How odd I can have all this inside me, and to you it’s just words.
— David Foster Wallace, "The Pale King" pg. 758
The Pale King is a posthumously released novel and the last work to be published under David Foster Wallace's name. It was released in 2011, 3 years after Wallace committed suicide in the garage of his home in Southern California. The novel was technically unfinished at the time of his death, so its compilation, organization, and editing were the efforts of Wallace's long-time friend and editor at Little Brown Books, Michael Pietsch. Pietsch was encouraged to complete the novel from members of Wallace's family, including his wife, Karen Green.
Even though The Pale King can't really be considered a "competed" novel in relation to the rest of Wallace's bibliography, I think it's still a blessing that this writing was shared with the world. Better that the writing became an accessible text for all his fans to enjoy, as opposed to it being sent to a university or archive somewhere. Wallace was working on this novel for close to 10 years apparently, so it's important that his efforts were not wasted. It seems like the most fitting tribute for a prolific author would be to publish whatever writing they left behind. Truly great writers don't come around often and as such their body of work is valued greatly.
David Foster Wallace is a member of this class of great writers. His progressive, post-modern writing has been highly praised, in both his reader base as well as in the literary community as a whole. His body of work is considered some of the best fiction of the last century, and his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, is touted as one of the greatest novels of all time. Wallace's work has inspired and enriched the lives of many people; I believe he had much more to share with the world. One listen to his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech makes it clear that his words had the power to reveal the beauty and abundance of life around us, while also providing a sense of clarity to our place within it.
Wallace suffered from depression for much of his adult life, and it's likely he battled with addiction and substance abuse at times as well. These are prevalent themes in many of his stories; it seems like Wallace wrote these traits into the characters he created as a way of dealing with his own feelings—in the process providing a sense of companionship and therapy for readers who are afflicted by similar troubles.
Do u even DFW bro?
I read Infinite Jest in 2015, and it took me nearly a whole year to complete it. I decided to read it due to its reputation mostly, I'm definitely not a contemporary fiction aficionado by any means. Reading Infinite was a very unique personal experience; it took me awhile to understand the direction and purpose of the novel. Wallace's writing is as important to the novel as the story itself, and at times it's like the plot is a subterranean layer, meant to be impressed upon rather than spelled out for the reader. Not that the plot may matter much anyways; Wallace wasn't one to ruin a good story for the sake of including a tidy, satisfactory ending. This is another reason why it's not too important that The Pale King wasn't completely finished, an ending is not a requirement in Wallace's writing.
Truthfully, I think Wallace's novels are an example of the idiom "it's about the journey, not the destination", because what you should appreciate while reading DFW is the clever prose, dark humour, and expressive imagery that is woven into every sentence and page he writes.
I think what makes Wallace's work so highly regarded amongst literary circles is that he respects the readers intelligence. He doesn't waste space spoon-feeding the reader obvious plot points and character motivations that could instead be learned tangentially. His array of unique syntactical flourishes are also provocative and memorable; he is effective at taking reader's of all skill levels out of their comfort zone. It definitely requires focus, but the trade-off in the end is a more interesting and immersive reading experience.
On the other hand, this sort of rationalization may just play into a reader's ego and make them feel more intelligent if they can decipher this unconventional writing style, which then creates a motivation to ensure the novel receives praise and is highly regarded by others so that the reader can relish in their superior literary taste as well as the sense that they belong to an exclusive group that actually can understand and appreciate the book.
Or maybe that's just being cynical.
...I do totally feel all those feelings though.
The Pale King
I felt like The Pale King was a bit more approachable than Infinite Jest. The prose was less experimental and more coherent in certain ways. It was still similar in structure and definitely still very Wallace-esque. There isn't really a linear narrative to the story.
Most chapters are isolated from each other and should really be treated as short vignettes. This might be because the book was never finished so Pietsch had to work with the drafts and notes that were available while trying to construct a coherent story. There is always the possibility that Wallace had intended to fill in a lot of the gaps in the story (or maybe even pare off some of the more sprawling tangents eventually). We'll never know for sure, but if this excerpt from Pietsch's forward is any indication, it sounds like many gaps are there by design:
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.
— Michael Pietsch, "The Pale King" pg. 8
It's somewhat relieving to know that the indicators in the last few chapters that some dramatic event was set to occur in the story may not have actually resolved even if Wallace had completed the novel.
What was the purpose of this story? What was Wallace trying to convey through The Pale King? Pietsch remarks on this question in the forward:
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.
— Pietsch, pg. 10
It's evident after reading The Pale King that the recurring themes throughout the novel are boredom, monotony, loneliness, focus, and discipline—how these concepts relate to each other and the various forms they adopt in our lives.
I can't say that I found a coherent idea or "lesson" to extract from the story which relates to those main themes. However, I found many interesting insights into the nature of these feelings when reading certain chapters. That's not to say that the entire book is only about dullness and boredom; there's a wide range of topics, voices, and themes explored in the 30 chapters that make up The Pale King. Some of these chapters I consider amongst the best writing I've ever read.
My favorite chapter, or "vignette", in the whole book was chapter six. The entire chapter was actually published in The New Yorker separately too. Like a lot of the chapters in The Pale King, it really had no connection to the rest of the story except for one character reappearing later in the book.
