Review: David Foster Wallace – “The Pale King

The Pale KingThe Pale King by David Foster Wallace
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wallace had been mulling the possibilities for a third novel since the mid-1990s, even as he began the stories that would form the heart of Brief Interviews. The setting had come early, possibly even before the publication of Infinite Jest: he knew he wanted to write about the IRS. The agency fit well with Wallace’s Pynchonian appetite for clandestine organizations and hidden conspiracies. And like the tennis academy and recovery house in Infinite Jest, it was a world unto itself, where characters would be in charged apposition to one another. Wallace himself had had numerous small brushes with the agency over the years, usually involving trivial errors on Form 1099s that he or his accountant had to get corrected. These encounters touched off the same anxiety within him as communications from lawyers and fact-checkers. He had an idea as well of the IRS as a secular church, a counterpart to Alcoholics Anonymous in Infinite Jest.14 But, finally, he probably settled on the IRS for the most obvious reason: it was the dullest possible venue he could think of and he had decided to write about boredom.

It’s hard to review anything by David Foster Wallace to me, so far. His books are life-changers in a way that they skewer your mind and, at the least, force yourself into questioning your own ways but also those of others. It’s a bit like listening to how Bill Hicks started reacting at the end of his life, when he received word that he would die from cancer: everything’s tinged with timelessness, written passionately, carefully and with love. It’s a very berth that doesn’t really have anything to do with throwaway culture (which is funny, considering how much Wallace immersed himself in popular culture, especially TV) but with human emotions and the intellectual.

“The Pale King” was published posthumously. Having said that, the book had to be published. I think even Wallace wanted that, considering how he left the book just before committing suicide. And it’s not only the best posthumous book I have ever read, but reading 10-20 pages into it, it was clear to me that the form and content was a clear, bested leap from “Infinite Jest”.

Wallace in his final hours had “tidied up [his] manuscript so that his wife could find it. Below it, around it, inside his two computers, on old floppy disks in his drawers were hundreds of other pages“”drafts, character sketches, notes to himself, fragments that had evaded his attempt to integrate them into the novel.” On her blog, Kathleen Fitzpatrick reported that the Pale King manuscript edited by Michael Pietsch began with “more than 1000 pages … in 150 unique chapters”. The published version is 540 pages and 50 chapters.

— From the Wikipedia article on “The Pale King”

Still, it’s extremely good form. And I can’t imagine how tough it must have been to edit the book. Pietsch, a long-time editor with Wallace, must have done a terrific job. Wallace’s notebooks from writing “The Pale King” are available online, thanks to the Harry Ransom Center, to help the reader see what was there.

In the process of writing the novel he came to call The Pale King, he laid out its central tenet in one of his notebooks: Bliss“”a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious“”lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.

–From D. T. Max’s biography on David Foster Wallace, titelled “Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story”

To paraphrase Bill Hicks again: it’s a ride.

You get the intimate feel from people inside the IRS, people brought there by a life-long drive towards the bureaucratic, presenting them as humans rather than something out of a Kafka book. You get luck, love, death, life, music, and details that made me cry. The first pages of this book made me want to laud Wallace above and beyond.

And the people. Always the people. While reading the book, I often felt “I wouldn’t want to be any of these”, but at the same time, I could definitely relate to the mundane and be touched by how Wallace made it feel beautiful. Filing copies and making copies and going through the same routine over and over, while looking at the clock trying to think of ways to make time go faster, or thinking about home, night and the day after, when you will, no doubt, clatter forward in despair, tediousness and silence around you while there are people scattered only an arm’s length from you.

Wallace’s inclusion of himself as a character who made it into the IRS by chance is better than imagined. The footnotes – oh yes, there are footnotes, and not endnotes – are here as explanations, comments, another world looking in and at the same time anything but pretentious garbage.

Who other than Wallace, in modern times, had/has the ability to write something this complex without making the reading boring and the financial aspects of being an IRS worker utterly uninteresting?

Just read this. Don’t give a toss about this review, really. His words excel most I’ve ever read. This is basically human, touching and moving beyond my feeble attempts at explaining what “The Pale King” is about.

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