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The Pale King

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Fiction (2011)
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 moment when forces within the IRS are plotting to eliminate even what little humanity and dignity the work still has.

The Pale King remained unfinished at the time of David Foster Wallace's death, but it is a deeply compelling and satisfying novel, hilarious and fearless and as original as anything Wallace ever undertook. It grapples directly with ultimate questions--questions of life's meaning and of the value of work and society--through characters imagined with the interior force and generosity that were Wallace's unique gifts. Along the way it suggests a new idea of heroism and commands infinite respect for one of the most daring writers of our time.

548 pages, Hardcover

First published April 15, 2011

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About the author

David Foster Wallace

132 books11.1k followers
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 feels like to live." Readers curled up in the nooks and clearings of his style: his comedy, his brilliance, his humaneness.

His life was a map that ends at the wrong destination. Wallace was an A student through high school, he played football, he played tennis, he wrote a philosophy thesis and a novel before he graduated from Amherst, he went to writing school, published the novel, made a city of squalling, bruising, kneecapping editors and writers fall moony-eyed in love with him. He published a thousand-page novel, received the only award you get in the nation for being a genius, wrote essays providing the best feel anywhere of what it means to be alive in the contemporary world, accepted a special chair at California's Pomona College to teach writing, married, published another book and, last month [Sept. 2008], hanged himself at age 46.

-excerpt from The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky in Rolling Stone Magazine October 30, 2008.

Among Wallace's honors were a Whiting Writers Award (1987), a Lannan Literary Award (1996), a Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction (1997), a National Magazine Award (2001), three O. Henry Awards (1988, 1999, 2002), and a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant.


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Profile Image for Joshua Nomen-Mutatio.
333 reviews879 followers
September 8, 2016
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 consecutively worked at) and popping pharmaceutical grade amphetamines may have also contributed to such feelings. Of course, I never really lost sight of the breadcrumb trail of rational explanations for why I felt this way, but as I moved on through the book it just kept raising up remarkable coincidences, one after the other, in its numerous references to IL's Cook and Lake County area locales, drug (ab)use and shifting attitudes towards said drug (ab)use, working at a psychiatric facility, shifting attitudes towards intellectual pursuits, and ongoing transformations within big ol' overarching worldviews, and various other details.

During these graveyard shift reading experiences—which made up most of my time with this deeply personal, unfinished swan song—I took copious notes on two pieces of scrap paper that began solely as a makeshift bookmark.

Among these notes is a scattered list of numerous places mentioned that are all very close by and a part of the greater Chicago region, the place I've occupied for nearly all of my life. Continually seeing the name of the itty bitty suburban town I lived in during high school written inside of this book (in reference to a fictional college, but still) was a bit of a thrill. So not only was I able to get the deeper, personal Identification with Wallace's words that I've come to expect and that he's generously supplied me with throughout the years, but so much of it was literally mentioning specific places I've been to and/or driven through, exploring the nature of the specific drugs I was taking at the time, and the ins and outs of the specific kind of job I'd been working at for the last year plus and was sitting at while I read. It all made me feel even "closer" to the man whom I've never met or spoken to and who doesn't even exist anymore.

To quickly rehash what most people even peripherally familiar with this book might already know: it's unfinished and was assembled by Wallace's longtime editor, Michael Pietsche, who whittled down the 1000+ pages, stacked neatly on DFW's desk at the time of his suicide, down to a about half that size. Pietsche has stated that all together, counting floppy disks, hand written and typwritered bits, etc., the work is originally more like 3,000 pages. He writes a lovely foreword to the book explaining the great emotional pains and the redeeming pleasures of the editing process and I can't think of anyone better to have taken up the task.

Much like Infinite Jest, the more I think about this book the more overwhelmingly detailed and lengthy the review brewing in my head becomes. Looking at the tiny scrawl of my notes isn't helping to preemptively trim this down, neither is thinking about all of the broad, associative ways in which to connect the details of this book and my experience with it to Wallace, my life, and Life generally. Here's the attempt.

In the time leading up to the publication of The Pale King the word on the street was that this book was about boredom and about the IRS.{1} Despite the way this sounds, big DFW fans were still drooling with anticipation, knowing full well that Wallace has a well-documented knack for making the mundane magical. While the book is in part about these things, it's also about so much more. Instead of saying that the theme is simply "boredom and taxes" it does it much more service to say that the book is thematically concerned with the importance of a self-disciplined use of one's attention as a means of overcoming—not only boredom—but the apathy, cynicism and nihilism that triangulate to cause the symptoms of boredom and its close causally-connected relative: depression.

{1} See message 59 in the comment section for my pre-reading placeholder "review".

As I was thinking about writing this review it occurred to me that The Pale King is a kind of response to the previous "long thing" (a term DFW used at various times to describe all three of his extended works, i.e. novels). Infinite Jest details the cultural-psychological problems of modern, first world life (e.g. pathological distraction through trivial entertainment and advertising, inter-/intra-personal disconnection, depression, addictive thought and behavior, et al.) and in a way The Pale King is an attempt to offer solutions. The outline of solutions can be found in the now famous keynote address he gave at the Kenyon College graduation ceremony in 2005, which went on to be published in a (somewhat controversial) form entitled This is Water.

"The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."

The persistent thematic concern with thinking carefully and compassionately is spread throughout these unfinished pages. Wallace is rarely triumphant in tone, but offers his tenative theories with profound earnestness, encircling the demons of unthoughtful selfish self-destruction with both an analytic precision and a provisional caution that is his trademark style of inquiry. The idea seems to be to simply try and think harder about why people behave the way they do and to never fail to indict ourselves in the process. That all sounds very pat and obvious, but that's the best way I can seem to relay it at the moment. In a big way this book just has to be read to really be felt and understood, but I'll do my best to set up road signs pointing in the general direction of the book's powerful content.

