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The Pale King

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  15,730 ratings  ·  1,930 reviews
The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace. But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that new employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling. And he has arrived at a mom ...more
Hardcover, 548 pages
Published April 15th 2011 by Little, Brown & Company
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 ·  15,730 ratings  ·  1,930 reviews

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Joshua Nomen-Mutatio
Mar 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing
As most of the people in my corner of a corner of a corner of Goodreads know—just as well as they know about my rabid, undying affection for David Foster Wallace—I tend to use Occam's razor to slash through supernaturalistic irrationality on a pretty regular basis. Despite this reflexive skepticism, I couldn't help feeling like this book was somehow written for me while reading it. Working the graveyard shift at a residential treatment facility for "at-risk youth" (the second such facility I'd c ...more
Paul Bryant
Sep 28, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels

3 years ago I noticed mysterious amounts were appearing in my current account. Regularly. Every week! They came from the tax office and they were tax credits. I hadn't applied for any tax credits. So I phoned them up. They said "We can't stop it unless we know what account these monies SHOULD be paid into and we won't know that until someone complains." I said well, what are you going to do? they said, we'll be in touch. So - last month I got a letter through the post say
Jun 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
The Pale King is a skyscraping achievement. Separating Wallace's backstory from the novel might be impossible, but the edited text, however incomplete, astonishes. The Pale King doesn't need a sympathy vote; the book soars on its own merits.

I should also point out that, after two attempts, I never finished Infinite Jest. A couple years back I recommended IJ to my friend James because he plays tennis and I remembered something in that doorstop about a tennis camp. James is still mad. So I didn't
Michael Finocchiaro
I have been a little fascinated with David Foster Wallace since learning of his suicide on the blogosphere several years back. I have already written a little bit about my reading of some of his work and just happened upon The Pale King in the CDG airport on the way to Berlin. Perhaps it was just a funny twist of fate because the English book selection at Relais H in France tends to be something between the abysmal military fiction of Tom Clancy and the insipid modern novels pretending to be lit ...more
Apr 02, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
What renders a truth meaningful, worthwhile, & c. is its relevance, which in turn requires extraordinary discernment and sensitivity to context, questions of value, and overall point-otherwise we might as well all just be computers downloading raw data to one another.

In the interest of full disclosure as a 'novel' this work is not five-stars. As a collection of chapters, stories, asides and footnotes it is quite close to being five stars.

I have no idea how to review this.

I'm more than a little
MJ Nicholls
Well, wow. What an epic, wondrous book. I felt a breathless clarity, exhaustive elation, and all-over giddiness reading The Pale King—a feeling unsurpassed in the overlong Infinite Jest (which could lose 300+ pages easily), the often wilfully opaque stories in Oblivion, or the CPU-on-speed attack of his “floating eye” essays. Might this have been (or be) the perfect distillation of all Foster Wallace’s talents? All his strengths are here, in full bloom—his dizzying insights into the microbial su ...more
Ian "Marvin" Graye
Original review: May 10, 2011

100 Words in Search of a Precis (For Those of Us Who Prefer the Short Form of Stimulation)

DFW is calling on us to become Heroes or Pale Kings.

There is something Proustian at work in “The Pale King”.

DFW isn’t so much in search of lost time or even perceptions; he is in search of a lost ability to “perceive” or to “sense” or to make things “interesting”.

In a time when there is so much boredom, DFW is offering us a way of seeing and engaging with the parts of the wor
Apr 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2011, aere-perennius
“How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.”
― David Foster Wallace, The Pale King


If a novel about IRS examiners in a Midwest Regional Examination Center seems like a bad pitch, and definitely a boring novel, you will have almost grasped about one-half the magic of DFW. This is absolutely a novel about boredom, tedium, loneliness, isolation, bureaucracy, melancholy, and depression. Did I also mention this book is damn funny and absurd? I giggled at parts. I cried at part
Tom Quinn
After a second reading, my feelings haven't much changed. I'm adding half a star for those sections that do have really good writing, but all in all the novel feels too "patchwork" to really land for me. It's like one of those pointillist paintings in reverse: when zoomed in on the small individual sections look great, but zoomed out and looked at as a whole they don't complement each other as well as perhaps might have been intended.

