The Pale King

Cleaning up the draft pile, here’s an unfinished review of Wallace’s The Pale King. I wrote this nearly three years ago. I throw it out into the blog ether just for the helluvit.

It’s coming up on six months since the release of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous tome The Pale King, and I have yet to say a word about it.

As all reviewers are wont to point out, the Pale King –a novel set in the world of a bureaucratic 1980s IRS regional office–was released on April 15th, tax day. Get it?

There was a buzz about Wallace’s last book.  But now the chatter seems to have muted along with the worry over taxes. Significant for the day is it’s own trouble.

I did manage to read the book shortly after its release.  I have this bias against buying books, so I waited till it was available at my library.  When I did get my paws on a copy, it was a handsome large print edition which made the 500 page book into an easy 800 pages, but with print that’s easy on the eyes.  I do not have poor eye sight, but I loved reading this book in extra-large print.  The words got in deeper.

I’ve had six months to stew on Wallace’s last novel, and I believe it is a work that will be remembered and talked about by taxpayers long after me. Wallace’s writing is beyond great; It is penetrating, thought provoking, and, most of all, a whole lot of fun.

Consider this:

A young man explains his slow descent from college dropout to IRS tax agent, a journey that involves watching his father literally torn apart when his arm gets stuck in the subway door.

Or this:
A man, who very well may be asexual, slowly begins to levitate the more intently he listens to the beautiful woman married to the cruel invalid, who duped her into marriage. They are both tax agents.

How ’bout this:
A young christian couple sit on a park bench considering their options since she is pregnant and his faith is much less forgiving than hers.

These are the tragi-comic lives we lead. Or rather, filtered through Wallace’s brain, these are a melodramatic reenactment of our lives, charged with just enough of the numinous to give spice to the imagination.

More so than with Infinite Jest, in the Pale King, Wallace talks to us readers. His voice is personal. He has something to say.

I feel like all of Wallace’s career was leading to the Pale King. He spent nearly ten years working on it, researching it, scribbling in notebooks, and then scribbling on top of the scribbles. He wanted to write a magnum opus, and this is a guy who’s already got a magnum opus in Infinite Jest.

But IJ doesn’t hum like the Pale King. I think the reason is that IJ often reads like Wallace is trying to be difficult; he’s trying to fool you. In The Pale King, on the other hand, there is none of that pretension. Wallace is a fellow sufferer. He has a story to tell us, and if you listen close, you just might enjoy yourself.

The Pale King is subtitled, an unfinished novel for good reason. This is not an unfinished work like Hemingway’s Garden of Eden, a novel that was basically finished but gathering dust on a shelf after the author’s death. Nor is this a final literary shot over the bow, in the vain of Bellow’s Ravelstein (“I am not dead yet.”) The Pale King is unfinished in the true sense of the word. Wallace left us before his work was done.

Yet even unfinished one intuits the genius in the story. Perhaps the best posthumous comparison would be Kafka’s The Castle. I know it has become cliche to call an author Kafka-esque, but if anyone deserves the comparison, it is Wallace with his Pale King. The strongest similarity; however, is not stylistic, but that they are both truly unfinished works that nevertheless hum with meaning. With the Castle, I’m not sure Kafka could have made it much better had he finished it, but with The Pale King, I believe the work would have been stronger had Wallace finished.

There is too much missing here: Too many false starts, too many story lines dangling. Wallace had not decided on a structure for the book. That decision fell to Michael Pietsch the editor of the Pale King

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