Author’s Note: The author read The Pale King several years ago, amid a slurry of avant-garde fiction. The author has elected not to revisit The Pale King for the piece that follows, and in no way intends to be taken seriously as a Wallace critic. When the author has long hair, they are told they resemble Wallace, in a passing glance kind of way. The author welcomes the comparison.
In The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel about IRS agents, one character speaks at great length how he was, in his words, “called to account.” The unnamed narrator talks about being directionless. Apathetic. The worst kind of nihilist: one who is unaware of his own nihilism. Then, he happens into an Intro Accounting class, something he’s just taking to fill credit hours. The substitute instructor, that afternoon, stresses upon the class that they can’t all be rock stars and that, in fact, the world’s real heroes are the people who perform the thankless jobs that no one sees. The janitor. The mail carrier. The mid-level agent at Internal Revenue Service. The people who a job no one says “Thank you” for, collects a check, tries not to hurt anyone. Does the same mundane job, day in, day out.
The substitute instructor posits that the world truly could not function without sheer armies of people who work like drones until retirement. That rock stars are a dime a dozen, that true heroism lies in a life of humble servitude. The unnamed narrator is so moved by the speech that he changes his major and goes to work for the IRS. The narrator’s account takes up nearly twenty percent of what was published as The Pale King. This must have been something Wallace believed in passionately because the same sentiments are reflected in This Is Water, a transcript of a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005.
The recklessness with which the narrator wanders through life stands in sharp contrast to the deep-seated organization he is proud of when reflecting back on that speech. His is a mundane, life, yes, a simple one. But there lies a certain comfort in doing the job you know you were called by some greater power, to do.
Violent J, the more outspoken half of Detroit horrorcore rap crew Insane Clown Posse, was visited in a dream by a shadowy carnival. He was told of six Joker’s Cards, which would foretell the end of the world, and charged with warning the rest of the world to change their evil ways or risk eternal damnation.
On Carnival of Carnage, the vaguest of outlines was drawn around the Dark Carnival mythology. The Dark Carnival itself is never named, but the foundation is set. A strong anti-bigot and anti-domestic abuse message is put in place–a central theme for the Clowns is that you reap what you sow. Carnival is uneven at best, a couple of standout tracks, but largely feels like a band finding their sound.
With Ringmaster, all the pieces slipped into place for the ICP. Their first album produced entirely by Mike E. Clark, the music therein is a synthesis of heavy beats and canned carnival sounds. On opener “Wax Museum,” creepy organ and midi bass score some vengeful spirit, just over the hill, coming to take inventory of your life and deal your everlasting reward, accordingly. Violent J emcees in two characters: as himself, and also as a carnival barker, announcing through maniacal giggles the horrors that are to come. It sounds like the clowns have found their true calling.
And don’t get it twisted: the ICP aren’t here to conduct your inventory, and they aren’t here to dispense judgement. Violent J states, clearly, “Oh, us? We’re just clowns! We just work for the Ringmaster! With the wave of his magic wand, I step forward, wind back and swing this battle axe upside your motherfuckin’ head!” It’s almost as if Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope are a Faygo-soaked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, powerless to effect the drama in the world around them, forced to carry out actions that were predetermined without their consent or approval. Forced to content themselves with being psychopathic pawns on a chessboard they can barely see.
Two of Insane Clown Posse’s certified timeless classics follow. The first, “Chicken Huntin,’” is a stone cold rebuke of the proud redneck lifestyle.
“Redneck” is code for “white pride.” To affect a hillbilly lifestyle, Dixie horn in your truck, “You wear your X, I’ll wear mine” kind of mentality. Violent J states his intent in the first verse: “I ain’t sayin’ nothing to the hillbilly, stick my barrel in his eye, BOOM-shaka, BOOM-shaka, head chunks in the sky.” Shaggy 2 Dope follows, “Barrel’s in your mouth, bullet’s in your head, the back of your neck’s all over the shed.” It’s clear that the Clowns are charged with taking down anyone who doesn’t align with the Ringmaster’s vision, and bigots are firmly in the “Doesn’t Align” column.
“Mr. Johnson’s Head” follows. The narrator is a nobody, a poor kid in school who no one looks twice at. Uncool, part of no crowd. Sitting in the back of the class, slowly rotting inside, slowly going insane. The titular Mr. Johnson is a bigot of the casually racist variety, using his role as educator to condition young minds to grow up mistrustful of The Other. The narrator snaps, one night, and decapitates him. The other students, told by substitutes that Mr. Johnson is out with a virus, express confusion- “Is Mr. Johnson ever coming back?” The kicker here is not that nobody suspects the (untrustworthy) narrator; they never even seem to notice he’s in the class. Their blindness and distrust toward The Other extends to anyone who can’t afford to conform to schoolyard social order.
This blindness toward poor people is the subject of the next track, “Southwest Song.” It’s common practice for anyone who grew up within fifty miles of Detroit to claim “Detroit” as their hometown. The author lived within city limits as a kid, but moved to a distant suburb for secondary school. The author has never been to Delray, and until recently thought Zug Island was a fictional place. “Southwest Song” is a call out about people who live in the suburbs but try to exploit the social cache resultant of being “from the ‘hood.” This kind of exploitative social tactic is as transparent here as it is on “Mr. Johnson’s Head;” Shaggy 2 Dope sings, “You know my face, you don’t know my name,” in a searing indictment of the gentry.
“Wagon, Wagon” is an example of ICP’s prolific nature, and their ability to release (presumably) everything they record. The backing track is used again later (earlier?), on “Hey, Vato.” Both songs are equally fun, the breakbeat rhythm propelled along by a Farfisa organ. Much later, Creaky Boards, a New York band of Michigan transplants, made the rounds with a creepy, Beach Boys-esque cover of the former.
“Bugs On My Nugz,” near the record’s end, is a testament to J and Shaggy’s genius as MCs. Unable to find a rhyme on the opening couplet, Shaggs resorts to jibberish: “Well, I don’t understand the phenomenon, we fuckin’ these ho’s that look like SPALALALA.”
To be a good MC has very little to do with rhyming or fitting a meter. If it did, every coffeehouse poet in America would be a millionaire MC. Being a good MC is about charisma, an element of “turn up the track, hit record, and go.”
Insane Clown Posse are idiosyncratic as MCs, yes, but they’ve got their style, and they rock it to maximum effect. On Ringmaster, the music was present for the first time, the group’s mission statement was in place, and the rhymes had style. The world would know the Dark Carnival, or Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope would die, throwing two liters and shouting expletives about it.