The Pale King
David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown and Company, $27.99, 560 pp.
When David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, he left behind the fragments of an unfinished novel, tentatively titled The Pale King. Searching the writer’s office after his death, Wallace’s widow and his longtime literary agent found a twelve-chapter, 250-page manuscript neatly stacked on his desk (the completed novel was to be much longer). They also discovered piles of floppy disks and notebooks containing additional chapters and notes in varying states of polish. There was no outline, however, no indication of how, or even whether, these disparate parts might fit together into an integrated whole.
Thus, when editor Michael Pietsch was asked, as he writes, to “assemble from these pages the best version of The Pale King that [he] could find,” he was being asked to perform not an editorial task but an act of divination. He had to figure out in what sequence to place individual chapters, whether to include obviously provisional sections, and how to decipher authorial intention from Wallace’s often gnomic jottings. This raises all kinds of questions about authorship and editorial responsibility, questions that scholars will debate for years to come.
What we have now, though, is not a literary-critical problem but a book. More specifically, we have a fifty-chapter, 548-page manuscript, less a novel than a series of character sketches and stylistic experiments. Despite its unfinished nature, The Pale King displays all the trademarks of Wallace’s writing: intense self-consciousness, psychological acuity, linguistic inventiveness, and, above all else, a capaciousness of spirit. The Pale King certainly is not Wallace’s best work. Still, it serves as a wonderful introduction to his fiction, less intimidating than Infinite Jest, his 1996 masterpiece, yet more complex and rewarding than almost anything else he wrote. To read The Pale King is to be reminded of how exhilaratingly open and generous Wallace’s writing could be.
This sense of exhilaration seems at odds with The Pale King’s declared subject. In his notes, Wallace wrote that he wanted to follow the “crushing, crushing boredom” of life at the IRS Regional Examinations Center in Peoria, Illinois, during the 1980s. The novel has a wide cast of characters, and Wallace shuttles back and forth between their workaday lives as tax examiners—“one of the most tedious and dronelike white-collar jobs in America”—and the past lives that have brought them there. Wallace includes long stretches of tedious action. We wait around with characters as they are given ID cards at orientation, overhear conversations during cigarette breaks, and witness a character valiantly (and vainly) resisting the temptation to look at the clock while he examines tax returns.
Yet one of the wonders of The Pale King is that Wallace is able to make everything about the IRS, from its history to its day-to-day workings, seem important. The novel circles around a series of internal debates over IRS structure and policy: how one’s conception of the IRS indicates one’s conception of the commonweal, whether the service should be seen as “an arena of social justice and civic virtue” or as a “for-profit business.” Wallace includes lots of IRS trivia, regularly blending fact and fiction. He claims, for instance, that each new IRS employee is assigned a new Social Security number starting with the number 9 (sounds good, but not true); that “calculating depreciation recapture for §1231 assets is a five-step process” (correct); and that the IRS’s Latin motto is Alicui tamen faciendum est (it isn’t). Wallace writes with such authority that I found myself not caring whether these details were accurate. They felt true, and that was enough.
Perhaps Wallace’s greatest strength as a writer was his flexibility. His novels always give the sense that there is no linguistic register, no character type or institutional setting, outside his ken. Infinite Jest is many novels in one: it is simultaneously a delicate examination of the Incandenza family, an anthropological study of competitive youth sports and Alcoholics Anonymous, a Don DeLillo–like novel of conspiracy, and an unflinching portrayal of modern loneliness and depression.
The Pale King displays Wallace’s ability to shift genre and style at a dizzying pace. One chapter, filled with Gothic undertones and prose so baroque it borders on incoherence, reads like a trailer-park scene written by William Faulkner. Another chapter, which calls to mind Ernest Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants,” represents a young, unwed Christian couple considering abortion. It addresses questions of love and religious faith, unashamed to talk about such topics seriously yet unwilling to sentimentalize them. A chapter describing a typically boring workday begins, “‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle turns a page. Howard Cardwell turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page. Matt Redgate turns a page,” and proceeds like this for four pages.
The Pale King is, in short, a wildly eclectic work. It is often sincere but sometimes ironic, embracing the riches of traditional realism (psychological richness and moral seriousness) yet filtering these through a postmodern sensibility. The prose is more stripped down than in much of Wallace’s previous work, but the book still contains descriptive gems. A Midwest landscape is “uniformly featureless and old-coin gray and so remarkably flat that it was as if the earth here had been stamped on with some cosmic boot.” An IRS agent possesses a “big heavy slabbish face, but a long jaw, but soft, the jaw, hanging with fat, which together with the lantern jaw makes you feel like somebody’s hitting you with a melting fist when you look at him.” Wallace’s sentences often have this self-correcting nature; Wallace interrupts himself and starts over, wending his way in, out, and around a train of thought. These sentences, littered with “buts” and parenthetical asides, are the formal enactment of an endlessly curious mind at work.
Wallace was his generation’s most brilliant expositor of the dangers of intense self-consciousness. One character worries about his upcoming CPA exam, “knowing that internal stress could cause failure on the exam merely set up internal stress about the prospect of internal stress.” Another character suffers from bouts of intense public sweating, which are often triggered by self-consciousness about public sweating. This is the most typical situation in a Wallace novel: awareness of a problem makes the problem worse, which in turn makes us more aware of the problem. It is an infinite, seemingly unbreakable loop, a painful yet inevitable consequence of self-awareness. In the end, The Pale King is less about boredom than it is about attention: how and why we pay attention to the things we do, and what this tells us about ourselves and our society.
In a 1999 interview with Publishers Weekly, David Foster Wallace claimed that he had “twice ‘flunked out’ of Catholic instruction.” There is an interesting Roman Catholic undercurrent running through The Pale King. Describing how an IRS office building presents its rear rather than its front to the approaching road, one character says, “It seemed, on slow approach, both craven and arrogant, like pre-modern priests who faced away from the communicants during Catholic Mass.” One chapter briefly describes the stigmata of Padre Pio and of St. Francis of Assisi; another questions whether a cheerleader’s Catholic rearing could have contributed to her problems with self-mutilation. The novel’s central passage, in which we hear that “enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is,” comes from the mouth of a Jesuit substitute accounting professor at DePaul. I’m not sure what to make of this Catholic motif, but I hope it will remind readers that Wallace was a writer who admired religion’s ability to ask serious questions about the meaning of suffering and the nature of evil.
Wallace’s suicide cannot help but change how we read his fiction. No one can ever come across his description of depression in Infinite Jest (“Like every cell and every atom or brain-cell or whatever was so nauseous it wanted to throw up, but it couldn’t, and you felt that way all the time”) without wondering how much Wallace was channeling his own experience. Yet Wallace’s tragic death cannot obscure the vitality of his writing. Readers will continue to mourn his death and regret the books that were never written, but we ultimately must feel grateful to have known such a mind and such a spirit.