The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

by Nick Bernard on March 6, 2012

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

It’s hard to be a fan of David Foster Wallace. Since the publication of his universally revered literary tour de force, Infinite Jest, Wallace achieved iconic status in contemporary American letters as a brilliant but challenging writer—a perception crystallized by his untimely death in 2008. For this reason, it’s become almost a cliché to have a volume of Wallace’s work on one’s bookshelf. Even his non-fiction seems definitively high-brow next to all but the most daunting of texts. For anyone who has, despite intimidation, aspired to read Wallace, I’d suggest starting with last novel, The Pale King.

I’m not claiming this is a breezy read. All of Wallace’s usual tricks are here: a verbose vocabulary, footnotes within footnotes, digressions, misdirection, and sentences that stretch on for pages. The beauty of this novel, though—and why book reviews will never do it justice—is that the form is the content. If Infinite Jest is concerned with an America whose soul has been consumed by commercial interests and the insatiable desire for entertainment, The Pale King is about what happens to the soul when it has been subjected to the crushing tedium of everyday work and life.

The novel is structured as a collection of narratives by a cast of characters revolving around an IRS office in Peoria, Illinois. At its most accessible moments, the novel is fluid, witty, and the complex emotional lives of the characters reveal themselves. Most of the book, however, is laden with accounting jargon, long expositions on the nuances of various tax forms and code, or characters telling stories in fantastically irrelevant detail.

The experience of forced concentration under the most boredom-inducing conditions is not manifested in the fictional characters, but rather in the experience of reading itself. For example, 76 of the book’s 538 pages are devoted to one character’s dramatic retelling to another of how she met her husband. The monologue is peppered with descriptions of the listener’s reactions, requests for clarification, and appeals to continue, only to be deflated at its tensest moment.

The conclusion induces the same sort of reaction as the punch line of an off-color joke: Oh come on! Seriously? Really? Regardless of whether you agree with critics and book reviews that condemn this style as empty sleight of hand, you can’t ignore the way Wallace seems to be teaching us something about the very act of reading.

The promise of sustained boredom is not an appealing pitch for anything, especially a book. Maybe The Pale King can better be described as a series of setups for which nothing occurs. Characters come and go and their narratives begin to merge, but these intersections only tease at a grand climax that is always a page away.

With the knowledge that this is an “unfinished” book that was published posthumously and assembled from stores of drafts and notes, it’s natural to wonder just how complete Wallace left it. To me, the false starts and dead ends do not blemish the text but are, rather, its very essence. One character mentions an idea he has for a play, and this brief story becomes a metaphor for the entire book. He describes a theatre in which a man sits at a desk on stage, alone and silent, and only after the entire audience has left out of boredom or confusion does the actual play begin.

Wallace’s biography invariably becomes tied up with his work, and it’s chilling to consider whether the impact of the project can only truly be felt in light of the author’s suicide. In a reversal of the book’s fictional play, the maker is gone and the audience is left to create his art.

If suicide is too grim an ending for a book review, consider that even in our modern moment, when we seem to only be able to handle 140 characters of information at a time, many readers lug around Wallace’s tomes and accept his literary challenges. It suggests we’re far from the American dystopia—either manically shallow or intensely dull—that Wallace evokes. Do read The Pale King, even if it’s tempting to wrap it in the dust jacket for On The Road to avoid glares in cafes.

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