Wallace's somewhat self-depreciating use of the term "long thing" to describe his novels is really pretty apt when it comes to The Pale King, moreso than with his first two novels. It may be a symptom of the unfinished quality, but this book is much more of a collection of vignettes than anything one might call a novel. People often say this about Infinite Jest as well, but IJ revisits characters and plots throughout its course in a way that this posthumous production does not. This fact of the matter is not a problem for me in the least, because when I read DFW I'm not in need of the suspension of disbelief that people seem to yearn for a lot of the time. I make the connections to what I know about his life, I imagine his writing process as I read his words, and this is immensely satisfying. That's not to say that I can't feel for the characters-as-characters, because I very much do, but I don't need to know everything about them, or for them to have wildly distinct ways of thinking and speaking. I don't need traditional story arcs laid out before me—I'm accustom to fragmentation, and so is the culture at large—this is a fast-cut edited world we live in, afterall. Chapters in this book aren't even called "chapters" rather the double-S section symbol (§, i.e. signum sectionis) is used both as an allusion to tax code and legal documents, and, I think, as a way of nodding to the largely disconnected narrative structure of the book. None of this is a problem in the least because the content within the incohesive plotlines is solid DFW gold, and there's a deeper, more unusual kind of coherence that ties the vignettes together: it's more thematic and between the lines than a typical novel.

§ 5 is easily the funniest section of the entire book. It describes a do-gooder child that embodies such over the top polite and nerdy perfection that it simply has to be read to be appreciated. I read this section a total of three times before moving on significantly through the rest of the book. One time I read it aloud, something I'd never done with any of DFW's writing before. It was illuminating. I've written before about how I really never notice the epic sentence-length that he tends to go to because I'm usually too wrapped up in the content to notice the lack of periods. However, the run-on nature of his writing hit me hard while reading it outloud. Much laughter was had between myself and the listener, in between large gulps of air at the rest stops of commas and em dashes. The listener had never read DFW but laughed so hard that they fell out of bed. I would direct skeptics and naysayers of Wallace to read this section if they're ever willing to give him a(nother) chance.

§ 8 is one of the most gorgeously written sections of the book. The language might be characterized as more "poetic" than DFW usually is or is usually characterized as being. A trailer park scene as viewed by a, say, Updikean prose stylist. The main characters from this scene are not mentioned again until a taut, dramatic bit towards the tail end of the book.

§ 15 was what prompted my pen to make initial contact with the aforeillustrated scrap sheet of Adderall-scrawl above. This section begins to more clearly define what's happening within the head of IRS agent Claude Sylvanshine, the first character we meet the thoughts of in § 1. A syndrome called Random Fact Intuition is described and eventually attributed to Sylvanshine. The syndrome consists of the suffer ("those possessed with RFI almost universally refer to it as an affliction or disability") being filled with random facts at random times about any number of random things. This is one of the most potent passages in the book. In three pages Wallace manages to distill the entire (now fairly commonly understood{2}) idea of 'the information overload in the Internet Age' down to its essence and to emit a personal SOS distress signal—DFW once said something, half-jokingly, about his trademark headgear being worn to keep his head from exploding.

{2} I should mention that in the time it took me to find a magazine image about information overload I was distracted multiple times by various things on the internet for probably a good 20 minutes before finally focusing and finding something. Meta-info-overload.

The section ends with this paragraph:

"Tastes a Hostess cupcake. Knows where it was made; knows who ran the machine that sprayed a light coating of chocolate frosting on top; knows that persons weight, shoe size, bowling average, American Legion career batting average; he knows the dimensions of the room that person is in right now. Overwhelming." (p. 121)

§ 19 is a brilliant extended meditation on extremely important and more-relevant-than-ever topics about (mostly) American socio-economic-cultural issues as told through a conversation held in an elevator between a few mostly nameless, presumably well-educated characters that work in various capacities for the Internal Revenue Service. Fantastic insights and penetrating questions fill these pages from stem to stern, while hugely complex ideas are made clear and direct without sacrificing nuance and doubt. It's also the first time I've seen the concept of corporate personhood pop up in a novel and brought up with an interesting twist (for the record, nothing in this book is said to extend beyond the mid 1980s):

"Corporations aren't citizens or neighbors or parents. They can't vote or serve in combat. They don't learn the Pledge of Allegiance. They don't have souls. They're revenue machines. I don't have any problem with that. I think it's absurd to lay moral or civic obligations on them. Their only obligations are strategic, and while they can get very complex, at root they're not civic entities. With corporations, I have no problem with government enforcement of statutes and regulatory policy serving a conscience function. What my problem is is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude. That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves." (p. 137)

As the conversation proceeds about how individuals and communities and public and private institutions all interact, corporate power and personal responsibility, et al., one character is led to breathlessly rattle off a stunning, page-long (p. 143) block of text about the inevitability of death, a topic Wallace's writing, fiction and non, seemed to have largely avoided previously for whatever reason(s). It's achingly beautiful in the way such things often are. At the end of this soliloquy of sorts the tone turns on a dime from unspeakably sad and impassioned to this:

'This is supposed to be news to us. News flash: We're going to die.'
'Why do you think people buy health insurance?'
'Let him finish.'
'Now this is depressing instead of just boring.'

This is the most directly intellectually stimulating section of the book and keeps the ledger balanced with neither humor or seriousness toppling the scales, while hearty servings of both are piled high.

Clocking in at 98 pages § 22 is the longest section in the book and comes to mind first as the most rewarding. It's also the most autobiographical from what I can tell. [I just wrote and then erased "I don't even know what to say about it" which is not true. I have many things to say about it. I just wrote the following words down to try and make a sort of outline: Drugs, Attention, Dad, Growing Up. Actually, I'm going to leave it at that because I could go on and on and on about this section and this review's length is already probably testing some readers' endurance and the maximum character count for GR reviews.] I'll just say that this section is amazingly fun and sad and wise, and is the one with the most references to my neck of the woods, and has a great bit about being stoned and watching As The World Turns, and about taking prescription amphetamines being the birth of meta-awareness, and about what it means to grow up, and about the highs and lows of the parent/child relationship, and about shifting one's way in the world from apathetic nihilism to carefully attentive compassion.

