The Pale King (Hardcover)
Suffering for decades from severe, intractable depression, David Foster Wallace brought it to an end in September 2008. He left behind anguished, heartbroken family, friends, and colleagues, as well as many hundreds of pages of his novel in progress. It had been more than 10 years since the publication of Wallace's iconic, hilarious Infinite Jest, and while during this period he published several marvelous collections of short stories and essays, this work was his consuming focus. Writer's block does not seem to have been a problem -- a hugely brilliant and complex mind possibly was. It was through this lens of chronic depression that I read The Pale King, which even without this perspective would have been the most complicated reading experience I've ever had. In a very moving note before the novel opens, Wallace's editor of many years, Michael Pietsch, describes the process by which he organized the material -- not just manuscript pages but thousands of Wallace's notes regarding possible directions characters and plot might go. He freely admits it would probably have been a very different novel had Wallace ultimately shaped and finished it. "Although not by any measure a finished work, I wanted those who appreciate David's work to be able to see what he had created -- to be allowed to look once more inside that extraordinary mind," Pietsch writes, in an introduction which also poses all the unanswerable questions any thoughtful reader might have. Likewise, publishing many of Wallace's notes at the end was a masterstroke.
Only Wallace could have conceived of a novel whose overarching theme is sadness and boredom -- the stultifying effects of quotidian, repetitive existence -- and in the same work have created such startling, memorable moments and characters. Much of the book is set at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, circa 1985. One of Wallace's notes refers to "shifting points of view, structural fragmentations, willed incongruities," which seemingly might make a reader wanting a beginning, middle, and end run screaming from the room, but should actually have the opposite effect. The plot is part labyrinth (not maze), part Japanese puzzle box -- I started keeping a log of characters' appearances and disappearances not to control meaning but to join in the action.
Wallace was creating a novel of ideas, many of which I have scarcely grasped, but his way of making you look at something really deeply changes you and your world view. Is that too hyperbolic? I don't think so. It is often those exquisite (and sometimes horrifying) descriptions of mental or verbal tics that only you have experienced that shake you from your solipsism and open your eyes more fully.
I was completely riveted by this novel: there are scenes I will return to over and over, some because they are so funny, others because they are brilliantly apt, still others for the power of Wallace's language to evoke the strange and wondrous in human existence. -- Margaret Simpson— From June 2011
The Pale King remained unfinished at the time of David Foster Wallace's death, but it is a deeply compelling and satisfying novel, hilarious and fearless and as original as anything Wallace ever undertook. It grapples directly with ultimate questions -- questions of life's meaning and of the value of work and society -- through characters imagined with the interior force and generosity that were Wallace's unique gifts. Along the way it suggests a new idea of heroism and commands infinite respect for one of the most daring writers of our time.
About the Author
Wallace taught creative writing at Emerson College, Illinois State University, and Pomona College, and published the story collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion, the essay collections A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and Consider the Lobster. He was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and a Whiting Writers' Award, and was appointed to the Usage Panel for The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. He died in 2008. His last novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011.
"The overture to Wallace's unfinished last novel is a rhapsodic evocation of the subtle vibrancy of the midwestern landscape, a flat, wind-scoured place of potentially numbing sameness that is, instead, rife with complex drama....feverishly encompassing, sharply comedic, and haunting...this is not a novel of defeat but, rather, of oddly heroic persistence.... electrifying in its portrayal of individuals seeking unlikely refuge in a vast, absurd bureaucracy. In the spirit of Borges, Gaddis, and Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), Wallace conducts a commanding and ingenious inquiry into monumental boredom, sorrow, the deception of appearances, and the redeeming if elusive truth that any endeavor, however tedious, however impossible, can become a conduit to enlightenment, or at least a way station in a world where 'everything is on fire, slow fire.'"—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
"A thrilling read, replete with the author's humor, which is oftentimes bawdy and always bitingly smart.... The notion that this book is 'unfinished' should not be given too much weight. The Pale King is, in many ways, quite complete: its core characters are fully drawn, each with a defining tic, trait, or backstory... Moreover, the book is far from incomplete in its handling of a host of themes, most of them the same major issues, applicable to all of us, with which Wallace also grappled in Infinite Jest: unconquerable boredom, the quest for satisfaction in work, the challenge of really knowing other people and the weight of sadness.... The experience to be had from reading The Pale King feels far more weighty and affecting than a nicely wrapped story. Its reach is broad, and its characters stay with you."—Daniel Roberts, National Public Radio
"An astonishment, unfinished not in the way of splintery furniture but in the way of Kafka's Castle or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine ... What's remarkable about The Pale King is its congruity with Wallace's earlier ambitions ... The Pale King treats its central subject--boredom itself--not as a texture (as in Fernando Pessoa), or a symptom (as in Thomas Mann), or an attitude (as in Bret Easton Ellis), but as the leading edge of truths we're desperate to avoid. It is the mirror beneath entertainment's smiley mask, and The Pale King aims to do for it what Moby-Dick did for the whale ... Watching [Foster Wallace] loosed one last time upon the fields of language, we're apt to feel the way he felt at the end of his celebrated essay on Federer at Wimbledon: called to attention, called out of ourselves."—Garth Risk Hallberg, New York Magazine
"Wallace's gift for language, especially argot of all sorts, his magical handling of masses of detail...[these] talents are on display again in The Pale King."—Jeffrey Burke, Bloomberg
"A fully imagined, often exquisitely fleshed-out novel about a dreary Midwestern tax-return processing center that he has caused to swarm with life.... a series of bravura literary performances--soliloquies; dialogues; video interview fragments; short stories with the sweep and feel of novellas...This is what 360-degree storytelling looks like, and if it doesn't come to a climax or end, exactly, that may not be a defect."—Judith Shulevitz, Slate
"It could hardly be more engaging. The Pale King is by turns funny, shrewd, suspenseful, piercing, smart, terrifying and rousing."—Laura Miller, Salon
"Strange, entertaining, not-at-all boring...Wallace transforms this driest of settings into a vivid alternate IRS universe, full of jargon and lore and elaborately behatted characters, many of them with weird afflictions and/or puzzling supernatural abilities....hilarious...brilliant and bizarre, another dispatch from Wallace's...endlessly fascinating brain."—Rob Brunner, Entertainment Weekly