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The Pale King
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The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace. But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that new employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling. And he has arrived at a moment when forces within the IRS are plotting to eliminate even what little humanity and dignity the work still has.
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.
"The Pale King is by turns funny, shrewd, suspenseful, piercing, smart, terrifying, and rousing." –Laura Miller, Salon
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
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In 2006, ten years after the publication of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Little, Brown made plans to release an anniversary edition of that glorious novel. Celebrations were set up at bookstores in New York and Los Angeles, but as the events neared, David demurred about attending. I telephoned to try to persuade him. "You know I'll come if you insist," he said. "But please don't. I'm deep into something long, and it's hard for me to get back into it when I'm pulled away."
"Something long" and "a long thing" were the terms David used to talk about the novel he'd been writing in the years since Infinite Jest. He published many books in those years—story collections in 1999 and 2004 and gatherings of essays in 1997 and 2005. But the question of a new novel loomed, and David was uncomfortable speaking about it. Once when I pressed him, he described working on the new novel as like wrestling sheets of balsa wood in a high wind. From his literary agent, Bonnie Nadell, I heard occasional reports: David was taking accounting classes as research for the novel. It was set at an IRS tax return processing center. I had had the enormous honor of working with David as his editor on Infinite Jest, and had seen the worlds he'd conjured out of a tennis academy and a rehab center. If anyone could make taxes interesting, I figured, it was him.
At the time of David's death, in September 2008, I had not seen a word of this novel except for a couple stories he had published in magazines, stories with no apparent connection to accountancy or taxation. In November, Bonnie Nadell joined Karen Green, David's widow, to go through his office, a garage with one small window at their home in Claremont, California. On David's desk Bonnie found a neat stack of manuscript, twelve chapters totaling nearly 250 pages. On the label of a disk containing those chapters he had written "For LB advance?" Bonnie had talked with David about pulling together a few chapters of his novel to send to Little, Brown in order to commence negotiations for a new contract and advance against royalties. Here was that partial manuscript, unsent.
Exploring David's office, Bonnie and Karen found hundreds and hundreds of pages of his novel in progress, designated with the title "The Pale King." Hard drives, file folders, three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks, and floppy disks contained printed chapters, sheaves of handwritten pages, notes, and more. I flew to California at their invitation and two days later returned home with a green duffel bag and two Trader Joe's sacks heavy with manuscripts. A box full of books that David had used in his research followed by mail.
Reading this material in the months after returning, I found an astonishingly full novel, created with the superabundant originality and humor that were uniquely David's. As I read these chapters I felt unexpected joy, because while inside this world that David had made I felt as if I were in his presence, and was able to forget awhile the awful fact of his death. Some pieces were neatly typed and revised through numerous versions. Others were drafts in David's minuscule handwriting. Some—those chapters from the desk among them—had been recently polished. Others were much older and contained abandoned or superseded plotlines. There were notes and false starts, lists of names, plot ideas, instructions to himself. All these materials were gorgeously alive and charged with observations; reading them was the closest thing to seeing his amazing mind at play upon the world. One leather-bound workbook was still closed around a green felt marker with which David had recently written.
Nowhere in all these pages was there an outline or other indication of what order David intended for these chapters. There were a few broad notes about the novel's trajectory, and draft chapters were often preceded or followed by David's directions to himself about where a character came from or where he or she might be headed. But there was no list of scenes, no designated closing point, nothing that could be called a set of directions or instructions for The Pale King. As I read and reread this mass of material, it nevertheless became clear that David had written deep into the novel, creating a vividly complex place—the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, in 1985—and a remarkable set of characters doing battle there against the hulking, terrorizing demons of ordinary life.
Karen Green and Bonnie Nadell asked me to assemble from these pages the best version of The Pale King that I could find. Doing so has been a challenge like none I've ever encountered. But having read these draft pages and notes, 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. Although not by any measure a finished work, The Pale King seemed to me as deep and brave as anything David had written. Working on it was the best act of loving remembrance I was capable of.
