The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

A review of the literary fiction novel The Pale King by David Foster Wallace.

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David Foster Wallace’s encyclopaedic novel Infinite Jest is now 21 years old. In those years, it has become a cultural touchstone—the Ulysses of the modern era—daring people to make annual pilgrimages through its pages. Often, it is held up as one of the most complex and difficult reads possible, and it is, but for a true marathon of literary challenge, readers may do well to turn to his posthumous novel The Pale King.

Officially, the book has never been finished, with some of its chapters organised in the hours leading up to Wallace’s untimely suicide in 2008. What sits on shelves is the attempt of his long-time editor to piece together the puzzle left behind. Like much of Wallace’s work, there is no straightforward way to surmise to book, instead each chapter must be taken on its own and slotted into the overarching world of the Inland Revenue Service, as if walking through the building of the IRS office in the Midwest in which the book is set, with the chapters reflecting the differing people and anecdotes possible to extract along the way.

Stylistically, the work flits between extracts of the Illinois tax code, character sketches, and exquisite sensory details. Chapter nine is famously the author’s foreword, introducing the paradox that the only line of fiction in the book is “The characters and events in this book are fictitious” while acknowledging that, as part of the book, the disclaimer is also a work of fiction. This is the humour of Wallace: the ability to spin a moment into something far greater. It’s precisely this that makes The Pale King worth reading. In the hands of any other writer, it could have just been a tedious tribute to its own complexity and mundanity.

The difficulty in analysing The Pale King is that it is inextricably linked to the tragic passing of its author. It is far easier to talk about David Foster Wallace’s death than it is to talk about the complexities of the book; real life is often more straightforward and easier to comprehend than Wallace’s work. As he prepared himself for his final action, he busied himself organising the dozen chapters he had printed out and two floppy disks containing a thousand or so extra pages and extracts he had not yet found a home for within his novel, leaving a lamp shining on them; an intentional spotlight focusing those who discovered his body, as if saying, “No, this is the important thing, here.” This is typical of Wallace. Despite his brilliance, Wallace was never truly happy being heralded as the voice of a generation, often pointing out the absurdity of such. Perhaps Wallace would have been happier assuming the secrecy of Thomas Pynchon, a writer who had vast influence upon Wallace, and who famously does not show his face in public.

The Pale King is the tale of Wallace’s suicide. Indeed, in my first reading of it, I deemed it a book so boring as to have driven him to his deed but as I revisit it, in memory of him, I realise my ignorance. I have wanted to hate this book, to blame something for the senselessness of his passing but to do so is to grossly underestimate the literary prowess of Wallace.

Ostensibly, the book is about boredom and the effects it has on the soul. Set at a time when the IRS begins to debate the virtue of automation—whether it is better to enforce civic virtue or to maximise revenue—it is the story of an America gripped by tedium, to the point where citizens are dying of boredom. This automating initiative is an invention of Wallace. I find it slightly unlike his usual inventions—artificially created deserts in Ohio, feral herds of hamsters, the Statue of Liberty sporting adverts—as it solely exists for narrative reasons (what narrative there is) and its realism is important. If Wallace allowed himself those beautiful flights of fantasy, the work may lose much of its moral value and become too entertaining for us to appreciate.

In many ways, it is the dark mirror to Infinite Jest. While Infinite Jest focused on the perils of being amused to death, of media consumption, and the addictive nature of fun, The Pale King is the reverse. It is a novel about happiness, which Wallace offers as the ability to pay attention, to find repeated momentary joys. This speaks to me as often I find that the mechanism of depression is a repeating depression; the inability to connect with the present and find joy. In this way, The Pale King is perhaps an attempt of Wallace to convince himself of the joy of living, an anti-suicide note, much in the same way as his now legendary 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech ‘This is Water.’

With his famous asides, fragmented narrative, and his use of footnotes to an almost humorous degree, The Pale King is trademark Wallace, but it is curious to imagine what might have been. Thought the work was obviously handled by the best hands for the task and was certainly not rushed posthumously, the times when The Pale King does explore its own boredom—while fascinating from an academic standpoint—may have been parsed from Wallace’s own edit. What stands is a work that induces boredom, though as it proves its own moral, is heart-warming, humorous and captivating to read, once you concentrate and find the joys.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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