The Pale King, written by
David Foster Wallace

The Pale King, written by
David Foster Wallace

Bored to Life


While not as long or ambitious as Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s incomplete posthumous novel The Pale King is still an incredibly challenging read. Fractured, unfocused and sometimes unwelcomingly complex, it’s still a fascinating final word from the author, famed for his perceptiveness, compassion and incomparable attention to detail.

Rating: 8.5/11


The novels of the late David Foster Wallace have a strange relationship with entertainment. Indeed, his writing rarely aims to gratify when it can instead probe and edify, often questioning the very nature of entertainment itself. His works are not just captivating but incendiary with meaning, mining the inadequacies of life with a legendarily intricate and breakneck prose, asking why we’re always  craving some pleasurable form of distraction from ourselves.

His defining work, the 1996 novel Infinite Jest, spent 1,079 pages (including a spiritually deflating number of footnotes) examining what happens to a mind that is overexposed to pleasure. Coupled with some absurdist dystopianism and an array of character studies of addiction – each devastating, empathic and unvarnished – Infinite Jest captured the nihilism of Generation X while also subverting its most ironic tendencies. The book posed big, irrevocably American questions about existence and, in response, offered a shrug of such grandeur, poise, compassion and magnificence as to belay its delivery’s excess. It was, and remains, one of the most ambitious and uniquely brilliant English-language novels ever written.

The world descended upon Wallace in the wake of Infinite Jest’s critical acclaim and commercial success (in two decades, its sales have exceed a million copies worldwide). After being caught up in the novel’s reception, Wallace spent the remaining 12 years of his life divided between essay writing, teaching, publishing short story collections and the attempt of a longform follow up to Infinite Jest. By the time of Wallace’s suicide in September of 2008 – the result of a decades-long struggle with depression – his third novel, The Pale King, remained incomplete. David Foster Wallace, a luminary in his field, had died at 46 years old.

A year beforehand, in 2007, Wallace had indicated that The Pale King was about one third finished. Shortly after his death, Wallace’s widow, Karen Green, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, discovered an enormous manuscript accompanied by hundreds of scrawled notes and a litter of floppy disks, amounting to 150 chapters spread across over 1,000 pages. One third, indeed. Undeterred, Pietsch preceded to winnow down this gargantuan book into something palatable, if not strictly tidy or complete.

The result was the 2011 publication of The Pale King, toted as An Unfinished Novel by David Foster Wallace. It’s an unavoidably apt description for the book: whatever its merits may be, cohesion is not one of them. But, if its unfocused nature is partially because the novel was assembled posthumously, it’s also due to Wallace’s intentional abstruseness when writing The Pale King.

The plot is… but see, I’m immediately doing the book a disservice by pretending its pages meld into anything so simple as a plot. Honestly, I’ve rarely been so aware whilst reading a novel that narrative is simply a function of amalgamated action that happens to familiar characters, a framework which an author may simply elect to abandon at any time, as Wallace tends towards here. But, for the sake of context, let’s just say a good deal of The Pale King takes place in 1985 at a branch of the Internal Revenue Service in Peoria, Illinois, focusing on the employees (and their mind-numbing grunt work) therein.

Many of these characters have rich and textured back stories; sometimes, these are offered up well before the character emerges in the present day or, just as likely, are never formally linked to the character at all. A few tangible threads of story emerge here and there about the crushing boredom of working in a bureaucracy, most of them fraying before they reach anything resembling a resolution. And throughout the book, drenching its pages with a humid austerity, is a lot of discussion of the ins and outs of the IRS in the 1980s. The overall sensation of reading The Pale King is what I imagine it’s like to be led on a tour of a surrealist art museum in a country where you don’t speak the language. That is to say: discombobulating, if nonetheless intriguing.

“The really interesting question”, Wallace writes at one point, “is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention.” Much as Wallace fashioned Infinite Jest as a sprawling, circular epic to reflect the cyclical nature of addiction, with The Pale King he is sure to bombard the reader with details and asides so trivial and uninteresting as to subject us to the same mental drudgery as his characters. It’s sadistic, on one hand, to intentionally inflict apathy upon your audience, but his intent is admirable. With his final work, Wallace chooses meaning over matter, eschewing linear storytelling and specifics for the most part in order to foreground his notions of American entitlement, the inherent absurdity of bureaucracy and (most significantly) boredom.

As he demonstrated in “This is Water”, his famed 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, Wallace possessed the intent – if not always the means – to realign himself with the everyday. To his thinking, there was something profoundly troubling about our inability as human beings to exist without stimulation. His suggested remedy was to take comfort in the familiar and uninspiring, to revel in the quotidian, to choose what we pay attention to while “constructing meaning from experience.” The Pale King is nothing if not an attempt to manifest these ideals, to break through the temporal constraints of tedium and ennui and arrive at something more constructive.