3.5 stars


Reading the introduction to
Mar 31, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: tea dee dum
Recommended to Mariel by: boardum
When someone says something is "universal" I don't always feel like it quite applies to me, or it is some big cliche to describe just what people are used to. The big stuff like young love, birth, taking a crap, death. Sure, that's all universal and it happens to everyone (maybe not young love). Still, I don't think it's a word that I hop to and use to describe stuff like we're all gonna nod and be in the know. Yeah, I get that. Now I say but damn if The Pale King didn't feel something like this ...more
Dec 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2011, modern-lit
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
Lee Klein
Nov 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
As good as all his other stuff. No less finished-seeming than anything else he ever did. No plot, but thematic balls are always in the air and bouncing around, plus the prose is always so readable -- often easier, more mature, steadier, less trying to impress than his earlier stuff? Only had to look up two or three vocab words. Awarded the fifth star to encourage the writer to one day finish it properly -- for now, this collection of 540+ bound pages of DFW's writing, whether it's an unfinished ...more
Paul Bryant
As you know I have a lot of difficulty with DFW. I find him difficult! Also exasperating, brilliant, funny, also thinking he’s funnier than he is, also no doubt a genius writer, all of that, and virtually impossible. A difficult case. So I came across a review of The Pale King in the Sunday Times by Theo Tait which explains the problem with DFW. As the Sunday Times is part of the Evil Murdoch Empire and is no longer free online, I thought I would excerpt the best bits as a service I am happy to ...more
Apr 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favourite-books
We fill pre-existing forms and when we 
fill them we change them and are changed.
—Frank Bidart,“Borges and I”

The above epigraph to The Pale King is a pun - but a sincere one.
§ The Forms. (view spoiler)
Mar 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
B.I. #? 04-11

'Well, I was going to suppress the urge to do it this way, but it seemed fitting. Not just in that meta-gimmicky way, but like a sort of homage. Because I genuinely do love the man and his writing, which is not the sort of sentiment that I usually feel toward most fiction writers that I admire.'
'Okay, maybe love isn't the right word. More like a relatable connection. Like listening to that Nine Inch Nails album With Teeth, and thinking about Reznor's substance abuse problem, a
L.S. Popovich
No matter how unfinished this may be, it is nonetheless a book DFW spent years on. How much vaster, greater, or more polished it might have become had he seen it to completion is inestimable. But as it stands, it is impressive in a number of ways. At bottom a challenging document, not quite on the level of I. J., but still worthy of the man, the myth, the one and only DFW.

One notices a lot of “titty-pinching,” “shoe-squeezing,” footnote indulgence, sweating, examining, and people who are “primed
Nick Craske
Dec 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
That there James Joyce fella recast the minutiae of existence to epic and heroic proportions, elevating the single day of an everyman into a hero’s odyssey. The Pale King too, is intense and dramatic in a similar vein. The drama is internalised, as the characters work through laborious tax issues, assessing optimal routines to identify where to expend their energies, where to scrutinise and focus and where not to squander their attentions in distracted ignorance.

The novel opens with a character
Jun 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
It’s a little misleading to call The Pale King unfinished: in fact, it barely gets started. Despite the novel’s physical size, it’s less than half the length of Infinite Jest, and it was clearly intended to become megafiction of that order.

Throughout what we have of the novel, Wallace writes using various styles and perspectives. Sometimes he is overly detailed, expounding at length on the intricacies of tax law and the ins and outs of IRS processes – this is an exercise in immersion, an attemp
Mar 07, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It was a strange experience reading The Pale King when set against that of Infinite Jest: having entered into it with a degree of trepidation—due to a combination of the novel's unfinished status, the advance warning I'd received about Wallace's determined efforts to capture the essence of (workplace) tedium and graft it within the story's very being, and another cyclically harrowed state of mind—it all made for a dispassionate progression. At no time, as before, did I feel completely enrapt in ...more
The Demon, Engulf'd in Flames¹

They were killing my friends — Audie Murphy

My mother was (t)rapt in a maieutic conversation with a temporarily bankrupt friend, who has since again become a multi-millionaire, whom my parents had allowed to crash at our house until he was able to get back on his feet, his having a penchant for starting from scratch, considering themselves to be to him beholden on account of his having provided my father with employment soon after the latter had immigrated to the Uni
Michael Perkins
Oct 01, 2012 rated it liked it
Unlike Infinite Jest, DFW is employing a more conventional narrative style with PK. IJ violates much of how one is taught to write: long blocks of text instead of breaking down into shorter paragraphs, sentence fragments, passages that are intentionally abstruse, sudden changes of subject and scenes with no transitions, etc.