Perhaps the most perplexing swaths of the book are two boldly metafictional sections where Wallace addresses the reader as himself. It seemed out of place to me, not just because a Foreword is usually at the beginning of a book, but because since the publication of the magisterial attack/tribute to metafiction that rounds out Girl With Curious Hair ("Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way") Wallace hasn't really been so overtly metafictional in-print. I feel like there must be more to it than I realize but I can't quite seem to figure out what that "more" is. The obvious intuitions would be that it's peturbing the sense that the novel exists seperately from the author, all that "Death of the Author" theoretical lit crit stuff, etc, or even making fun of that kind of stuff, ultra-metafictionally. But all this seems far too facile for a man who so thoroughly trounced the pretensions of generationally regurgitated styles and artistic programmes of experimental/avante garde/metafictional techniques as far back as 1989 (in "Westward") or with mind-blowing precision and cogency in this well-known interview in 1993. It's puzzling because he often criticized this kind of thing. The first interruption, which begins with the words "Author here" is § 9, entitled "Author's Foreword" which goes on to claim that "The Pale King is, in point of fact, more like a memoir than any kind of made-up story" and involves a whole thing about the legal disclaimer placed in the copywrite, et al. section of nearly all novels about 'The characters and events in this book are fictitious.' A few pages later the point is made blunty again that "The Pale King is basically a non-fiction memoir, with additional elements of reconstructive journalism, organizational psychology, elementary civics and tax theory, & c." Well, whatever it really is, it's emotionally jarring and deeper than the Nile. There's an interesting bit in this section (which leads into a whole series of musings about writing memoirs for money) about Wallace selling term papers while in college and getting caught and then kicked out, which weirdly enough for this section, is totally made up, at least the kicked out part. The same goes for his claim to have worked at the IRS during a period of taking time off from school. The questions about what's memoirish and what isn't all get very confusing and maybe, probably, that's the point he was aiming for, but despite all of that: within this bizarre framework remain top-notch musings and fascinating storytelling.

§ 46 is a lengthy conversation between two IRS workers at a bar, which eerily alludes to a character's superhuman ability to focus attention (which is obliquely mentioned elsewhere as something that powers-that-be might be interested in getting their hands on—reminiscent of a certain sought after video cartridge in another book) and involves a really moving and disturbing account of mental health treatment and marital disarray.

§ 48 is so bizarre and frightening—it's like David Lynch's darkest, strangest moments all packed into a single scene. Stunning stuff.

There's a section in which each sentence is more or less 'So and so turn another page. Such and such coughed.' Ad nauseum. But nestled within this exercise of banal description is a gem of a phrase "Every love story is a ghost story." This act of watching boredom transform into beauty is a powerful small scale version of (one of) the big thematic idea(s) in The Pale King: that finding things of lasting beauty and meaning isn't always easy. That it takes effort. That "[s]ometimes what's important is dull," as an agent declares during the civics conversation.

This is a weird and beautiful book and its weirdness and beauty are strung together with a dazzlingly complex intelligence at play, all encouraging the reader to exert real attentional effort and thoughtful engagement while still passively getting spoon-fed doses of pure entertainment. There are big, important ideas anchoring this thing, and the details are so rich and amusing and transcendently pleasurable to grapple with that it's the kind of book that can be re-read and re-re-read with exponential gains.

The sadness that permeates and surrounds the book has an obvious source—its lasting and redemptive value is a true gift.

"Every love story is a ghost story."
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,196 reviews9,487 followers
December 22, 2014

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 saying oh, remember all that dough we paid you by mistake, well now we want it back. Total of money paid to me which shouldn't have been : £4026 ($6493).

Well it wasn't my money so i hadn't spent it so I can pay it back but you know, I'm a little peeved with their casual maladministrative ways and who's to know that if I send the idiots a cheque they might lose it or cash it and stick it in the wrong account.


I'm getting the very strong impression that DFW was a writer of immense gifts and brains who never really found his thing, his field, whatever you call it, so he ended up writing about any thing he happened to trip over (the non fiction) and then two giant anti-novels - this one's acknowledged "subject" is dull jobs which is a kind of admission of defeat which he then turns into a demonstration of virtuosity - look, I can even write great stuff about boredom. But this can also look like flailing about - this is called a(n unfinished) novel by default, because it's not anything else particularly; but it's actually a collection of disconnected DFW writings, some of which are about the IRS and some not. Every chapter in this book so far is in a different style, a different tangent, like a collection of unrelated short stories or riffs.


I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried — “La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

(In this poem by John Keats La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a symbol of the Internal Revenue Service.)


Right there on page one, alright, page 3 actually if you're pedantic, and if you're not pedantic then please stay FAR away from this novel, which is a full-throttle celebration of pedantry, amongst many other things, and doesn't have a plot, which I know many readers hanker for, is this :

invaginate volunteer beans

What a lovely phrase. Come on, let's have a few more – on page 5 :

A staggering girl underhanding you nuts

(that's a description of a stewardess on a very small plane!). Another one, a bit longer :

The birds at dusk and the smell of snapped pine and a younger one's cinnamon gum. The shimmying motions resemble those of a car travelling at high speeds along a bad road, making the Buick's static aspect dreamy and freighted with something like romance or death in the gaze of the girls who squat at the copse's risen edge, appearing dyadic and eyes half again as wideand solemn, watching for the sometime passage of a limb's pale shape past a window (once a bare foot flat against it and itself atremble), moving incrementally forward and down each night in the week before true spring, soundlessly daring one anotherto go get up close to the heaving car and see in, which the only one who finally does sothen sees naught but her own wide eyes reflected as from inside the glass comes a cry she knows too well, which wakes her again each time across the trailer's cardboard wall.

I could copy pages of this stuff out with pleasure, about 25% of the book is like that, but we must get on. Hustle, bustle.


One thing novels do, which they've always done, and it might be not one thing but the thing, is drag in enormous chunks of human experience for our contemplation, to try to make some kind of sense of. They set you behind the eyes of a multiplicity of characters, who usually aren't like ourselves at all except in a you are me and we are all together kind of way, and The Pale King is no exception, it is dragging in the subject of stultifyingly tedious deskwork for our edification, which actually means, since also, there is nothing you could mistake for a plot even if you have really poor eyesight and the characters fade in and out randomly, that The Pale King is more like our own lives than a lot of other novels where you get things actually happening and outcomes and motivations made clear and exciting events like kissing and policemen and all that. We will always need novels because we will always need to compare realities, yours with mine and theirs, and because we need to counteract our own technologically-induced solipsism, which you might say is an odd thing to say, since non-readers think of readers as somewhat on the introverted-solipsistic side, but you are not alone when reading, you are the opposite, you're right inside someone else's thought, an intimate relationship you hardly get anywhere else. What you're reading really is what the author thought.

