The Pale King, An Unfinished Novel
The Pale King
An Unfinished Novel
David Foster Wallace
April 15, 2011
The Pale King is more like a dream of a novel than a novel, but I’m not sure whose dream. Some part of it obviously comes from the author, David Foster Wallace, who when he was alive wrote several of the most finely turned sentences (ever!) in American English. Some part of it comes from his editor, Michael Pietsch, following his best instincts, and clues in the mass of manuscript pages and notes that Wallace left behind after his death, in September 2008. Maybe the larger part of the book is a reconstruction, but it has been done with great care and clearly represents a labor of love on the part of Pietsch and of Wallace’s family (for example, his wife designed the cover). I do not doubt their good intentions.
I was in Michael Pietsch’s office at Little, Brown sometime in maybe 1996. Pietsch had edited Infinite Jest, which had recently been published. I had some months previously been given a galley by a friend who worked in publishing — one of the couple hundred or so that DFW had autographed at his publisher’s behest in an effort to promote the novel to industry insiders as a Really Big Deal. My friend worked for an editor at a large house, and he was convinced said editor would never read the book, and thus saw no harm in giving me the galley. Underneath his signature David had drawn a smiley face. At that time, I had not yet read the book, but noting its heft, as well as the voluminous end notes, I joked to Pietsch that Little, Brown should give out t-shirts to anyone who managed to finish the book. He was not amused.
When I did read the book, and then re-read the book, and then re-read and re-read until the buzzing in my ears gentled down, I recognized what was plainly obvious to anyone with eyes connected to a brain: David Foster Wallace was supernaturally talented. He seemed, in Infinite Jest, to be using that talent to address, deeply, movingly, cleverly, even hilariously, facets of (especially) American life that many might dismiss as banal or superficial. The language of 12-step recovery. The commercialization of entertainment. Tennis. Etcetera. I made the mistake, first couple of times through, of thinking that Wallace had nothing much to say. That he was the most brilliant stupid writer I’d ever read.
I was wrong. I came to see, eventually, that Wallace was intent on dissecting with immense patience the banal, in exacting (exhausting? exhaustive?) detail, precisely so that—as when you stand so close to a Van Gogh all you see is a thick smear of pale blue—you would come to realize: the emptiness about which he writes is you. That thing about how if you stare into the void long enough the void stares back: Wallace actually did that. And then figured out how to describe the experience of genuine existential whatness in such a way that you come away, in some indefinable aspect, changed, without even noticing. Infinite Jest is a magic trick of a very high order.
But in the intervening years, which were filled by Wallace with squibs and riffs and darting electric fish on any number of mostly non-fictional subjects, but which in sum amounted to variations on the same theme as his fiction, he seems to have wanted more. Wanted to express more, I mean. Wanted to invent and try out a new trick. The Pale King, if nothing else, serves to document the progress he was making towards that goal. I suppose we should be grateful that it exists, in whatever form, and I (for one) am. But frankly, I have no idea what to make of this mess. There are some wonderful sentences here. There are also some less wonderful sentences — more of these, one suspects, than Wallace would have let escape into the wilds. There is a notion of structure, but behind that notion of structure lies the inescapable fact that it was not, or at least not entirely, Wallace’s notion.
The meat of The Pale King, insofar as it has any kind of plot other than the artificial order imposed by its editor, concerns the soul-crushing boredom of working at an IRS processing center in Peoria, Illinois. As a conceit, the choice is perfect. What better place to examine soul-crushing boredom than through accounting, and further, through the type of accounting that inspires dread in any American person who hears the words: Internal Revenue Service. The intent, and again this is a best-guess scenario, seems to have been to examine boredom in its native environment with the same borderline-nuts accumulation of detail, spiraling around and around its central characters, that he brought to Infinite Jest. (Pietsch has been quoted as saying that Wallace wanted the effect of the book to be "tornadic," and even in its incomplete version that notion comes through). To explore so thoroughly the essence of boredom that you could somehow enter into it, and come out on the other side, transformed. To crib from Nabokov, who once wrote that death represented "a more complete set of the infinite fractions of solitude," Wallace seems in The Pale King to have been intent on assembling that set, and leaving it to the reader to put the pieces in place.
And if he had succeeded in assembling every piece, and presenting them in the way he wanted to present them, and we had been able to put them in place… what then? We can’t and won’t know, and maybe the can’t and won’t knowing was part of what made writing the book so difficult for Wallace. That’s not to say that he did or would have given up: reading The Pale King for clues about his depression and impending suicide is a mug’s game. His battle with depression and addiction, carefully and smartly chronicled by Maria Bustillos in The Awl, is a matter of public record. No need to look for fatidic signifiers in The Pale King—though in a cheesy gallows-humor sense, the fact that Wallace killed himself while writing about taxes, and the old saw about the inevitability of death and taxes, seems like the kind of sincerely ironic (coincidental?) juxtaposition that DFW loved to explore.
If I were David Foster Wallace, I would not have wanted anyone to publish The Pale King. But I’m not, and don’t know what private instructions he may have left his family and friends, who are in a far better position to judge his posthumous wishes than I am. Reading the book, at this time, is a slightly creepy, almost morbid experience. But this creepiness will likely fade over time. Given the choice, I would rather The Pale King existed than not. There’s a good deal of stunning writing here, and as others have pointed out, its relative incoherence and profusion of loose ends is a feature of Infinite Jest, too. It may be that Wallace had different plans for his third novel. Michael Pietsch, having worked closely with Wallace on his previous novel, and being more familiar with his process than probably anyone else, has without question pulled off a magic trick of his own in constructing a version of that third novel that reads an awful lot like how we imagine Wallace’s third novel would have read.
As an artifact, then, it’s impossible not to recommend The Pale King. The book is indisputably worthy in its own right, and not just as a glimpse of what might have been. But that recommendation has to come with a caveat, or better still a footnote: what you are reading is not what you were meant to be reading. The Pale King may exist somewhere in its ideal state, but its creator did not live long enough to tease the final product out of the ether. The loss of the man is greater than the loss of a more polished novel, and I’d suggest we mourn the former and celebrate the existence, in whatever form, of the ghost — the pale king — of the latter. From Hamlet to his father’s shade is a terrifying journey. Read it and weep.