What was going on with DFW while he was working on Pale King? His wife, Karen Green, explains in this interview with The Guardian....
Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
"'The Human Heart is a Chump': Cataloging The Pale King"; Jenn Shapland works in the Ransom Center and writes in The Millions about her experience cataloging The Pale King archival material:
The final paragraph:
"I don’t know what people will find in these folders or how they’ll choose to interpret this new installment to the record of Wallace’s works. What I’m certain they will discover is that within the boxes, numbered 36-41, lies not a single unfinished
Mar 24, 2011 marked it as to-read

The Goodreads gods are jerks.


Dear Goodreads gods,

If I win the First Reads giveaway for this book, my entire life will have meaning. Every book I've ever read, and every review I've ever written, will have led me to this crowning moment. I've even created a new shelf just for The Pale King: to-read-immediately. I promise to neglect every other aspect of my life, including my dog and my boyfriend and my work, to read this when it comes.

Sincerely yours,
Apr 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 1970-present, prose
Would have been his masterpiece. Is his masterpiece?
Apr 22, 2011 rated it really liked it
I'm about a hundred pages in and this book is enthralling and gleamingly (not forbiddingly) complex. I love DFW profoundly, he's one of the writers I turn to for the usual reasons one turns to favorite (personal!) writers. There's insight, wit, beauty, power, depth, irony, verisimilitude, all of that stuff but also a strange sort of love. I don't mean this in an Oprah way or even 'agape' but this kind of... benevolence.

The world is an often ugly, unfair, crude and fucked-up place perhaps more
Sentimental Surrealist
This could've, had Wallace lived to see it through, exceeded even Infinite Jest. Yes, IJ is my favorite novel, and it's hard for me to imagine anything topping that, but the potential was here. See, for all of DFW's second novel's many virtues, it's a very self-conscious novel. You can tell that Wallace wanted it to be an encyclopedic account of human existence, and while 1,079 pages is a lot, I don't think it's enough to do what Wallace wanted to do. He wanted to make literary history with it, ...more
Nick Black
Jan 25, 2012 rated it liked it
Recommended to Nick by: Chisho1m
Shelves: likely-reread
well, first off, whew! it has been entirely, inexplicably, unforgivably too long since i've read a new book! what the hell happened? the end of 2011 was terribly shitty in pretty much every sense, and 2012 has been wholly consumed getting zee komputerkorp up off the ground (i've got a company that makes computers...or a computer that makes companies...i forget the details). so, what have we here?

chapter 46's long paean to aspergery goodness could have been pretty much lifted from any number of c
Apr 14, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
David Foster Wallace takes on the central problem of our times. The book can be neatly summed up in section 45, that is pages 439-440 and ends with the sentence "If you are immune to boredom there is literally nothing you can't accomplish". Pale King is therefore a perfect complement or maybe the development of the idea of infinite jest (the desperate need to be entertained), by presenting that imperative's underlying cause "rather the way the ability to breathe and pump blood underlies all thou ...more
Read By RodKelly
The Pale King is most certainly worthy of the Pulitzer Prize it was up for in 2012 (which ended up going to no one). This novel tackles the consciousness, the fraught humanity thrumming beneath the American bureaucratic machine. It’s a novel about survival — persevering through the monotony and dullness of daily sorrows, the stasis of adulthood, the hollow tick of time mercilessly passing. DFW places the reader in the world of the IRS ca. 1986, slowly layering and abutting the stories of a large ...more
Apr 15, 2011 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
RIP David Foster Wallace. It is so fucking weird that they released your book about the IRS on April 15th that I can hardly stand to write about it. So I made this picture instead.

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David Foster Wallace worked surprising turns on nearly everything: novels, journalism, vacation. His life was an information hunt, collecting hows and whys. "I received 500,000 discrete bits of information today," he once said, "of which maybe 25 are important. My job is to make some sense of it." He wanted to write "stuff about what it feels like to live. Instead of being a relief from what it fe ...more

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