But otherwise The Pale King does pretty much the opposite of all other novels, it's about all the stuff novelists avoid like the plague, it revels in boring technical jargon, it bathes you in excruciating detail, people say shit like "Here they get standard kicks from Martinsburg, plust ESTs, plus exam requests from CID. They do fats that St Louis doesn't even bother to open they're so fat. They do contract work for Corporate Audit when a CA goes multiyear. The whole thing's almost Phillygrade."


If you take the 25% of this novel which isn't like that, isn't all about the hapless wigglers, is about, instead, the bizarre story of the boy who wished to press his lips to every part of his own body (he begins this task by giving himself a spinal injury), or chapter 8 (early life of Toni Ware), all this other non-IRS stuff, what you have there is the beginning of one of the all time great American novels. But that is not the novel DFW wanted to write. Unfortunately for me! He wanted to write this one, or some approximation thereof, since it's unfinished.

Reading and reviewing TPK is a double problem, the same one posed by the monologues of Spalding Gray (which also revel in run-on sentences and "tornadic" presentation; and both witty brilliant men bursting with life and ideas in their art, and suffering chronic depression in their life and presenting us with this painful conundrum) plus the other one you get from Mervyn Peake's Titus Alone and Dickens' Edwin Drood. You just don't know if some sections were first drafts which he would have fixed. One character, for instance, repeats the phrase "Type of thing" so many times it becomes enraging and puerile. But maybe that was his intended effect. And maybe he would have rewritten that section. Another instance is chapter 46, a 60 page conversation between a devastatingly beautiful woman and a complete dork. To steal a line from that well-known sitcom Friends (!I know!), it's not that this chapter is bad, it's that it's so bad it makes me want to push my finger through my eye into my brain and swirl it around. So yes, there are multiple problems with this document called The Pale King.


If I didn't know that DFW intended his novel to be "a series of set-ups for things to happen but nothing ever happens" (DFW quoted by the editor) then I'd be describing the whole thing as like watching a big beautiful bird with a broken wing making numerous painful attempts to get airborne but always crashing back and trying again. Just when you think the novel has found the take-off point, it stops and reboots.

I only found one single bad review of this novel, in the Washington Post, which was saying its publication was merely a cynical cash-in, and unworthy. I disagree. But I also disagree with the reviewers who find traces of grand themes and big points here. I don't think Wallace got that far. It seems this thing would have needed to be another thousand-pager. It's possible he WAS going to make such points as that government bureaucracy is actually a bastion against chaos and not the enemy it is knee-jerkily scapegoated as; that there was a battle for the soul of the IRS going on in the 1980s; and that this battle was joined by IRS wigglers who had curious and very mild super-powers (two such people are mentioned); or that

Almost anything that you pay close, direct attention to becomes interesting.

And surely we are getting close to some kind of declaration of intent in the following great quote from a substitute lecturer :

I wish to inform you that the accounting profession to which you aspire is, in fact, heroic...gentlemen: here is a truth : enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is...No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth - actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it, no one is interested.

And later, on p 438 :

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.


I have seen that given as the explanation for Stalin's mysterious ascent in the Bolshevik party. None of the other revolutionaries could be bothered with the bureaucratic grinding involved in actually running the party, but he could – nicknamed Stone-arse for his ability to sit at his desk for hours. He could have been a great wiggler.


So – this could have been a towering novel but what we actually have is a hotch-potch. There are stretches of insanely tiresome dialogues, there are beautiful vignettes, there is deadpan satire and there are really long sentences. Do I recommend it? Well…. You know, what can I say except

Invaginate volunteer beans!

Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,060 followers
April 29, 2021
"Almost anything you pay close, direct attention to becomes interesting…"
When David Foster Wallace committed suicide he left the pages of his unfinished manuscript in neat orderly piles which convinced his wife and editor he wanted what he had written to be published. What all this writing amounts to can probably be better described as ideas for a novel rather than a novel itself. The only other novel I've read where the author died before completing it (unless you believe Virginia Woolf still had sufficient belief in Between the Acts to improve it which I don't: I think she knew it was a failure and had abandoned it) is Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon. Scott was working to a more clearly conceived plan and, though a lot less ambitious than The Pale King, is as such a lot easier to imagine finished. And then Scott didn't choose to die; he wanted to finish his book. DFW obviously couldn't see his projected book through to the end. There isn't really the sense this would have been a better novel had it been finished because somehow there's the prevailing sticky notion that it never would be finished. My sense was of a novel, brilliantly inspired in places, that was encountering major difficulties. There's even the sense that these difficulties played a part in his tragic decision to end his life. (I suspect the same was true of Virginia Woolf's relationship with Between the Acts, another novel whose central idea never generated the sustained inspiration necessary to convincingly dramatise it.) I never quite felt I was on a smooth path to a finished work of art. It was like he had the big cohering central idea but was frequently stumbling up blind alleys. I think this becomes most apparent when he introduces himself as a character - this foray into metafiction just felt clumsy and misguided as if he had lost his way. In other words, this book is either a long way from being finished or, if most of what we have was intended to make it to the published version, is erratically hit and miss in its inspiration. I think often you only need to read the first twenty pages or so of any novel to have a grasp of the quality of artistic inspiration it was written in. In fact, it took less pages to know Virginia Woolf's The Years or Between the Acts weren't going to get anywhere near the inspired brilliance of The Waves. The Pale King is an oddity in this regard. Because its artistic atmosphere fluctuates so much. Just when you think it would have been a dud it's brilliant and just when you think it's brilliant it meanders off into weeds and nettles.