In putting this book together I have followed internal clues from the chapters themselves and from David's notes. It was not an easy task: even a chapter that appeared to be the novel's obvious starting point is revealed in a footnote, and even more directly in an earlier version of that chapter, to be intended to arrive well after the novel begins. Another note in the same chapter refers to the novel as being full of "shifting POVs, structural fragmentation, willed incongruities."
But many of the chapters revealed a central narrative that follows a fairly clear chronology. In this story line, several characters arrive at the Peoria Regional Examination Center on the same day in 1985. They go through orientation and begin working in and learning about the vast world of IRS tax returns processing. These chapters and these recurring characters have an evident sequence that forms the novel's spine.
Other chapters are self-contained and not part of any chronology. Arranging these freestanding sections has been the most difficult part of editing The Pale King. It became apparent as I read that David planned for the novel to have a structure akin to that of Infinite Jest, with large portions of apparently unconnected information presented to the reader before a main story line begins to make sense. In several notes to himself, David referred to the novel as "tornadic" or having a "tornado feeling"—suggesting pieces of story coming at the reader in a high-speed swirl. Most of the non-chronological chapters have to do with daily life at the Regional Examination Center, with IRS practice and lore, and with ideas about boredom, repetition, and familiarity. Some are stories from various unusual and difficult childhoods, whose significance gradually becomes clear. My aim in sequencing these sections was to place them so that the information they contain arrives in time to support the chronological story line. In some cases placement is essential to the unfolding story; in others it is a matter of pace and mood, as in siting short comic chapters between long serious ones.
The novel's central story does not have a clear ending, and the question inevitably arises: How unfinished is this novel? How much more might there have been? This is unknowable in the absence of a detailed outline projecting scenes and stories yet to be written. 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. One note says the novel is "a series of setups for things to happen but nothing ever happens." Another points out that there are three "high-end players… but we never see them, only their aides and advance men." Still another suggests that throughout the novel "something big threatens to happen but doesn't actually happen." These lines could support a contention that the novel's apparent incompleteness is in fact intentional. David ended his first novel in the middle of a line of dialogue and his second with large plot questions addressed only glancingly. One character in The Pale King describes a play he's written in which a man sits at a desk, working silently, until the audience leaves, at which point the play's action begins. But, he continues, "I could never decide on the action, if there was any." In the section titled "Notes and Asides" at the end of the book I have extracted some of David's notes about characters and story. These notes and lines from the text suggest ideas about the novel's direction and shape, but none strikes me as definitive. I believe that David was still exploring the world he had made and had not yet given it a final form.
The pages of the manuscript were edited only lightly. One goal was to make characters' names consistent (David invented new names constantly) and to make place names, job titles, and other factual matters match up throughout the book. Another was to correct obvious grammatical errors and word repetitions. Some chapters of the manuscript were designated "Zero drafts" or "freewriting," David's terms for first tries, and included notes such as "Cut by 50% in next draft." I made occasional cuts for sense or pace, or to find an end point for a chapter that trailed off unfinished. My overall intent in sequencing and editing was to eliminate unintentional distractions and confusions so as to allow readers to focus on the enormous issues David intended to raise, and to make the story and characters as comprehensible as possible. The complete original drafts of these chapters, and the entire mass of material from which this novel was culled, will ultimately be made available to the public at the University of Texas's Harry Ransom Center, which houses all of David Foster Wallace's papers.
David was a perfectionist of the highest order, and there is no question that The Pale King would be vastly different had he survived to finish it. Words and images recur throughout these chapters that I am sure he would have revised: the terms "titty-pinching" and "squeezing his shoes," for example, would probably not be repeated as often as they are. At least two characters have Doberman hand puppets. These and dozens of other repetitions and draft sloppinesses would have been corrected and honed had David continued writing The Pale King. But he did not. Given the choice between working to make this less-than-final text available as a book and placing it in a library where only scholars would read and comment on it, I didn't have a second's hesitation. Even unfinished, it is a brilliant work, an exploration of some of life's deepest challenges, and an enterprise of extraordinary artistic daring. David set out to write a novel about some of the hardest subjects in the world—sadness and boredom—and to make that exploration nothing less than dramatic, funny, and deeply moving. Everyone who worked with David knows well how he resisted letting the world see work that was not refined to his exacting standard. But an unfinished novel is what we have, and how can we not look? David, alas, isn't here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb's-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother's soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak's thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.
