The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

In 2008, David Foster Wallace committed suicide, leaving behind a partially completed novel that has now been published under the title The Pale King. Michael Pietsch, who edited The Pale King, discusses the process of compiling the book in a detailed introduction and establishes from the outset that this is an incomplete work; indeed, the tag-line ‘an unfinished novel’ is given a prominent position on the title page. And the book itself makes good on that promise: the text of The Pale King doesn’t end so much as it simply ceases, followed by a series of Wallace’s notes and errata that suggest how the rest of the book might have turned out.

But the fragmentary nature of the book seems appropriate given that Wallace’s work always refused simple narrative closure: he worked hard to create complete novels that felt like fragments. Even his 1,079-page doorstop of a novel,*Infinite Jest* (1996), left at least as many questions unresolved as it answered. And it’s to both Penguin’s and Pietsch’s credit that they haven’t attempted to craft what Wallace left behind into a coherent work, avoiding the critical disdain that has accompanied other heavily edited, posthumous ‘novels’, such as Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth (1999).

Although unfinished, The Pale King remains compulsory reading for even casual fans of Wallace’s earlier work, and has a typically ambitious plot. The Pale King is about the US Internal Revenue Service in the year 1987, and how the shift to a neo-liberal theory of economics – which forces the IRS to run itself like a for-profit business, rather than a government bureau – effects the lives of its workers. In this sense, The Pale King attempts to offer a fictional account of the contemporary world at the level of large, social institutions, much as the television show The Wire did with the criminal justice system. But The Pale King is also a book about boredom, specifically about how IRS accountants find ways to manage the unbearable tedium of their daily work (in this sense, the book is a companion piece to Infinite Jest, a novel about entertainment).

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As you would expect from an unfinished work, however, it can make for an uneven reading experience. The first hundred pages or so are unassailably brilliant, but the quality of the writing varies at points thereafter. And while mind-numbing detail is essential in a book about the IRS and boredom, it’s safe to assume that certain sections feature an over-accumulation of information that would’ve met with an editor’s red pen had Wallace still been alive.

Also, one of The Pale King’s conceits is that it is a fictional autobiography about the real David Foster Wallace’s brief stint in the IRS. This meta-fictional gambit doesn’t quite work, even if it is partially a joke about Wallace’s attempts to escape from the idiosyncratic style that made him famous; only these ‘autobiographical’ sections explicitly deploy Wallace’s trademark use of extensive footnotes (this gesture is reinforced by the epigraph’s reference to Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Borges and I’, another story about a writer’s feelings of being trapped by his own signature technique).

There are also a few moments that seem perhaps too indebted to his past work. The story of Meredith Rand, although brilliantly conceived, also bares a strong resemblance to the story of Infinite Jest’s Madame Psychosis, and there is an experience with a mind-altering substance that recalls the fate of the earlier book’s hero, Hal. So, too, the suggested introduction of a MacGuffin in The Pale King – a string of numbers that when recited would induce a state of perfect concentration – recalls Infinite Jest’s own MacGuffin, an eponymous film that induces a state of perfect (and debilitating) entertainment.

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But at other points, The Pale King is as strong – if not stronger – than anything Wallace has previously written, and, paradoxically, this occurs in moments where Wallace writes least like the author of Infinite Jest and more like the author of his last collection of stories, Oblivion. The sections about the troubled life of Toni Ware at the beginning are breathtaking, moving and completely devoid of footnotes. The opening section that takes us into the anxiety-filled mind of Claude Sylvanshine, who is on a plane flying to Peoria and worrying about his inability to pass the CPA exam, is a virtuosic performance in the mode of his story ‘Mr. Squishy’. In this sense, The Pale King documents Wallace’s continuing growth as a writer and offers brief moments that suggest how his style was evolving.

Ultimately, The Pale King is what it is – an unfinished manuscript written by one of the most interesting writers of the last two decades. As a fragment of a work in progress, it can’t be compared with the best of Wallace’s previous work, but, even half-finished, it’s a book that demands every reader’s complete attention.

Emmett Stinson is a lecturer in publishing and communications at the University of Melbourne and regular book reviewer on Triple R’s Breakfasters. His most recent book is Known Unknowns.