The Pale King is a novel that examines mental activity and especially the role boredom plays in our life. DFW doesn't tell boredom; he shows it. Sometimes this takes the form of word for word transcripts of tax procedures or extensive lectures. In other words, at times, he's deliberately setting out to bore the reader - a novelty in the history of literature. But he has a lot to say of interest about boredom. In many ways he shows concentration and its flipside boredom are like love and hate. Heightened concentration, like love, can be responsible for revelation, transfiguration, epiphany. Boredom, often what ensues when we can't concentrate, the quicksand into vacancy where depression can take hold. As you'd expect DFW is brilliant and enlightening at writing about depression. Some of the best passages in the book deal with phobias and OCD behaviour. What we get are a lot of backstories of troubled individuals who will end up working as IRS tax auditors in a soulless building in the Midwest of America. Unfortunately, we never get to see how these characters will pan out. We never quite get to the plot. Which makes you feel this novel might have been twice its present size had it been finished.
Other brilliant late 20th century American authors have succeeded in unearthing the novel which was able to showcase all their gifts as writers - Morrison with Beloved, Bellow with Herzog, DeLillo with Underworld. I'm not sure DFW ever did but I'm going to reread Infinite Jest soon in the hope of being proved wrong.
3.5 stars.
Profile Image for RandomAnthony.
394 reviews111 followers
June 21, 2011
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 approach The Pale King slobbering over DFW's fiction. By this novel's end I felt like I had experienced a masterwork.

The Pale King revolves around an Internal Revenue Service center in Peoria, Illinois. IRS personnel gather and engage in the implementation of the potentially soul-killing detail inherent in tax law and policy. Others have written, of course, of paperwork's drudgery, but only Wallace, in my experience, captures the way one's mind navigates eight hours of precise, abstract analysis. Some characters develop panicked, sweat-laden self-talk and almost turn hallucinatory in their attempts to master tasks or accelerate minutes. Getting caught in traffic in a packed, airless car, for example, allows the author an opportunity for a brilliant, dizzying inner monologue about how the roads could have been better designed, the IRS's policies concerning warning stickers on windshields, and whether or not fellow passengers can sense the narrator's anxiety. But it's more than that. Way more. It's the tight-wire tension of a potentially cute girl sitting behind you while you worry that you're going to sweat through your clothes. It's nerds sharing office legends. It's meticulously cataloging every act in a quiet room. It's making little promises like “I will finish the next two tax returns before I check the time.” It's very hard to explain but penetrates every American's (if not human's) existence. It's a conversation about the type of people drawn to tax auditing. It's a man in a bar listening so intensely to a woman's story that he starts to levitate. It's trying to separate important facts when your mind processes trivia. It's believing that everyone around you knows more and feels more comfortable than you. Wallace doesn't mythologize as much as he obsessively itemizes office hours with endless sentences that mirror the way a train of thought rapid-fires into the next. So were I, for example, to recommend The Pale King to James, I would probably say “It's about working in a Peoria IRS Center but it's about boredom and hope and despair and more but I can't explain it well so you're on your own.” The Pale King is filled with wonder and a curious and powerful paradox of magical realism crossed with an uncomfortable claustrophobic reality. Wallace seems to have found a frantic and exhausting joy in close observation.

I read this book over ten days in part because I only had fourteen days with the library copy. But now that I've finished The Pale King I've needed time to readjust to normal novels, you know, the kind with plots and main characters and recognizable storylines. David Foster Wallace's The Pale King is so unique and spellbinding that it's beyond imitation. This book inhabits its own stratosphere. Five stars. No doubt.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,548 followers
February 10, 2017
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 literature like the DaVinci Code. So, seeing a book by DFW jumped out at me and I grabbed it immediately in case it was just a mirage. It wasn’t. As opposed to Infinite Jest of which I still haven’t been able to get past the first 50 pages yet, The Pale King grabbed me immediately. I wrote somewhat recently that I was getting a little down thinking of the precipitous drop in reading in general and also about my own problems in having enough concentration to read fiction especially since having kids. Well, somehow, this particular book (540 pages I might add) didn’t let me go.

In a nutshell, The Pale King talks about a myriad of characters that are all employed by the IRS in a Regional Examination Center (or REC) in Peoria, IL back in 1985. There is no plot or storyline, just a jumble of 1st person and 3rd person narratives and several chapters with only dialog. The style varies widely and keeps the reader on his/her toes all the time. At one point the book’s author jumps in on page 69 in §9 in an AUTHOR’s FOREWARD that is doubly or triply ironic. He claims that it is a fictionalized autobiography. I believed this text until I did a little wikipedia/googling and determined in fact that it was purely fiction. So the author was pretending to be the author pretending to write about himself. Kind of that peeling-an-onion effect in fact. There are fascinating pieces of this Foreward, particularly the story that he got the IRS job because he was completing various term papers for cash at university and got caught. He says that he was able to nearly perfectly imitate the style of the fellow student in order to cover the cheating. I found this particularly fascinating because as you read each chapter about the various characters, the voice completely changes and it could almost be written by an entirely different person. This all added an extra realism to this Foreward that was nearly creepy. The triple irony in my mind stems from the additional fact that despite this realism I felt, there are supernatural phenomena in the book (ghosts and levitation) that are fascinatingly uncomfortable to the reader.

Some of the writing is incredibly hilarious. I laughed out loud in particular in §24 as he describes bureaucratic ineptness in excruciatingly funny detail – whether it be the ridiculous traffic problems to get into the employee parking lot of 047 (the IRS building), the lack of sidewalks, the utterly inefficient intake process…each of these reminding me of the infinite times I have thought many of the exact same thoughts sitting in traffic jams, driving through strip malls and parking lots, and having worked for four different companies of which two ginormous IT ones. His view is incredibly sarcastic and yet right on. As a writer, he dives into a depth of detail that adds to the pseudo-realism of the scene but especially heightens the comic effect by being so dead-pan.

Some of the writing is excruciatingly painful. The description of the child in §36 that destroys his own spine in order to kiss every square inch of his body was particularly hard to read. Perhaps I missed it, but I am not even sure which of the employees at the IRS this disturbed childhood refers to. I even rescanned the chapter while I was writing this paragraph but couldn’t find any clues. In any case, the amount of detail of various contortionists through history and the medical detail on the impact of contortion on the spine and on human physical development made me very queasy as I read it. It was extremely well-written and one of the most original texts in the book. The stories of Toni Ware’s childhood and in particular the car accident which took her mother’s life were excellent as well.

Sometimes the writing is pure bureaucratic observation of how folks work together and how managers thing. I thought that the description of Glendenning in §43 was incredibly perceptive. If I may quote a little of DFW here, “Mr. Glendenning could listen to you because he did not suffer from the insecure belief that listening to you and taking you seriously obligated you to him in any way”. If only a few more of managers that I know (and no, David, Bruno, and Adrian, I am not speaking of you if you are reading this) actually understood this. The book has many observations like this, but this one in particular stuck out for me as particularly true.