Some crows come overhead then, three or four, not a murder, on the wing, silent with intent, corn-bound for the pasture's wire beyond which one horse smells at the other's behind, the lead horse's tail obligingly lifted. Your shoes' brand incised in the dew. An alfalfa breeze. Socks' burrs. Dry scratching inside a culvert. Rusted wire and tilted posts more a symbol of restraint than a fence per se. NO HUNTING. The shush of the interstate off past the windbreak. The pasture's crows standing at angles, turning up patties to get at the worms underneath, the shapes of the worms incised in the overturned dung and baked by the sun all day until hardened, there to stay, tiny vacant lines in rows and inset curls that do not close because head never quite touches tail. Read these.
From Midway Claude Sylvanshine then flew on something called Consolidated Thrust Regional Lines down to Peoria, a terrifying thirty-seater whose pilot had pimples at the back of his neck and reached back to pull a dingy fabric curtain over the cockpit and the beverage service consisted of a staggering girl underhanding you nuts while you chugged a Pepsi. Sylvanshine's window seat was in 8-something, an emergency row, beside an older lady with a sacklike chin who could not seem despite strenuous efforts to open her nuts. The core accounting equation A = L + E can be dissolved and reshuffled into everything from E = A - L to beyond. The craft rode the updrafts and downdrafts like a dinghy in a gale. The only service into Peoria was regional out of either St. Louis or the two Chicagos. Sylvanshine had an inner ear thing and couldn't read on planes but did read the emergency laminated card, twice. It was mostly illustrations; for legal reasons, the airline had to presume illiteracy. Without being aware that he was doing so, Sylvanshine mentally repeated the word illiterate several dozen times until the word ceased to mean anything and became just a rhythmic sound, not unlovely but out of sync with the propellers' flux's pulse. It was something he did when he was under stress and did not want an incursion. His point of departure was Dulles after a Service shuttle from Shepherdstown/Martinsburg. The three major codifications of US tax law being of course '16, '39, and '54, with '81 and '82's indexing and anti-abuse provisions also relevant. The fact that another major recodification was on the horizon would not, obviously, be on the CPA exam. Sylvanshine's private goal was to pass the CPA exam, thereby immediately advancing two paygrades. The extent of the recodification would, of course, depend in part on the Service's success in carrying out the Initiative's directives. The job and the exam had to occupy two separate parts of his mind; it was crucial that he maintain separation of powers. Separation of the two areas. Calculating depreciation recapture for §1231 assets is a five-step process. The flight took fifty minutes and seemed much longer. There was nothing to do and nothing would hold still in his head in all the confined noise and after the nuts were gone there was nothing else for Sylvanshine to do to occupy his mind but try to look at the ground which appeared close enough that he could make out house colors and the types of different vehicles on the pale interstate the plane seemed to tack back and forth across. The card's figures opening emergency doors and pulling cords and crossing their arms funereally with their seat cushions on their chests seemed amateurishly drawn and their features little more than bumps; you couldn't see fear or relief or really anything on their faces as they slid down the emergency chutes in the drawing. Emergency doors' handles opened in one way and emergency hatches over the wings opened in a totally different way. Components of equity include common stock, retained earnings, and how many different types of SE transaction. Distinguish between perpetual and periodic inventory and explain the relation(s) between a physical inventory and the cost of goods sold. The darkly gray head ahead of him gave off a scent of Brylcreem that was even now surely soaking and staining the little paper towel on the seat top. Sylvanshine wished again that Reynolds was with him on the flight. Sylvanshine and Reynolds were both aides to Systems icon Merrill Errol ('Mel') Lehrl although Reynolds was a GS-11 and Sylvanshine only a miserable and pathetic GS-9. Sylvanshine and Reynolds had lived together and gone everywhere together since the Rome REC debacle in '82. They weren't homosexual; they just lived together and both worked closely with Dr. Lehrl at Systems. Reynolds had both his CPA and a degree in Information Systems Management although he was only slightly more than two years Claude Sylvanshine's senior. This asymmetry was just one more thing that compromised