The Pale King

The work published after a great writer's death often disappoints. Consider Hemingway's True at First Light, or Nabokov's notecards for The Original of Laura, or the work Elizabeth Bishop declined to publish during her lifetime, which fills much of a recent volume of her collected poetry. These books are unformed and unsatisfying; they speak of a need alien to the person who wrote them: a publisher's need for revenue; an audience's hunger for more by a beloved writer. Reasonable readers may suspect that David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel The Pale King will fall into this category. We don't know how close Wallace was to finishing his book when he committed suicide, in September, 2008: was he halfway done, or had it already assumed a more or less finished shape? But The Pale King is not a rough draft or a collection of disjecta membra; it is not, like Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a half-finished cliffhanger. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Wallace's editor, Michael Pietsch, The Pale King is as complete a novel as it needs to be. At times I found myself thinking it was the best thing David Foster Wallace had ever written.


As those readers who have awaited its publication already know, The Pale King is about the Internal Revenue Service. More specifically, it is about certain events which seem likely to take place at the IRS's Regional Examination Center (REC) in Peoria, Illinois: the implementation of a change in the way personal income tax forms are reviewed. I am not revealing anything important about the novel when I tell you that these events do not, in fact, take place, or at least they haven't happened yet by the time the story stops. It's about as unpromising a subject for a novel as anyone has ever thought of, but that's the point: The Pale King is about boredom, the way Wallace's 1996 novel Infinite Jest was about entertainment.


In fact, The Pale King is almost completely unboring. Like Infinite Jest, it is written in discrete sections, from multiple points of view; but where the earlier novel was a three-stranded narrative braid, the new one is a collection of fragments which whirl around a central mystery, or void. Narrators appear and vanish; conversations take place between unnamed interlocutors. And yet the reader rarely feels lost, in part because Wallace is such a good contextualizer of esoterica (I couldn't vet a Form 1040 after reading The Pale King, but I do imagine that I learned something about the inner workings of the IRS), and in part because there isn't much pressure to assemble the pieces into a whole. Wallace wrote that he wanted this book to have a "tornadic feeling," and it does: what the novel offers is not a Pynchonian conspiracy (even if it wanders into that territory from time to time) or a Proustian closed circle, but an untotalizable collection of lives, which, like most people's lives, have only the vaguest of plots. Their only certainties are death and—sorry—taxes. If Wallace had worked on it for ten more years, The Pale King would probably be longer, but I'm not sure it would be any more complete, and I'm not sure I would want it to be. If the restructuring of the Peoria REC were narrated, for example, and not left as an exercise for the reader, it would (like the "Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents" subplot in Infinite Jest) become actually boring.


One of the recurrent narrators in The Pale King is a certain "David Wallace," whose purported memoir this book is. The conceit could be cloying, but Wallace handles it with a frank humor which (mostly) disarms its narcissistic irony. "Consider that in 2003, the average author's advance for a memoir was almost 2.5 times that paid for a work of fiction," Wallace (or "Wallace") writes. "The simple truth is that I, like so many other Americans, have suffered reverses in the volatile economy of the last few years...." It makes sense to talk about money in a novel about taxes, but the more striking grace of this section is that it is free from the staging of obsessive doubt that regularly paralyzed Wallace's short fiction. In its place is something weirdly like authority. Elsewhere in "Wallace's" preface (shifted into the body of the book for obscure, spurious legal reasons), he makes claims about the importance of his material with apparently little irony, or maybe none at all:

Fact: The birth agonies of the New IRS led to one of the great and terrible PR discoveries in modern democracy, which is that if sensitive issues of governance can be made sufficiently dull and arcane, there will be no need for officials to hide or dissemble because no one not directly involved will pay enough attention to cause trouble. No one will pay attention because no one will be interested, because, more or less a priori, of these issues' monumental dullness.


The idea may not be original, but it is compelling. In a world which is populated by prefabricated forms for social and personal expression, maybe power belongs not to the celebrity with a million friends, or followers, but to the engineer writing specifications for the next generation of code. Maybe, pace Pynchon, real power is not secret so much as it is boring.


For the most part, though, the characters in The Pale King don't care about power. They're lackeys, cogs; they just want to survive the tedium. If there's anything at the heart of the story's tornado, it is the question of how to go on living. One IRS examiner, witness to horrific events as a child, keeps herself going by means of cruel, unfunny practical jokes; another falls back on her beauty; a third sees ghosts. The longest and best section of the novel, which tells the story of how one IRS examiner found his calling, culminates with an end-of-the-semester lecture given by a substitute teacher in the Advanced Tax class at DePaul University. The lecture is "an hortation," an encouragement (a form at which Wallace excels: among his posthumously published works is This is Water, a commencement address). The speech goes on for pages, but its point is this: "Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, at it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither you nor I have made, heroism."


It's hard not to think of Wallace himself here. Enduring tedium over real time in an enclosed space is what writers do, and no one was better at it than David Foster Wallace, whose focus on every minute feature of his imagined world, from the clinking pulleys on a gas-station flagpole to the rubber thimbles on the IRS examiners' fingertips, was unequalled by any contemporary American writer, living or dead, with the possible exception of William Gaddis. Wallace's suicide in no way detracts from his heroism in this regard. His death is an awful fact, but it is also like the endings of his novels, all of which break off in medias res: an incompleteness which makes what is there all the more vivid, and valued.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).

Watching Them Be

What makes a film actor into a larger-than-life movie star? James Harvey's passionate, freewheeling essays explain why there are some faces (from Greta Garbo's to Samuel L. Jackson's) from which we cannot look away.


What if you called up the spouse on the verge of leaving you -- and instead found yourself magically talking to his younger self, the one you first fell for?  Rainbow Rowell, author of the YA smash Eleanor & Park, delivers a sly, enchanting take on 21st-century love.