Book review: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

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      The Pale King
      By David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown, 547 pp, hardcover

      David Foster Wallace always wrote in fragments. His first novel ended literally in midsentence; his second, 1996’s colossal Infinite Jest, was in part inspired by complex mathematical constructs called fractals. Wallace’s short stories, too, frequently felt like tiny samples of much larger narrative worlds—samples that could run for either one page or a hundred, depending on their author’s fancy.

      So the controversy surrounding the publication of The Pale King, a novel about Internal Revenue Service agents that Wallace agonized over for more than a decade—and whose manuscript was found, unfinished, on the desk in the garage where Wallace hanged himself in 2008—can’t help but feel a little overcooked. He meant for us to read it. And since the in-progress format is nothing new, the book is, in a strange way, only incomplete because Wallace said so.

      All of his hallmarks are here, fully formed and sturdy as ever: asides that run on for dozens of pages, soliloquies rife with ultraspecific technical jargon, and a determination to treat his characters with as much empathy and moral engagement as possible. (There are jokes, too—a footnote-heavy author’s foreword cheekily doesn’t appear until page 66.) In a prefatory note, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s long-time editor, says that most of the work he did to the manuscript was keeping character names consistent.

      So, bearing in mind the caveat that we’ll never really know how polished any of this is, The Pale King is a nervy, frequently unruly, but consistently engaging achievement. It’s set at an IRS centre in small-town Illinois in 1985—the ideal setting for a story about not just boredom but the kind of infinite, face-melting tedium it requires near-religious concentration to survive. Wallace is interested in the personality types that are drawn to such work. Are they all emotionally defunct robots? How do they get through each day?

      This also turns out to be a critical juncture in IRS history. The question is whether taxation is a civic duty or some kind of begrudging obligation—and how that affects the IRS’s relationship to the populace. As one senior employee puts it, “Americans are in a way crazy. We infantilize ourselves.”¦We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and our privileges, but not our responsibilities. We abdicate our civic responsibilities to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality.”

      The Pale King has no shortage of such lucid and—yes, I’ll say it—inspiring moments. For a writer so beloved by a generation of irony-soaked 20-somethings, Wallace was devout in his commitment to such hopelessly square ideas as citizenship.

      How we know the book is unfinished, then, is not by the quality of its roads, but whether they lead anywhere. For even casual Wallace fans, there’s unquestionably a massive windfall here, but the truth is that none of the myriad plot lines comes even close to being resolved. The story turns to complete ribbons toward the end.

      The last section, in fact, is a collection of Wallace’s scribbled notes that’s both fascinating and nakedly intimate. After a particularly outlandish one involving the use of dead examiners’ ghosts to increase workplace productivity, he asks himself, “Is this a plausible plotline?”

      Not for most literary novelists, it isn’t—but Wallace was one of the few who probably could’ve handled it.