Sylvanshine's self-regard since Rome and made him doubly loyal and grateful to Systems Director Lehrl for having salvaged him from the debris of the catastrophe in Rome and believing in his potential once his niche as a cog in the system was found. The double-entry method invented by Italian Pacioli during the same period as C. Columbus et alia. The card indicated that this was the type of aircraft whose emergency oxygen was a fire-extinguisherish thing beneath the seats rather than dropping from overhead. The primitive opacity of the figures' faces was actually scarier than fear or some kind of visible expression would have been. It was unclear whether the card's primary function was legal or PR or both. He briefly tried to remember the definition of yaw. Every so often while studying for the exam this winter Sylvanshine would burp and it would seem like more than a burp; it would taste like he'd almost thrown up a little. A light rain made a moving lace on the window and distended the crosshatched land they went over. At root, Sylvanshine saw himself as a dithering ninny with at most one marginal talent whose connection to him was itself marginal.
Here is what occurred at the Service's Rome NY Northeast Regional Examination Center on or about the date in question: Two departments had fallen behind and reacted in a regrettably unprofessional fashion, an atmosphere of extreme stress was allowed to cloud judgment and overrule set procedures, the department attempting to hide the growing pile of returns and cross-audit receipts and W-2/1099 copies rather than duly reporting the backlog and requesting that some of the excess be rerouted to other centers. There failed to be full disclosure and prompt remedial action. Just where the failure and breakdown had occurred was still a matter of controversy despite blamestorming sessions at the very highest levels of Compliance, though ultimately the responsibility lay with the Rome REC Director despite the fact that it was never quite established whether the department heads had made her fully aware of the extent of the backlog. The dark Service joke about this Director now had been that her desk had had a Trumanesque wooden plaque on it which read: WHAT BUCK? It had taken three weeks for District Audit sections to start howling over the shortfall of examined returns for audit and/or Automated Collections Systems and the complaints had slowly worked their way up and over into Inspections as anyone should have been able to figure was only a matter of time. The Rome Director had taken early retirement and one Group Manager had been fired outright, which was exceedingly rare for GS-13s. It was obviously important that remedial action be quiet and that undue publicity not compromise the public's full faith and confidence in the Service. No one threw forms away. Hid, yes, but not destroyed or discarded. Even in the midst of disastrous departmental psychosis no one could bring himself to burn, shred, or pack in Hefties and discard. That would have been a real disaster—that would have become public. The emergency hatch's window was nothing more than several layers of plastic, it appeared, the inside of which gave ominously under digital pressure. Over the window was a stern injunction against opening the emergency hatch accompanied by an iconic triptych explaining how to open just this hatch. As a system, in other words, it was poorly thought through. What was now called stress used to be called tension or pressure. Pressure was now more like something you put on someone else, as in high-pressure salesmen. Reynolds said one of Dr. Lehrl's interbranch liaisons had described the Peoria REC as a 'real pressure cooker,' although that was in terms of Exams, not Personnel, to which latter Sylvanshine was posted as advance and ground-laying for a possible Systems full-out. The truth, which Reynolds had stopped just short of expressing as such, was that the assignment couldn't be that sensitive if they trusted it to Sylvanshine. There were, according to his researches, registration slots for the CPA examination at Peoria College of Business on November 7 and 8, and at Joliet Community College November 14–15. Duration of this posting unknown. One of the most effective isometric exercises for the deskbound is to sit up quite straight and tighten the large muscles of the buttocks, holding for a count of eight, then release. It tones, aids blood flow and alertness, and can, unlike other isometric exercises, be performed even in public, being largely obscured by the desk's material mass. Avoid grimacing or loud exhalations upon release. Preferential transfers, liquidation provisions, unsecured creditors, claims against bankruptcy estate as per Ch. 7. He had his hat in his lap, over the belt. Systems Director Lehrl had started as a GS-9 auditor in Danville VA before the éclat and rapid rise. He had the strength of ten men. When Sylvanshine studied for the exam now the worst thing was that studying any one thing would set off a storm in his head about all the other things he hadn't studied and felt he was still weak on, making it almost impossible to concentrate, causing him to fall ever further behind. He'd been studying for the CPA exam for three and a half years. It was like trying to build a model in a high wind. 