David Foster Wallace's Posthumous 'The Pale King' Explores Self-Consciousness As a Disease

by Will Layman

6 June 2011

The problem with The Pale King is not that it killed a great writer, but that a great writer’s own problems became the narrowing factor for what might have been his greatest work.

When David Foster Wallace hanged himself in despair, mental illness and anger in 2008, a series of things were set in motion, almost all regrettable.

(1) He became frozen into the weird mythology that attaches to famous artists who kill themselves, which mythology rarely has anything to do with how sad and hostile and upsetting suicide really is.

(2) A whole lot of people who had never really read his toughest, most interesting work became enamored of his shorter, snappier work and turned him into a hip icon.

(3) His suicide became a lens for all his old work, meaning that when you read his already published work again, you (the reader) would want to look for clues about the suicide, thus rendering the work kind of one-dimensional.

And (4) There would probably be posthumous, unfinished work, which work—hoo-boy—would be seen as suicide-drenched in the worst possible way.

It’s a formula for misunderstanding.

cover art

The Pale King

David Foster Wallace

(Little, Brown and Company)
US: May 2011

Which brings us to The Pale King, the 560-page unfinished novel by Wallace, recently published and (mostly) hastily reviewed, that has brought Wallace’s death and (now, yup, mythologized) life back into focus. In the book’s introduction, the editor of Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest (1996), tells the story of how the author’s wife (Karen Green) and agent (Bonnie Nadell) asked him to try to assemble the scrambled component parts of his last, unfinished novel, found in his office after the fact. Michael Pietsch did this work, and now here it is, in our hands, unfinished but partly polished. Incomplete but at least with us. Good luck to us all.

A bunch of magazine stories and reviews on The Pale King pretty much said, “This book killed David Wallace.” But of course that’s hooey. Wallace was a depressed person with a long history of taking medication and needing medical care. He was trying to get off his medication, and it wasn’t going well. Yes, friends have told reporters that he wanted off the meds so he could be more productive on this book. But his last book deserves to be read, not autopsied. Its themes and serious concerns aren’t new to Wallace’s writing. There is no need to arrest it on probable cause.

The Pale King, like all of Wallace’s work, is funny and dead serious at once—stylistically brilliant and formally difficult. It’s markedly unfinished, but clearly worth reading as the mature work of one of the finest writers of the last 30 years. It contains hundreds of pages of crystalline writing: sentences, paragraphs and then whole sections that are precious like platinum. A few sections are extremely polished and magical, and other parts are early drafts, destined for improvement or exile.

What you won’t find in The Pale King is an intricately woven novel as detailed and coordinated as Infinite Jest. At least as Wallace left it to us (and even with the righteous work of his editor) The Pale King is incomplete and occasionally frustrating. The threads don’t quite connect. For readers hoping to feel the power and thrill of a Great Author moving you through a carefully conceived narrative—symbols flying and linking, ideas resonating in genuine coordination—look elsewhere. The man hadn’t finished The Pale King. Whole sections seem plainly missing. Nevertheless, what is here is intriguing and worth your investment of time and care.

The Pale King tells the story of an Internal Revenue Service Regional Examination Center (“REC”) in Peoria, Illinois, in 1985. The REC is on cusp of change, with new employees arriving around the same time, converging in what seems to be a portentous moment. Several higher-ups are focusing attention on how the incredibly boring but really important work of collecting taxes is done and how it could be done better.

We meet low-level examiners and we meet mid-level managers, the latter seeming to be the advance men for the higher-ups (almost entirely hinted at as men of legendary insight or vision re: how people can be incentivized to do really boring accounting work). There are long chapters that get us deeply involved in internal IRS politics and human resource issues. If it sounds dull, then be assured that it is a mite dull. But, as several characters point out, when you push through the boredom a bit, what sits on the other side of your sustained concentration is a kind of bliss.

Conventional wisdom has it that this book is about boredom—as a malignant life condition, and as a kind of metaphor for facing the really scary stuff that we spend the rest of our lives entertaining ourselves into ignoring. Wallace certainly addresses boredom directly in many sections, even giving us the term’s etymology and a discussion of the odd absence of a proper word for the condition until relatively recent times. And given that this is a book about IRS tax agents in the ‘80s, well, sure: it’s boring.

It’s also fitfully funny, touching, confounding, and written with the beautiful and mesmerizing rhythms that fans of Wallace’s will immediately recognize and lap up the way a dog attacks a bowl of cold fresh water after a long session of retrieving a tennis ball in the park. Which is to say, quickly and with joyous relish. But there’s also a good amount of flat dullness in the book’s 550 or so pages, what with whole sections being devoted to things like training IRS agents or detailed REC shop talk.

Boredom, however, is just a link in this book’s chain.

What The Pale King is really about is something that Wallace has been writing about for the better part of his career: the way in which people can become prisoners inside their own heads, or more particularly the way in which our fears and doubts—not to mention our own intelligence and analytic ability—can become a ping-pong ball bouncing around a very tiny and self-contained space, ricocheting back and forth with incessant, unintentional and really soul-sucking power and precision. The Pale King is about self-consciousness as a disease, and therefore it is about the promise and hope there may be in reaching beyond the self.

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