Perhaps the most enigmatic chapter of The Pale King which captures almost all of the elements above (funny, painful, deep, complex in narrative, intimate) was the Drinion / Rand dialog in chapter §46. Here the gorgeous Meredith Rand divulges her personal story to the seemingly implacable Shane Drinion as he starts to levitate off his barstool. The dialog is very hard to describe (I erased about four sentences before writing this one) as it moves between the immediate situation of the two individuals talking, the subtext of their conversation, and the attention that each one is giving to the other and the perception of that attention. It is as if the dialog happens on about three or four planes simultaneously. At one point the subject of the conversation is the subject of the conversation and leads to this interesting observation: “‘Is liking paying attention the same thing as being interested in somebody?”Well, I would say almost anything you pay close, direct attention to becomes interesting'”. Much of this was like a snake eating his tail or perhaps how the contortionist from §36 would have written. And even more interesting, after about 70 pages, it ends as suddenly as it began. It was a strange, exhilarating read.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Pale King. It is clearly one of the best, most readable works of DFW and I can only imagine what a mess must have been up in his head to have come up with so much twisted detail and have so many original ideas and yet boil it all down to 540 pages of well-researched text. I would bet that the posthumously published version of The Pale King is not all that different from what DFW would have edited together had he not committed suicide in 2007. What a loss for American 21c writing the loss of DFW was.

If you want an introduction to DFW before taking the big dive into Infinite Jest, this is an excellent place to start. I wish I know why he was shortlisted for the Pulitzer in 2012, but no prize was awarded. Was it because he was no longer alive to receive it? Pity that he did not get noticed in '96 for IJ...I haven't read Independence Day but IJ is better than Sabbath's Theatre (a runner up in '96) and that is saying something because I adored ST by Roth as well (and reviewed it here on GR).
Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,026 reviews4,078 followers
February 23, 2012
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 subtleties of human interaction, the obsessively compiled data-splurge that engulfs the reader in euphoric waves, ADD depictions of humdrumness rendered so alive, thrilling and affecting as to make the reader shout with delight. Plus, in this novel, Brazil-like comic surrealism (levitation and business babies), light metafictive indulgence (insertion of scalier author minus middle name), and little vignettes of Beethovenian melancholy (the wrenching plight of the sweatiest kid in class). The longest chapter, ‘Irrelevant’ Chris’s monologue about his wastoid beginnings and his calling to the IRS, makes the biggest effort at trepanning the IRS psyche, w/o attendant mockery or knowingness. Second longest: the fictional Wallace’s entrance into the IRS, taking fifty pages for his bus to dock, spiced with unexpected footnoted fellatio and flash-fire trivia that’s almost interesting. Lastly, rounded female character Meredith Rand and a sane analysis of the problem of prettiness. All magnificent. Every sentence. No boring parts at all. Is this hyperbole? Perhaps. But wow. A better unfinished novel you will not read . . . only the pain of the author’s passing will diminish its impact.
Profile Image for Franco  Santos.
484 reviews1,343 followers
August 18, 2020
Qué raro se me hace el tener todo esto dentro y que para vosotros no sean más que palabras.

El rey pálido consta de 50 capítulos, todos ellos con el característico detallismo extremo de Wallace, llenos de narrativa pesada y digresiones que exigen al extremo la atención y concentración del lector. Tiene personajes estrambóticos que rozan lo absurdo: un funcionario que tiene revelaciones extemporáneas de información irrelevante, como por ejemplo el peso de todas las pelusas que se encuentran en los bolsillos de una cierta cantidad de personas en una habitación; un chico que tiene como principal objetivo besar cada lugar de su cuerpo; una persona que le teme a los desagües, a los cuadernos de espiral, entre otras cosas, y que también padece un grave caso de hiperhidrosis; etcétera.

El tema central es el aburrimiento. Y Wallace lo trató de manera superlativa, con prosa sincera y concisa. Abordó el tedio, esa mímesis inevitable que nos golpea con el paso a la adultez. Retrató con brillantez y agilidad que lo que nos separa del comportamiento agonístico es que usamos trajes y sonrisas sardónicas para atacar. También opino que el mensaje que nos trasmite es que hay algo más debajo de todo ese gris mortificante que a todos nos llegará; hay algo en ese aburrimiento que nos terminará completando como individuos.

Gran, gran libro. Un último regalo.
Profile Image for Greg.
1,109 reviews1,845 followers
April 28, 2012
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 surprised at myself for reading it. I haven't been able to bring myself to finish the stories in Oblivion because of the finality I seem to feel hovering around finishing any of the DFW works that I had been saving for those long dry periods between his work when he died. Pale King I had the feeling would be the work that would forever linger unread on a bookshelf.

Then I got the urge to read it as soon as it came out in paperback. I would read the paperback (thus buying the book new twice, which is fine, but I would feel even more uncomfortable reading the hardcover because of weird feelings I have towards the physicality of books and the admittedly arbitrary fact of a book having a one in the printing history located on the verso title page causing me to handle the book like it's a delicate object, worrying about any damage it might receive and being fearful of underlining the book or doing anything to it that does more than the minimal damage necessary to the book from reading it. If you are one of those heathens who reads a book and makes it look like it's been through a war with duct tape holding it together and the pages puffed out from dropping it in puddles and all of that, please keep your opinion to yourself about my admittedly arbitrary analness when it comes to certain books and their treatment). The paperback that I would have no trouble underlining in, marking up, writing notes and having a grand old time with. For three or four days I eagerly awaited the arrival of the paperback Pale King into the store. The book was in the warehouse at the start of the week (Tuesday) but didn't arrive in the store until the Bookazine delivery on Friday afternoon. I checked almost hourly during that time on Bookmaster to see if the book had arrived. I was ready for it (and I bought the book during my five o'clock break on Friday, a time I never buy books at, about an hour and a half after the book arrived in the store, but because I had promised to read The Night Circus for Karen's Reader's Advisory group read I didn't get to start the book until Monday, this caused me a certain amount of psychological discomfort, mostly because I was afraid my resolve at actually reading the book would disappear after actually owning the book for a few days if I didn't start it ASAP. I was fairly worried about this, but the worries ended up being unfounded (obviously)).

