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 was 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 is 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 I find think it is important that his efforts were not wasted. It seems like the most fitting tribute to a prolific author would be to publish whatever writing they left behind. Truly great writers do not 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 writing has been highly praised and regarded as progressive literature, 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 post-modern fiction of the last century, and his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, is touted as one of the greatest novels of all time. His work has inspired and enriched the lives of many people, and 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 is 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 (and in the process providing a sense of therapy for readers who are afflicted by similar troubles).
My prior relationship with DFW's work—I read Infinite Jest in 2015, and it took me nearly the whole year to complete it. I decided to read it due to its reputation mostly, I can't say I am much of a contemporary fiction aficionado in general. Reading Infinite Jest was a very unique personal experience; it took me awhile to understand the direction and purpose of the novel, if I can even call it that. Wallace's writing is as important to the novel as the story itself, and at times it feels like the story's plot is almost a subterranean layer, meant to be impressed upon rather than spelled out for the reader. Not that the plot may matter much anyways, Wallace was not one to ruin a good story for the sake of including a tidy, satisfactory ending. Which is another reason why it is 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 is the clever prose, dark humour, and expressive imagery that is woven into every sentence and page he has written.
In addition, I think what makes DFW's work so highly regarded amongst literary circles is that he respects the readers intelligence. He does not 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, in my opinion.
On the other hand, this sort of rationalization may just play into a reader's ego and make them feel more intelligent that 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 may feel they have 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.
Anyways, I felt like The Pale King was a bit more approachable than Infinite Jest. I feel like the prose was less experimental than IJ and more coherent in certain ways. But from a macro level, it was similar structurally and definitely still very Wallace-esque. By that I mean there isn't really a linear narrative to the story; most chapters are essentially isolated from each other and should really be treated as short vignettes. This might be in part due to the fact that the book was never finished, so Michael Pietsch had to work with the drafts and notes that were available and try to construct a coherent a story as possible. So 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, laborious tangents eventually) . We will may never know, but if this excerpt from the forward written by Pietsch is any indication, it seems 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
Its somewhat relieving to know that the buildup and indicators in the last few chapters that some dramatic event was set to occur in real-time in the story may not have actually resolved even if Wallace had competed the novel.
What was the purpose of this story? What was Wallace trying to convey through The Pale King? Pietsch's remarks on this subject from 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 is evident after reading The Pale King that the recurring themes throughout the novel were boredom, monotony, loneliness, focus, and discipline - how these feelings and concepts relate to each other and the various forms they take within our lives.
I can't say confidently that I found a coherent idea or "lesson" to extract from the story that relates to those main themes. I don't know if that's because Wallace never finished it, or if I just have not realized it. However I found many interesting insights into the nature of these feeling when reading certain chapters. But that's not to say that Wallace only wrote about dullness and boredom, there is a wide range of topics, voices, and themes explored in the 30 chapters that make up The Pale King. Some of these chapters I'd consider amongst the best writing I've ever read.
My favorite chapter, or "vignette", in the whole book was chapter 6, and like a lot of the chapters it really had no connection to the rest of the story except for one character from the chapter reappearing later. The chapter describes an early morning scene at a park somewhere. A young man and woman sit on a picnic table beside a pond, not talking but it is 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 is also experiencing some deep internal conflict, which is why he is barely speaking. He is so conflicted that he cannot even look at the young woman; 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. I believe Wallace was especially 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 not used once in the whole chapter, you begin to realize this is the topic of conversation as Wallace remarks:
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
But this is really the most direct that the chapter gets in terms of the details of the situation. The bulk of the chapter is devoted to 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 invites you to feel the emotional weight of the potential actions and decisions that he considers. It is very moving writing; I feel I learned something after reading it.
The crux of the issue is the fact that both of them, Lane Dean Jr. and his girlfriend Sheri Fisher, are Christians, and they are also only high-school seniors. What we learn from context is that they have both known about the pregnancy for some time, and that they had reached a previous consensus for Sheri to receive an abortion, which is scheduled for later that day. However, Sheri showed up at his home early that morning because she wanted to talk, and this talk is the scene which is presented to the reader.
Lane Dean's struggle stems from the incongruity between his desires and his moral beliefs. The first conflict is with his faith, of which Wallace does not treat as some simple character trait or stereotype. Wallace's paints Lane Dean's relationship with his religion in a more realistic way I felt, his faith is a dynamic part of him, and it is clear that this moment will affect his future stance towards his religion just as its currently affecting his decision. He feels he finally understands the reason why the act that caused the pregnancy is a sin (out of wedlock). He says:
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
He is remorseful, yet feels like he cannot reconcile his feelings and pull apart what he is actually guilty about.
His second conflict is his feelings towards Sheri; he has never told her he loves her, yet he has also never told her he doesn't love her. He knows that saying either will be the decision-maker for her, and he does not want to be the "salesman of it". Anything he says will affect her, which is why he is so stricken and afraid to say anything substantial. I really loved Wallace's writing here - he captured something very poignant about relationships that I had not considered before.
The scene described in chapter 6 didn't really fit into, or reinforce, any of the main themes of the book directly. This was not about boredom or loneliness, it was about battling internal conflicts and overcoming yourself. Although in a way, the decision Dean made was one that 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, a decision which definitely has parallels in other chapters.
The book is structured as a series of independent character arcs which serve to illuminate how these characters all came to begin work at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois on the same day in 1985. I think the point was to emphasize the different paths and motivations that all led these individuals deciding to cosign themselves 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. This was one point I believe Wallace was trying to make: that accepting tedium and boredom as a way of life is not as simple as a personality trait. How one perceives and 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. During a story of a man's path of finding purpose during his early adulthood revolved around 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 moment in his life, in which 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 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 this novel, which I think 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 - and we are lucky to get to experience this perspective through his writing.