The first thing you ought to know about David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King is that it’s incomplete. The second thing is that it’s rife with boring, directionless passages that may have been excised either by Wallace himself or his editors at Little, Brown at a later stage, long novella-ish chapters that either contain dialogue tag-less conversations about American civics or circuitous character sketches from the childhoods and adolescences of characters whose contemporary-as-in-the-book-as-it’s-happening selves remain murky and difficult to engage with. The third thing is that it’s deeply personal—Wallace himself is a character, and many of the book’s figures bear a resemblance to the author. The last thing you ought to know is that The Pale King is, with the provisional all things considered, a brilliant work, and a reflection of not only Wallace’s enduring genius but his maturation as a writer.
In over five-hundred pages, Wallace writes about the many folks working at an Internal Revenue Service Regional Examinations Center in Peoria, Illinois. There is Claude Sylvanshine, a man with an interesting-but-not-entirely-useful psychic power: he can immediately cull random facts from those he meets. And “irrelevant” Chris Fogle, whose story about being a “wastoid” is basically a novella in section 22, page after page after page about his struggles with substance abuse and being a generally lazy and uninteresting slug. Leonard Stecyk, the upbeat do-gooder; the beautiful and troubled Meredith Rand; neurotic David Cusk and monotonously literal Shane Drinion.
It is an ensemble group of characters—none of whom are particularly interesting. Their backgrounds are fleshed out, explained, their reasons for coming to the IRS also revealed, and their personal stories made clear.
One of these folks working in Peoria is David Wallace, a revelation that does not occur until section nine, the “AUTHOR’S FOREWORD.” Therein, Wallace assures the reader that, “All of this is true. This book is really true.” The Pale King, Wallace assures us, is closer to memoir than “any kind of made-up story.” But it is marketed as fiction because, as Wallace stresses in the footnotes, the “publisher’s legal people” were thrown into a “swivet of anality and caution” by the possibility that the characters depicted would not sign legal releases (these characters are the folks on whom Fogle and Sylvanshine and Rand et al. are based). This is a paradox within a paradox central to the tension of The Pale King: because these characters were not willing to sign a legal release and because this made the publisher’s legal people incredibly nervous there is the sense that the story itself will contain some nuclear-charged sensitive information (Wallace is saying this stuff in the first one hundred pages) that is exciting and interesting. But this never happens. This is a big set-up that’s never followed through.
And that’s kind of the point—there’s your spoiler: nothing happens. And you, as the reader, probably know that going in, as The Pale King has been talked about in enough places that the basic plot is pretty much out there. So if that’s the point of it, that nothing happens, and you know that going in, why read it?
I’ll offer two reasons for why you should definitely read The Pale King, directed at two different groups of people: those who don’t have a particular love for Wallace, and those who cherish him.
To the first group: this is the most readable, the most mature, and the most focused fiction David Foster Wallace ever wrote. If you’re of the opinion that Broom of the System is some precocious, waffling, meandering text written by a too-smart college senior, or you think Infinite Jest is a slog not worth the slogging through, then The Pale King might just be for you. The individual vignettes are poised and confronting and jarring; they may not come together in the most graceful way, but there are moments in The Pale King that are just plain great, the moments that make Wallace fans go, yep, that’s why.
And to the latter, who I guess needs no reason to read The Pale King other than the fact that they love him, that they miss him, and that they will read anything by him: you ought to know that The Pale King features multiple characters who might as well be Wallace; and not David Foster Wallace, but Dave Wallace. You know, the guy we all spent time reading about after David Foster Wallace committed suicide? There’s David Cusk, who suffers from a majorly distressing sweating disorder. There’s Meredith Rand, who despite her seeming normality, ended up in the looneybin. There’s David Wallace himself, who resents Philo, Illinois for its IGA groceries and reminders of his less-than-stellar high school years.
If you’ve read enough about Wallace, you know that like Cusk he suffered from sweating fits; these got so bad in high school he carried his tennis racquet and towel around with him, so as to have an excuse to towel off. You might also know that he like Meredith Rand spent time in a mental hospital; he was treated at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts after completing his MFA at Arizona and starting a PhD program at Harvard. And the David Wallace in The Pale King is irritated with inconveniences and rails against his family and is generally immature and seems to hate his hometown and its banality and everything that banality represents; he is not the guy who gave the This is Water speech that makes a lot of people remember him as some white, long-haired Deepak Chopra. This is the Wallace who wrote that piece about the Illinois State Fair that makes him seem like, at best, an ungrateful rube who wants so badly to distance himself from the Midwest and its concrete expanses, and at worst like every Midwestern father’s worst fear: a son whose East Coast education has undone an entire adolescence.
It is deeply personal if not autobiographical.
And if you don’t buy into the Wallace-deifying thing that we’ve all done the last three years and just want to remember the writer, not the person, there’s evidence of a literary maturation in The Pale King that is downright interesting.
Wallace is known for writing long, winding sentences; he’s known for reading the dictionary and using certain words too much (quick: flip open a Wallace book to a random page and there’s 7-3 odds you’ll see the phrase “augurs well”); he’s known for being a genius, kind of (he’s resented for this, too); Maud Newton made sure he’s known for equivocation, as well.
In terms of his literary criticism, or style, he’s known for rebelling against the pro-Carver movement of the 1980s (one that is still alive and well, and one that this reviewer does not necessarily resent). While at Arizona, Wallace was less than pleased with his professors, all of whom seemed to disdain his style of writing. In American MFA programs in the 1980s, less-less-less was more, and despite Wallace’s standing (Broom of the System was his senior thesis at Amherst College) in the literary world, he wasn’t exactly beloved by his professors.
But The Pale King is not like Broom of the System. In fact, at times, it resembles the spareness of Carver’s writing. Gone are the “Remington-hung” temporary compounds that make most plebeians go whah? and (for the most part) the marathon sentences that seem gratuitous and a little unfriendly. He’s engaging with his reader in a way that’s really new for him. And it’s cool.
Which is not to say that The Pale King is at all similar to anything Carver ever wrote; it’s just that they aren’t so far apart. And at times, The Pale King seems like some weird Wallace-Carver-tax handbook test-tube baby; spare at times, expansive at others, the presence of each pole making the whole more attractive.
The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels.
But The Pale King is ironic in this sense. It’s a work that is about boredom, and is at times boring; it is an exercise in form mimicing content; it is also (and had Wallace finished it it doubtlessly would have been a more obvious aspect of the reading experience) a tedious read that’s supposed to lead nowhere, plot-wise; what it imparts in terms of wisdom, however, or what it’s supposed to impart in terms of wisdom, has nothing to do with plot, but rather the experience.
If that’s not ironic double-entendre, then maybe I’m really stupid. Maybe I’m missing the point. But it seems to me that it is kinda-sorta ironic, right?
Here’s Wallace, all grown up, writing something completely different from anything he’d ever written. It’s enthralling, doubly for those who tend to be enthralled by his writing.