And I read it.

A few days later.

--(I sat down to write this review a few days after I sat down to write the review a day or so after I sat down to write the review immediately following when I finished the book. Now I'm deleting just about everything I've written up until point, except for the very boring story above about how I came to read the book at the present time.

The above story, in all it's stupidness is seriously what it's kind of like being in my head or spending anytime around me. I'm very uninteresting, boring and tedious, but most likely you don't know this because a) you don't actually have to spend anytime around me because or b) if you do spend anytime around me I don't say very much and keep the boring crap inside me.

Seriously, is that story anything you would tell someone? And for me that was probably one of the more interesting things that happened to me during my working week (Sundays not included, that is the one day that is more interesting, but only because of Karen).

Again, seriously, because this is oh so serious, why would I share that stupid story? I don't know. Maybe because I believe, like everyone else(?), that the daily minutia of my life is so important that it must be as captivating to others as it is to me? You know, sort of like everyone thinks that their dreams (the ones they have when they are asleep) are so interesting but they never really are that interesting to anyone you tell them to? Why flood the world with some more bits of non-essential information, why subject you to having to be exposed to this non-essential data and force you to shift through it to come to the point that you've just been exposed to some stuff that you didn't need to know about and now you are being exposed to even more non-essential data that is being gratuitously added to an already uninteresting mess. Is it some attempt for me to get your sympathy ("No, Greg you aren't boring, you're liked, I look forward to reading about the mundane details of your life, please share more."), or to try to be understood, to communicate in some way with some people from my real life and a handful of relative strangers? (To evoke some kind of empathy? To feel less isolated and alone and convince myself in someway that any of the stupid bullshit I feel is shared by others who are similar (even if paradoxically different) from myself*), or for some other reason. (I get the feeling...that what you're imparting might be unclear or uninteresting and must get recast and resaid in my different ways to assure yourself that the listener really understands you (504))** )--

11:44 pm. Sunday April 15th, 2012.

All of this stuff has been worked on Tax Day, one year after The Pale King was released. The story at the start of the review was written earlier in the week, but all of the cutting up of my worked on review, the notes and asides and general self-deprecating that I seemed to need to share in order to get to this point was done at various times during this evening. I need to write this review because it's looming over me, it's making me anxious/depressed and feeling like I never want to write another review again. I don't want to take these feelings with me when I go to visit my parents tomorrow, and I rarely write reviews when I'm at their house so I just want to get this done now.

Besides it's fitting to finish this review on Tax Day, right?

If you made it this far in the review and are looking for an actual review of the book you should just stop reading now. It's not going to happen. MFSO has written a very good review / thoughts on the book and I'd recommend you read (or re-read) his review in place of mine. I agree with a lot of what he says and he writes in a clearer manner than I do.

Some of these chapters are just about the best writing DFW ever had published. Some of the chapters make no sense and I can only believe that they would have fit in with the overall structure of the book if it had been finished, or else not been included.

I read the paperback copy (as I've already stated above), so I had the 'extra scenes'. I'm more than a little baffled about why the longish bonus scene about a man planning to take time off work to watch every minute of broadcast television for the month of May isn't in the actual book. It stars mostly characters that never appear in any of the other chapters, but there are quite a few chapters with characters that never show up again and which are wonderful creations that were probably going to be like the great one-off characters in certain Infinite Jest sections or else that might have been developed further if the book had actually been finished. I'd recommend reading those extra scenes. I'd also recommend reading the notes for the various chapters, they sort of fill in what the finished novel might have looked like (I was afraid maybe those weren't included in the hardcover version, but they are, phew).

Since DFW's death I've been on some level looking for someone to take his place. Probably even before he died, in the years between the last time I read IJ and 2008 I was on the lookout for DFW-esque authors, someone to help fill in the time I expected to have to wait between any new work. I figured I'd have to be patient with him, great big works aren't written overnight. I've thrown the DFW-esque tag on quite a few people, sometimes in reviews and more often in my head while reading someone. For example while reading some of Zadie Smith's essays you could feel the DFW-ness to them, Adam Levin's use of words in certain stories in Hot Pink, the ballsy size and scope of his The Instructions. George Saunders with his sort of playfulness and weird world that could be other parts of the world that IJ takes place in. Jonathan Lethem in his essays, just to name a few, but there are more. DFW left a huge mark on the way people could write, what could be said in an essay, how a story could read. Even if all of these people weren't ripping him off, you can tell that they were liberated in some way by his influence.

When DFW's writing is merely a memory, in between actually reading him and reading others I can see hints of him in others and say (out loud, in reviews or just in my head) this is like DFW and at the moment what I'm reading that reminds me of some part of something I'd read of him that is true, but only sort of. The thing is none of these people measure up to him, there is something so huge and powerful in his work that other people might have bits and pieces of it down, but they don't have what feels like the all-consumingness that DFW's work has for me (and this is fine, I would probably feel disgust in an author who was just blatantly ripping off DFW, sort of the way I felt during the start of Eggers Heartbreaking Work... (which wasn't a total rip-off but felt too much like someone going out of his way to capture the tone that DFW had), for example, I like that Adam Levin has so many DFW elements but that he still has his own thing going on, or that Zadie Smith is not a DWF clone but a really intelligent and great writer who also shares some of the sensibilities that he had (does this make any sense?)). I don't know what words to say to really explain what I mean by this. It's not just that he wrote big novels, or long stories but most of the time, or at least when he was 'on' what he was writing felt gigantic, like a whole world in itself, like something I could stay interested in and occupy for a long long time. For example, chapter 46 with the long conversation that is really a fairly uninteresting conversation, topic wise, between Drinion and Meredith Rand, could have been an entire novel and I would have loved it. The point of that example is that it isn't even a short chapter that should have worked, it should have been boring and trite, some office drones going out for Happy Hour drinks where two of them have a conversation that isn't on the surface all that interesting and probably shouldn't be a seventy page chapter but it works and it's engrossing and awesome and is just one example of what I love so much about him and how I can't think of anyone else writing who could do something like that and do it so well (Adam Levin in some of his Talmudic side stories of The Instructions might come closest, I'm thinking his Slip Slap / 9/11 back story specifically). Some critics of DFW have pointed out that at times he is just showing off how well he can do different voices, but that to me is one of his great feats, he can move through so many different interior worlds and get the words feeling like they are part of the damaged thoughts of people. That he can write all these different people and feel like he's writing from their perspective and not necessarily just as a narrator looking over his creations.