It's an early morning at a park somewhere. A young man and woman sit on a picnic table beside a pond, not talking but it's made clear that there is tension between them, and something important has either happened, or is going to happen.
The chapter is told from the perspective of Lane Dean Jr., the young man, in a third person kind of way which Wikipedia tells me is called Limited Third-Person Subjective narration. Lane Dean, the subject, is feeling subjectively anxious, and he's also experiencing some deep internal conflict, which is why he's barely speaking. He is so conflicted that he can't even look at the young woman beside him. Wallace spends much of the time describing the scenery at the park to evoke a distracted feeling in the reader, analogous to how Lane Dean is trying to distract himself away from the focal point of the scene.
The subject of this conversation is gradually revealed (again, implicitly) throughout the chapter. Wallace was careful in writing it this way to make you feel the same aversion to the topic that the two characters are feeling. A sort of elephant-in-the-room dynamic. Although the word abortion is never used in the whole chapter, you begin to realize this is the topic of conversation:
One thing Lane Dean did was reassure her again that he’d go with her and be there with her. It was one of the few safe or decent things he could really say. [...] Where he’d be was the waiting room, she said. That he’d be thinking about her and feeling bad for her, she knew, but he couldn’t be in there with her.
— Wallace, pg. 64
This is the most direct that the chapter gets in terms of the details of the situation. The bulk of the chapter is focused on Lane Dean's thoughts and struggles.
What I loved about this chapter, and in general what makes Wallace such a great writer, is how he immerses you into a complex situation in a way that reveals the nuances and details in such vivid and emotional language. The way he describes the internal conflicts of Lane Dean allows you to really feel the emotional weight of the decisions and actions that he considers. It's very moving writing.
The crux of the issue is the fact that both of them, Lane Dean Jr. and his girlfriend Sheri Fisher, are Christians. They are only high-school seniors as well. What we learn from context is they have both known about the pregnancy for some time, and they had reached a previous agreement for Sheri to get an abortion; which is scheduled for later that day. Sheri showed up at Lane's home early that morning because she wanted to talk, and this is the scene which is presented to the reader.
Lane's struggle stems from the incongruity between his desires and his moral beliefs. The first conflict is with his faith, which Wallace does not treat as some simple character trait or stereotype. Wallace's paints Lane's relationship with his religion in a more realistic way—his faith is a dynamic part of him, and it's clear that this moment will affect his future stance towards religion in a very fundamental way. Lane feels he finally understands the reason why the act that caused the pregnancy is a sin (out of wedlock):
He so fervently wished it never happened. He felt like he knew now why it was a true sin and not just a leftover rule from past society. He felt like he had been brought low by it and humbled and now did understand and believe that the rules were there for a reason. That the rules were concerned with him personally, as an individual. He’d promised God he had learned his lesson. But what if that, too, was a hollow promise, from a hypocrite who repented only after, who promised submission but really only wanted a reprieve? He might not even know his own heart or be able to read and know himself. He kept thinking also of 1 Timothy 6 and the hypocrite therein who disputeth over words. He felt a terrible inner resistance but could not feel what it was it so resisted. This was the truth.
— Wallace, pg. 67
Lane is remorseful, yet he can't reconcile his feelings and pull apart what he's actually guilty about.
The second conflict is his feelings towards Sheri. Lane has never told her he loves her, yet he's also never told her he doesn't love her. He knows that saying either will be the decision-maker for Sheri, and he does not want to be the "salesman of it". Anything he says will affect her, which is why he's so stricken and afraid to say anything substantial. I really loved Wallace's writing here—he captured something very poignant about relationships that I hadn't considered before.
The scene described in chapter six didn't really fit into or reinforce any of the main themes of the book directly. It was not about boredom or loneliness; it was about battling internal conflicts and making hard decisions. Although the decision Lane Dean Jr. made would lead him down a path of tedium and monotony that would eventually land him a career at the IRS to support his young family.
The Quiet Hero
The book is structured as a series of independent character arcs which serve to illuminate how these characters all came to begin working at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois on the same day in 1985. I think the point was to emphasize the different motivations that led these individuals to this type of career. A career marked by excruciatingly dull paperwork combined with constant boredom. Boredom so pervasive it becomes a existential threat, so intense that those that work at the IRS are prone to hallucinations and visions of ghosts. Wallace wanted to show that accepting tedium and boredom as a way of life is not as simple as a personality trait. How someone rationalizes the acceptance of these feelings in their daily life can vary greatly. Some may view them as akin to nothing less than torture, while others may find comfort or take pride in the ability to carry out tedious, repetitive tasks every day.
At one point in The Pale King, we learn of a man who found his purpose during an advanced accounting lecture he accidentally sat in on one day. The lecture resulted in an almost religious-type epiphany for him; the words and mannerisms of the professor were so impressive that this became a turning point in his life and he later joins the IRS. The lecturer descries the accounting profession as a sort of heroic self-sacrifice:
Gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism [...] actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.
— Wallace, pg. 337
I feel like this definition of heroism could be used to describe David Foster Wallace deciding to write a novel about the tax profession. Tackling a very intimate, personal topic that everyone experiences, but one that I don't think most people would choose to read a novel on.
In the end though, I was thoroughly engrossed while reading The Pale King, which is a true testament to Wallace's ability to extract something important from almost any topic. He observed the world in a much different way than most of us— we are lucky to get to experience this perspective through his writing.