The Pale King
by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown and Company, $27.99, 560 pp.
It is impossible to read the late David Foster Wallace's unfinished, posthumously published novel The Pale King without feeling pangs of terrible sadness. Wallace, haunted his entire life with debilitating, sometimes paralyzing depression and for whom medication had ceased to be of any help, was nevertheless hailed by critics as one of the best and brightest writers of our time. He was stunningly intelligent, perceptive and creative and at the age of 30 had already written a masterpiece, the 900-plus page, magnum opus of post-modernism, Infinite Jest. Add to that several other novels, short stories and two collections of essays, Wallace seemed have the Midas touch.
On the afternoon of Sept. 12, 2008, Foster Wallace hanged himself.
The news was unexpected. Only later would his psychological condition, his years of profound depression be revealed. Fans were left with nothing but questions. But Wallace's wife and close friends were well aware of his deepening depression, as well as the new novel he was struggling to finish. He hadn't spoken much about it and would only describe the project to friends as "something long" and "tornadic."
It had been left in a neat stack on his work desk; 250 pages and 12 chapters long. Elsewhere they found other bits and pieces of the project, partial chapters, notes and directions, on Wallace's computers and in various notebooks. At the request of both his wife and his agent, Wallace's final project was handed over to his longtime friend and editor, Michael Pietsch, who now was faced with the unenviable task of making it into a novel that could be published.
The Pale King is a sometimes delightful, often boring, unfinished story of workers at an IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Ill., where, attempting to maintain some form of sanity and humanity, they go about repetitive, seemingly unending jobs in a state of brain-numbing tedium.
It doesn't take long for the reader to see that this 500-plus page novel was far from finished. Despite the best efforts of editor Pietsch, the book has an incongruous feel, like spare parts strung together with wire and thread.
Throughout the book, Wallace tries to show "the Service," as he refers to it, at a transitive time in the Reagan '80s. And among the many chapters, there are winners and losers. One chapter's a short treatise on employees turning pages, one after the other. Another is a list of the medical conditions that boredom can cause, from paracatatonic fugues to chronic paraplegia.
Later, random workers identified only by their ID numbers talk about their jobs with the IRS as they look into a camera, including one man who states only that he has a very high tolerance to pain. And there's a terribly funny chapter in which several employees seem to be trapped in complete darkness on an elevator, discussing the finer points of civics and politics. But we never find out how or whether they are rescued.
Though enjoyable, much of The Pale King has an uncertain feel, as if Wallace was toying with ideas, trying out different techniques to tell this story. At one point, the author interrupts the novel and tries to convince us we're actually reading a memoir. Indeed, not one, but two different Dave Wallace's appear as characters working at this IRS REC center. It's only a creative ruse.
The Pale King is a long, dense and challenging read. There is a plethora of Wallace's gifted descriptive prose, but there's no central theme. In an Editor's Note, Pietsch says Wallace left instructions for his novel to be "a series of setups for things to happen, but we never see them." Perhaps the author was attempting to write as close as he could to real life, where there seldom is any resolution.
Fans of Wallace's work will dig this glimpse at the artist at work, warts and all. One could make a case that he intended the novel as one giant thought piece or thumb sucker. There's no question that he had plenty he wanted to say about society and human beings. This is a novel that uses boredom itself to convince us of the evil of banality.
A lot of what's wrong with humanity is there on the page if you look hard enough. David Foster Wallace may have been too smart or too ambitious. Or he may have cast his net a little too wide. But thankfully The Pale King, a book about the IRS, is, in the end, one that leaves us richer for having read it.