'The most important component in organizing a structure for effective study is:' something. What killed him were the story problems. Reynolds had passed the exam on his first sit. Yaw was rotating slightly from side to side. The word for pitching forward and back was something else. Axes were involved. There was something called gimble or 'gimbal' that came into his mind whenever he saw the Donagan kid at Lombard High who then later ended up at Mission Control for the last two Apollos and had his picture in a glass case by the Office at Lombard. The worst then was that he knew what teachers were the last people suited for their jobs, and they then smelled some part of this knowledge on him and were at their worst when he was watching. It was a loop. Sylvanshine's senior yearbook in his trunk in storage in Philly was almost wholly unsigned. The older party next door was still trying to open her package of nuts with her teeth but had been clear on not wanting help or needing help. The projected benefit obligation (PBO) equals the present value of all benefits attributed by the pension benefit formula to employee services rendered prior to that date. If you spell it fast with stress on the h and the a and then the second a and the h again then headache becomes a lilting children's rhymed refrain, something to jump rope to. Look down your shirt and spell attic. One of the teenagers outside the video arcade next to the facilities at Midway had worn a black tee shirt with the words SYMPATHY FOR NIXON TOUR and then a long list of cities in tiny appliqué letters. The teen, who was not on the flight, had then sat briefly across from Sylvanshine in the gate area and had picked at his face with a concentration that wasn't at all like the absent face-picking and feeling at parts of the face that accompanied concentrated work in the Service. Sylvanshine still dreamed of desk drawers and air ducts stuffed with forms and forms' edges protruding from grilles over the ducts and the utility closet stacked to the top with Hollerith cards and the Inspections Division lady forcing the door and the cards all falling out on her like McGee's closet as the whole debacle caught up to them after they fell behind on cross-audit receipts at the Rome REC. He dreamed still of Grecula and Harris disabling the Fornix mainframe with something poured from a thermos into the rear vent as hisses and bits of blue-tinged smoke issued. The teen had had no vocational aura at all; this happened with some people. Ethical standards comprising the exam's whole first unit, about which there were also many Service jokes. A violation of the profession's ethical standards most likely would have occurred when: Such was the propellers' otherworldly sound that Sylvanshine now could hear nothing more than drifting syllables of the exchanges around him. The woman's claw on the steel armrest between them was a horrible sight that he declined to attend to. Old people's hands frightened and repelled him. He'd had grandparents whose hands he could remember in their laps looking alien and clawlike. Upon incorporation, Jones, Inc. issues common stock at a price in excess of its par value. It was difficult not to imagine the faces of those whose jobs were writing these questions. What they thought about, what their professional hopes and dreams were. Many of the questions were like little stories with all the human meat left out. On December 1, 1982, Clark Co. leases office space for three years at a monthly rental of $20,000. For a count of one hundred, Sylvanshine tried flexing first one buttock and then the other instead of both buttocks at once, which required concentration and a strange type of noncontrol, like trying to wiggle your ears in the mirror. He tried the inclined-to-the-side thing of stretching out his neck's muscles on each side very gently and gradually but still got a look from the older lady, who with her dark dress and staved-in face appeared more and more skull-like and frightening and like some type of omen of death or crushing failure on the CPA exam, which two things had collapsed in Sylvanshine's psyche to a single image of his silently, expressionlessly pushing a wide industrial mop down a corridor lined with frosted-glass doors bearing other men's names. Even the sight of a mop, rollable bucket, or custodian with his name woven in red Palmer script on the breast pocket of his gray jumpsuit (as at Midway, outside the men's room whose little yellow sign warned bilingually of wet floors, the cursive name something beginning with M,
