Kemper's Reviews > The Pale King

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
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Jan 01, 12

bookshelves: 2011, modern-lit
Read from December 17 to 31, 2011

Upon hearing that David Foster Wallace’s unfinished last novel was going to be published, my first thought was, “How do they know it wasn‘t done?” Because it’s not like Infinite Jest was a model of story resolution.

My question was answered in the introduction of The Pale King by editor Michael Pietsch that gives a concise breakdown of what Wallace left behind and how he put it together. He makes it very clear that this is not the book that Wallace was envisioning before his suicide. As Pietsch explains, what had been completed was too good to just put in a library where only scholars would read it, and if I ever meet Mr. Pietsch, I’m going to shake his hand and buy him a drink for helping to get this published.

The book is about the examiners (a/k/a wigglers) at a regional Internal Revenue Service center in Peoria, Illinois, but there’s no real overall plot to it. It comes across as a series of loosely connected short stories. Which makes sense considering that Wallace wrote chapters out of sequence and left no detailed outline, but Pietsch also states that Wallace’s notes repeatedly mentioned that he wanted the book to be ‘tornadic’ in nature. Apparently he planned it to be a swirl of people and events that would randomly bonk the reader on the head until some kind of larger pattern emerged. Without the rest of the book, we don’t get the bigger picture, just the bonks, but almost all the bonks are fascinating.

No surprise then that most of what is sticking with me about the book is random, too. In no particular order:

* There’s a lot here about boredom and bureaucracy, but it doesn’t go in the direction you’d expect. While Wallace repeatedly explores the soul-crushing tedium of going through tax forms and the dull inner workings of the IRS, there’s no real raging against the machine going on here. In fact, Wallace almost seems to celebrate the focus required to do the job in the face of unending boredom and make it seem noble. One could argue that his point was that the majority of us waste our time trying to avoid being bored without accomplishing much so you might as well sit down and get something done.

* I am going to change my name to Diablo the Left-Handed Surrealist even though I’m right handed and can’t paint.

* The early chapter featuring Leonard Stecyk as the kid who is so helpful and charitable that everyone hates him is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time. Impressive how Wallace was able to make the reader want to punch Leonard in the face during this portion, but later on turned him into a more sympathetic character who gets to shine in a crisis.

* Like a lot of people, I think my favorite part of the book may be the long story of how Chris went from a self-described ‘wastoid’ with father issues to a guy who actively seeks out a career in the IRS after mistakenly sitting in on a class about taxes.

* Wallace wrote himself into the novel, and then went to a lot of effort trying to convince the reader that what he/she was reading was actually a memoir disguised as a fiction for legal purposes. He recounts long discussions with lawyers and having to get a bunch of releases signed by various real people at the insistence of his publisher, and I was just nodding along with this part when it suddenly hit me that since Wallace had died before finishing the book the whole thing was an elaborate ‘Gotcha!’.

* I was often listening to the audio version of this at work while performing a bunch of dull tasks. So I was listening to a book about people doing boring work while doing boring work.

I got so into the audible book that I took the personally unprecedented step of getting the print version from the library while in the middle of it so that I could go back and look up some points.

* Another chapter I found oddly fascinating was the part where beautiful Meredith Rand is telling the strangely literal Shane Drinion about how she met her husband when she was committed to a mental institution as a teenager for being a cutter. Drinion seems like he could have Asperger’s or some other kind of social impairment, but gets very interested in her story. This leads to a weird dynamic of him be completely tuned to her with no agenda of his own, and Meredith finds this kind of attention appealing. It was like Scarlett Johansson telling her life story to Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory.

* Creepiest part of the book was the section about a kid who decides to kiss every square inch of his own body and embarks on a long-term campaign of freaky contortions and lip extending exercises. That whole story just made me want to lay down with a bottle of ibuprofen and a heating pad.

* The notes included at the end indicate that there was a lot that Wallace planned to write didn’t get to it. I find this one particularly interesting: “Drinion is happy. Ability to pay attention. Turns out that bliss - a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious - lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious things 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. Constant bliss in every atom.”

I would have loved to read what Wallace could have come up with along those lines and the rest of what he had been planning. The Pale King is brilliant in a lot of ways, but it’s also a sad, sad read because most readers will be left haunted by the ghost of what could have been.
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Quotes Kemper Liked

David Foster Wallace
“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.”
David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

David Foster Wallace
“To be, in a word, unborable.... It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish”
David Foster Wallace, The Pale King


Comments (showing 1-7)




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message 7: by Stephanie (new) - added it

Stephanie Great review Diablo. I can paint ( sort of), I'm ambidextrous and my job is many things but it's not boring......and I don't kwow what that means.


message 6: by Carol. (new)

Carol. *giggle* "just the bonks." Love it.


message 5: by James (new)

James Thane As always, a really good review, Mr. K. This book had sort of fallen off my radar; thanks for reminding me about it.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Finished this on New Year's Eve, eh? Seems fitting. And wha-wha-what? Audio version?? I can't imagine. Seems like something I'd avoid, but it also seems to have worked for you. Great review.


Kemper MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "Finished this on New Year's Eve, eh? Seems fitting. And wha-wha-what? Audio version?? I can't imagine. Seems like something I'd avoid, but it also seems to have worked for you. Great review."

Thanks! The audio verison was very good, but I was glad I checked out a print copy because the notes at the end weren't on the audio one so I would have missed them.


Corey Haha, that's funny, I also envisioned Drinion as a Sheldon-like character while reading that part.


message 1: by Kemper (last edited Jan 23, 2013 06:19AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kemper Corey wrote: "Haha, that's funny, I also envisioned Drinion as a Sheldon-like character while reading that part."

He definitely had Sheldon-like tendencies.


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