You probably know better than to expect that The Pale King will give you, the David Foster Wallace fan, a measure of closure. So go in with your eyes open. For casual readers, there are so many other works of his to tackle before this one becomes necessary. And for those completely unfamiliar with Wallace, those who have only looked at the size of Infinite Jest (1996) and shuddered, turn back. Here be dragons.
No one knows what this book was intended to be. Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s editor for Infinite Jest and the man responsible for assembling The Pale King into something resembling completion, admits as much in the preface: “Some notes among David’s manuscript pages suggest that he did not intend for the novel to have a plot substantially beyond the chapters here.” But it’s equally difficult to escape the heart-compressing feeling that The Pale King is only getting started when it comes to an end.
And boy does it take a roundabout path to get there. It’s true that the novel centers around the IRS, but it’s not about the IRS. In part, this is because The Pale King is boldly polyphonic in a way few novels are. Narrators come and go; chapters float in space, unmoored to surrounding ones or even anything at all; one of the characters is named David Foster Wallace, and keeps insisting he’s the author. There are doubles, then, and even triples, extending literary tools well past the breaking point. The closest comparison is to Evan Dara’s sprawling The Lost Scrapbook (1995), where voices merge mid-paragraph until the entire thing rises to a symphony by the book’s end.
From a reader’s standpoint, the symphony never emerges from The Pale King. It is replete with brilliant passages so emblematic of Wallace it’s very nearly painful. There’s the IRS’ official seal, “depict[ing] the mythic hero Bellerophon slaying the Chimera, as well as the Latin motto… which essentially means ‘He is the one doing the difficult, unpopular job.’” There is Lane Dean picturing himself “running around on the break waving his arms and shouting gibberish and holding ten cigarettes at once in his mouth like a panpipe”; and a put-upon assistant Leonard Steyck who at 16 was “5’1” and 105 pounds soaking wet, which he was (soaking wet) when the boys in his PE class’s shower all urinated on him after knocking him to the tile floor.” These are gifts, and devoted Wallace followers will no doubt crack a smile at the characterization of one character’s hands as being of different sizes from extensive writing — the same thing was true of the forearms of the tennis prodigies at Enfield Tennis Academy in Infinite Jest.
But beyond his undeniably unique voice, what remains most impressive in his writing is his colossal empathy for thinkers. Wallace is unfairly knocked for being brainy, characterized as acting like he’s smarter than you, but what he shows here is his enormous capacity for sharing the suffering of those trapped in their own heads. He’s not showing you up; he’s showing you how hard it is to think like this. In one of the book’s most moving passages, he tracks the thoughts of a man named Bondurant from staring at a cornfield through thinking of the girl he’d taken to prom, who wouldn’t have sex with him, to his greatest moment, hitting a hanging slider for a pinch-hit triple in college to finally bedding said girl, one Cheryl Ann Higgs and how “he had avoided her eyes because the expression in Cheryl Ann’s eyes, which without ever once again thinking about it Tom Bondurant has never forgotten, was one of blank terminal sadness, not so much that of a pheasant in a dog’s jaws as of a person who’s about to transfer something he knows in advance he can never get sufficient return on.”
For some of us, passages like the above will be enough: overwhelmingly sad and glorious at the same time, both an affirmation of the human condition and a condemnation of our own shortcomings. But it’s clear that Wallace was simply mobilizing these little troops — these passages of startling insight — in service of a goal that was perhaps unattainable: a book centered around boredom and its toothier friend, depression. Over and over again here and in other works, Wallace talks about the black, winged thing that emerges from nowhere and looms above his characters. In the light of his untimely death, there’s an inescapable sense that he was very much engaged in trying to wrestle this thing by going directly at it in his writing, unwilling to soften its blows through any kind of mental legerdemain. This struggle oozes out into The Pale King.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the colossal 22nd chapter, which takes up 100 pages and is nothing but an uphill fight. The narrator of this chapter describes everything from high school through several abortive attempts at college and up to his joining the IRS, beginning paragraph after paragraph with “Anyhow” before launching into another digression into the minutiae of his struggles to find a place in the world. It feels Sisyphean and one gets the sense that Wallace is doing the work he feels is most important here, even as the book is at its most satisfying when it keeps the chapters short, the observations pointed.
In the context of a fiction writing workshop, author Wells Tower opined that Wallace was perhaps too smart to write fiction. On the surface, it’s a weird statement for a profession we tend to associate with the very brilliant, but it might just be right. Successful fiction is most commonly the province of people banging their heads against human nature, fighting to define and redefine what it is to be human and, ultimately, succeeding. Maybe Wallace was running out of winnable victories, crossing battlefield after battlefield until something insurmountable rose up before him. The Pale King is not a triumph but it is a testament to the fight, a document capable of revealing to us both the terror and the overwhelming beauty of the mundane.