In other words, it’s another very Wallacian treatise on the dangers of solipsism and the imperative to embrace external experiences that don’t necessarily please us. Even that term, “Wallacian”, is best dispensed in service of the author’s particular approach to writing: the acknowledgement that there are a thousand ways to look at the same thing, and every single one of them can be made interesting. Infinite Jest employed this semantic and philosophical approach to combat addiction, a tilt towards the embrace of community over (for lack of a better word) onanism. Conversely, The Pale King asks if a less myopic perspective and eloquent appraisal of our surroundings can render even the dullest places and list of scenarios imaginable – as editor Pietsch notes, “standing in lines, traffic jams and horrific bus rides” – not just engaging, but enlightening.

Of course, Wallace’s commitment to embodying these themes – specifically, the noble pursuit of tedious enterprises – all but guarantees that some of the book is infuriatingly boring and difficult to parse. Whole chapters comprise of little else than suffocatingly dense insight into the Illinois tax code that, while occasionally interesting, is hard to be enthralled by. Still, strange as it may seem, The Pale King acts as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy for Wallace’s ideals, in that reading the whole thing inspires involuntary pride at having braved its dreariest passages.

If The Pale King’s story feels impenetrably illusive, its stylistic choices are just as confronting. However, where Wallace’s indifference towards traditional narrative can be frustrating, his variation of tone and form here are as bracing as ever. Chapter lengths vary from one or two pages to over 100, with most examples of the former being snatched excerpts of conversation rendered hilarious in their starkness. One involves an awkward exchange about masturbation; another features an IRS agent patiently explaining to a taxpayer just how obvious his fraudulent deductions are. There’s even a chapter that simply explains the process by which a room full of IRS agents turn pages at their desk.

Elsewhere, the 100-plus page monologue of one “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle that anchors the book is almost overwhelmingly multitudinous. It’s the novel’s centrepiece, and rightly so, because it lays bare all of The Pale King’s contradictions and excesses in microcosm: loquaciousness, inspiration, tragedy, mystification, dissatisfaction, hilarity and a deep, upending dullness, all at once.

Less so than a piece of literature, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is surely more of a layered attack on literary norms, as thrilling and peerless as it is wildly flawed. It is a work of such precise intellect and yet impractical sprawl that it has inspired papers dedicated to its study with titles as overwrought as “A Paradigm for the Life of Consciousness”. Yet, truly, The Pale King stands tallest as a testimony to Michael Pietsch’s invaluable work as Wallace’s editor. Known as the man who managed to reign in Wallace’s excessive impulses while writing Infinite Jest, Pietsch also deserves credit for picking up on the author’s inimitable rhythms in piecing together his final book.

The Pale King opens and closes with chapters that are unusual for being written in the second person, but that bookend the novel’s unruliness with a deft, stirring serenity (indeed, the book’s first chapter is rightly regarded as something of a mini-masterpiece). And the inclusion of a seemingly unconnected chapter on a young boy whose aim is to kiss every part of his body acts as a thematic blanket for the book’s main concern: the performance of a repetitive task or investment in a menial activity that yields no obvious rewards.

Most noteworthy is Pietsch’s placement of one of the novel’s few conversational passages. The chapter features a discussion between Meredith Rand, a dangerously attractive woman, and Shane Drinion, an strikingly unremarkable person. They appear as key players only in this one chapter, but Wallace makes the most of it, having them talk about Rand’s sordid but fairly uninteresting past as she examines Drinion’s curiously unaffected response to her allure. The conversation is strange, inert and shallow – largely on Rand’s behalf – yet so perfectly honed around the shared reality of these two people as to be spellbinding; in an unexplained twist, Drinion quietly begins levitating while listening to Rand babble on.

This chapter is an exemplary display of one of Wallace’s best traits: the sharp back and forth between two intelligent – if oblivious – people that also incises the very act of conversation as it’s in process. Reading it is like watching a frog dissect itself, and Pietsch ingeniously chooses to relegate this chapter to the back of the book. After all the abstractions on psychic pain, identity crises and general existentialism, we’re reminded that Wallace was first and foremost an observer of people. He didn’t always like what he saw, but he certainly strived to be honest about it. There was a sense that when David Foster Wallace had something to tell you, you might not always understand him or necessarily be fulfilled by what he imparted. But sometimes, if you looked at it the right way, his way, you were shocked to find how much more there was to see than you ever could have imagined.

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David Foster Wallace

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