trip as aiming toward the Art Institute gift shop, it is possible that they did get off at Armitage and Clybourn and caught the Red Line at North and Clybourn, rather than going all the way to Union Station or Ogilvie — in fact, such a route would be very practical as it would require less backtracking if they had shopping to do near this supposed “Washington Square” stop (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out why this is the case, as I am starting to feel a little bit like a dork here). Such an efficient trip seems characteristic of the father, a public transit devotee and non-driver like myself.
  • When he goes to the IRS recruitment office on Taylor St., he claims that it is fortunate that the “Kennedy Expressway” blocks the view of the sign he and his roommate used to determine whether or not to do their homework. In point of fact, I-90/I-94 is called the Dan Ryan Expressway at that location (i.e., south of the Circle Interchange).

Why do I think these errors are purposeful? I believe they are the kind of errors someone like the narrator in his burnout phase would make. He calls the station based on a landmark he remembers as nearby rather than by its actual name, for instance, and he calls the expressway by the name it carries on the north side of town (as that is the part he would be more likely to know, living as he did in the northwest suburb of Libertyville). He includes a lot of detail because that’s the kind of person he has become, but he wasn’t the kind of person at the time who would actually have paid attention to those details. The attempt to include all the detail attest to the conversion itself, and the errors attest to how different he previously was.

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17 Responses to “For the record: Some inaccuracies in §22 of The Pale King

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Bonus points if you can identify the error in my post!

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’ll just tell you: my reconstruction of their trip can’t be right. I don’t think that takes away from the broader point, though.

  3. Spoiler Alert Thursday « The Weblog Says:

    [...] adaptation. I briefly considered The Pale King, as it was on sale for 30% off, but after reading Adam’s post today, I decided that a novel whose plot turns on a proper description of the Chicago transit system was [...]

  4. daniel silliman Says:

    The character of §22 (‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle) seems to recognize that he doesn’t know whether or not the sub is a Jesuit, and when it comes to the hat at the end, seems to decide the sub is not, in fact, a Jesuit. He also at another point mentions an administrator at the school who definitely was a Jesuit.

    Since it’s a kind of religious conversion, “called to account” etc., I think that part’s intentional, as the sub is a kind of religious figure, but also not.

    The Chicago stuff I don’t know.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    That makes sense, though I still think it’s possible that by “Jesuit” he just means “professor-priest.”

    The error with the Kennedy Expressway may have a whole other range of associations, perhaps similar with his confusion about the priest as a Jesuit — obviously Kennedy’s famous line “ask not what your country can do for you” makes sense in terms of joining public service through the IRS, but there’s also the contrast between the heroic goal of going to the moon, which Kennedy declared, and the boring duty to which the quasi-Jesuit professor called his students.

    I’m looking up possible associations for Washington Square — apparently there’s also a Washington Square park in Greenwich Village in NYC known for its bohemian character, and the shift into the Chicago one may evoke a similar 60s vs. 70s dynamic. There’s also a novel by that name by Henry James that apparently includes a father who finds his daughter to be a disappointment; the daughter gradually becomes wiser over the course of the story.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    In any case, the figure of the Jesuit is evocative in this context, since the order combines a religious mission with engagement with the modern world specifically through the professions — so even though the substitute isn’t a Jesuit himself, his calling to the students is Jesuit-like in structure.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Further on the Henry James novel: Wikipedia indicates James himself regarded the novel with contempt, but it was one of his biggest popular successes and remains a sentimental favorite for everyone. Given that James is obviously associated with more experimental writing, and given that DFW was apparently trying to simplify his style in this novel, that might be another layer of association.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The history of the Washington Square park in Chicago may be more directly relevant, though — here’s the Wikipedia.

    I honestly think I’m on to something here….

  9. ben Says:

    While I hate to stand in the way of literary sleuthing and hermeneusis, I wonder if there isn’t something akin to the Strong Law of Small Numbers going on here.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    There are apparently no works of Henry James whatsoever among DFW’s personal books archived at U Texas. That may hurt my theory.

  11. Joel Daniels Says:

    Any chance the errors would have been checked by DFW himself during revisions? It’s something his editor wouldn’t have done after his death, and rightfully so.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    From the post: “Whether these inaccuracies are DFW’s or the narrator’s (i.e., purposeful) is not completely clear to me.”

  13. Warren Says:

    I too was bothered by these inconsistencies, but I agree that they are probably intentional, either a result of the narrator’s misremembering or DFW’s purposeful distortion to make the places at which the events occurred close to real but not exact; just like the fictional “Enfield, MA” in IJ and the building at which the first story of Oblivion takes place, which has an “xx East” address in Chicago that in reality would put it in the Lake.

    If I had to guess though, I’d say the subway stop in question is the Logan Square blue line, less than a mile from the Hermosa Metra stop (the commuter line), which is on the same line as the Libertyville Metra stop. The Logan Square subway stop has trains from both directions sharing the same platform, which the station in the story also has, as a piece of luggage gets thrown onto the “opposite” track; it also couldn’t be any Redline subway stops north of the Loop, as all those have separate platforms for each direction. When I first read it, I thought they got off at Ogilvie and went to the Washington Blue Line, but maybe this is more plausible? I dunno, I also felt like it was really important to correctly place these events in the Chicago I know, so I hope that helps…

    Also when he says “Kennedy” expressway he may be referring to the Eisenhower, and maybe just assumes all expressways are “The Kennedy,” coming from the burbs, or again misremembering…

    And there is no Garnier hall at DePaul, he’s probably referring to the Schmidt Academic Center, which has symmetrical wings.

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Logan Square is a good possibility, especially as they would likely get off at Washington downtown — hence his confusion. (Yet Clark and Division, the stop nearest the actual Washington Square, does have a single platform for both directions.)

  15. Adam Kotsko Says:

    But! They were on their way home when the accident happened, so they wouldn’t have been waiting at the Logan Square stop, since that would be where they got off. Yet the Washington Blue Line also has a center platform, so your overall schema may still work — and if he thinks all city expressways are “the Kennedy,” maybe he thinks all L stops are “Squares” (especially since the Washington Blue Line opens onto a kind of square).

  16. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’d be all the more square-like insofar as Block 37 was presumably still empty back then, right?

  17. dbcreads Says:

    Additional error: Machesney Elementary — which Fogle claims to have attended — is not part of the Rockford School District, but rather the Harlem School District 122. And it was not open until August 1991 — well after Fogle would have been the age to attend.

    I know this because, well, I went there! These are things that a more thorough copy editor may have caught — though who the hell knows? I don’t think these errors can be considered intentional on Wallace’s part (building an unreliable narrator, etc.) because these mistakes are factually based.


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