- "One hell of a document and a valiant tribute to the late Wallace.....Stretches of this are nothing short of sublime--the first two chapters are a real put-the-reader-on-notice charging bull blitz, and the David Foster Wallace sections...are tiny masterpieces of that whole self-aware po-mo thing of his that's so heavily imitated.... often achingly funny...pants-pissingly hilarious....Yet, even in its incomplete state...the book is unmistakably a David Foster Wallace affair. You get the sense early on that he's trying to cram the whole world between two covers. As it turns out, that would actually be easier to than what he was up to here, because then you could gloss over the flyover country that this novel fully inhabits, finding, among the wigglers, the essence of our fundamental human struggles."—Publishers Weekly
- "The final, beautiful act of an unwilling icon...one of the saddest, most lovely books I've ever read...Let's state this clearly: You should read THE PALE KING.... You'll be [kept up at night] because D.F.W. writes sentences and sometimes whole pages that make you feel like you can't breathe...because again and again he invites you to consider some very heavy things....Through some function of his genius, he causes us to ask these questions of ourselves."—Benjamin Alsup, Esquire
- "Deeply sad, deeply philosophical...breathtakingly brilliant...funny, maddening and elegiac...[David Foster Wallace's] most emotionally immediate work...It was in trying to capture the hectic, chaotic reality--and the nuanced, conflicted, ever-mutating thoughts of his characters--that Wallace's synesthetic prose waxed so prolix, his sentences unspooling into tangled skeins of words, replete with qualifying phrases and garrulous footnotes...because in almost everything Wallace wrote, including THE PALE KING, he aimed to use words to lasso and somehow subdue the staggering, multifarious, cacophonous predicament that is modern American life."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "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)
- "THE PALE KING represents Wallace's finest work as a novelist...Wallace made a career out of rushing in where other writers feared to tread or wouldn't bother treading. He had an outsize, hypertrophied talent...THE PALE KING is an attempt to stare directly into the blind spot and face what's there...His ability to render the fine finials and fractals and flourishes of a mind acting upon itself, from moment to moment, using only the blunt, numb instruments of language, has few if any equals in American literature..this we see him do at full extension."—Lev Grossman, TIME
- "To read THE PALE KING is in part to feel how much Wallace had changed as a writer, compressed and deepened himself...It's easy to make the book sound heavy, but it's often very funny, and not politely funny, either...Contains what's sure to be some of the finest fiction of the year."—John Jeremiah Sullivan, GQ
- "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
- "The four-word takeaway: You should read it!"—New York Magazine
- "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
- "An incomplete, complex, confounding, brilliant novel...Reading THE PALE KING is strangely intimate...it also comes with a note of grace."—Sam Anderson, New York Times Magazine
- "The most anticipated posthumous American novel of the last century...[Wallace was] America's most-gifted writer...American literature will rarely, if ever, give us another mind like Wallace's...ferociously written...richly imagined...a deep panoply of lives and the post-modern awareness of how this all was constructed, both the work and the vortex of current life."—John Freeman, Boston Globe
- "THE PALE KING represents Wallace's effort, through humor, digression and old-fashioned character study, to represent IRS agents...as not merely souled, but complexly so. He succeeds, profoundly, and the rest of the book's intellectual content is gravy. Yes, parts are difficult, but 'boring' never comes into it. And it's very, very funny."—Sam Thielman, Newsday
- "It may be unfinished, but the reviews-cum-retrospectives all soundly agree: It's still a book to be read."—The Miami Herald
- "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
- "Exhilarating."—Hillel Italie, Associated Press
- "Heroic and humbling...sad, breathtakingly rigorous and searching, ultimately hysterically funny."—Matt Feeney, Slate
- "Brilliant...[it] glimmers and sparkles."—Richard Rayner, The Los Angeles Times
- On Sale
- Apr 15, 2011
- Page Count
- 592 pages
- Little, Brown and Company