I don't know what I'm trying to really say, except that he is unique and his writing isn't for everyone but for those who he does speak to, I don't think there is anyone else out there to replace him. He was just so fucking good and it because I'm a self-centered asshole I think it sucks that I'll never get to read another new great big work of his.... but at least we were left with this, flawed as it is for not being finished but still filled with mainly with amazing moments.


Ok, this review is a failure. I've made a fool of myself and excised whatever awfulness I'd been feeling about writing this review and I'm just going to post it as is. Consider this part a spoiler. It's a question about the book, it's not a big spoiler, but it's something that is built up to in one of the chapters. Consider it my own reading group guide question. .

*This was in mention to a delated part of the former review. I got lost while writing it though, but here it is:

I can't remember where in the book these thoughts came from, but I'm certain that they must have been spurred on by something in the text, possibly chapter 19. We are no unique. We like to think of ourselves as unique and feel our pains and problems as being something unknown by others who are free of the doubts and fears and even good stuff that works through our brains, but we aren't. Everyone experiences mostly the same sort of shit. Well, no shit? Right? But the flip side is true, too. You are unique, everyone isn't the same, what's good for him isn't going to work for her. Blah, blah, blah. How do you reconcile this apparent conflict? (a)

**Sorry, there were probably more reasons I was going to write there but my mind got really distracted while writing the stuff that falls under the (a) note from the above note. If I actually planned and worked on these reviews I'd probably not get into these messes, but at least in this reviews case I just need to plow through it and get it done. This review is causing me quite a bit of mental turmoil, and I feel like I need to get it done even though I also feel like more people are probably going to be paying attention to this review than others I write because I'm one of the outspoken fanboys of DFW, the fact is that I can't write this review. All of this nonsense is just hiding the fact that I can't get the shit in my head to make up coherent thoughts on this book that I really did love in parts, although not nearly as much as I've loved Infinite Jest or some of his other work. In my head right now I believe that no one will be reading by this point, I'm making the review difficult to follow, and this is in a 'footnote' which is a pretentious tool to use most of the time and in a review using the very limited html protocols allowed by goodreads it's basically a major pain in the ass for anyone reading the review to follow. So many things that I feel like I want to say I keep self-censoring. How do you write about DFW when the Great Big Awful Thing happened and it keeps showing up throughout the book. And how the GBAT made you not just sad because it happened but how it scared the shit out of you.

(a) Why delete parts of the review if I'm just going to share them as notes? I don't know. I actually have been dwelling on this paradoxical situation of being essentially no different from everyone else vs being infinitely different / isolated from everyone else. I can't remember where in the book these thoughts started to grow, but it was in passages of The Pale King. The problem (in explaining, not in the philosophical / existential variety that this sort of paradox opens up) is that I can't get what I've been thinking about to come out in words that make any sense beyond a handful of boring platitudes that when put next to each other look stupid.

The basic problem (as I'll try to lay out here, why not in the review? I don't know, I'm here right now typing is as good a reason as any) is:

A) Everyone (assumption, I'm generalizing, but this is the way I see the problem) thinks that his or her awful mental states are unique to them. No one else feels the awkwardness that I do, the sadness, the guilt, the regrets or whatever is bothering a person at the time when they think this way.

B) Everyone has these awful states. (Insert the good states too, although I don't think most people are as prone to feeling so unique while feeling really great about themselves (I realize that people in 'love' do, love is another state that feels totally unique and you can't imagine that anyone else has ever felt the way you do (another reason (if you can follow the jump I'm making in my head) to view love (romantic love) as generally a sickness / pathological problem).

C) Pretty much all of your hopes / dreams / thoughts etc., i.e., internal states are actually shared by just about everyone.

D) You are not unique.

E) Major problems arise by believing everyone thinks and feels like you do. Part of being a mature person is realizing the differences between yourself and others, realizing that others have different feelings and acting in a way that doesn't force your own ways on to others. Children generally can't do this, adults are supposed to be able to. But what about C and D?

F) At different levels (what are the levels? It would seem like this is the key to getting out of this problem) one would seem to need to realize that they are not unique, but be able to understand what it is that is shared among people and what is possibly shared but in different ways. I can't quite put this into words that make sense (this is part of the problem perhaps?).

G) Is this even a problem? Is it only a problem for a certain type of person (who is thus unique at least as far as he or she is different from people who go through their lives without wondering about stupid shit like this)?
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
861 reviews2,189 followers
February 24, 2012
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 world within our gaze perceptively, sensuously and appreciatively.

“The Pale King” might be the culmination of both his literary and philosophical endeavours.


Because of the length of my review, I have placed it here:


It is chapter 11, in case you get lost in the My Writings page.

Earlier Fictitious Review

Here is an earlier fictitious, more light-hearted review I wrote before finishing the novel:


Reading Notes

I made copious notes while I was reading the novel.

There are many issues that I have omitted from my final review, because the review would have just got too long.

I have put my reading notes here:



Below is an extract from the first section of my review:

Some Perceptions in and about the Structure

The Pale King (TPK) is not a conventional linear narrative.

It’s not really even a narrative or a story, in the sense that a number of events are described in a way that aggregates into something meaningful, once they are absorbed by the reader.

So DFW did not really use the structure of the novel to play with time.

However, I think there is a sense in which he uses the novel to explore and play with our perceptions or, at least, the way we perceive.

There are 50 chapters, some of which are less than a page, others anywhere between 50 and 100 pages.

It would be tempting to say that the longer chapters are more important, because of their length.

However, ultimately, the importance of each chapter derives from its subject matter, no matter how long or how short.

I don’t think it would be correct to speak of the chapters as short stories.

They are definitely part of the one creative enterprise.

Each chapter derives meaning from some or all of the other chapters.

Individually, they are discrete. Collectively, they influence each other.

They form a society that creates meaning.

Individually, the chapters are verbal portraits.

Collectively, they constitute pictures at an exhibition about 20th and 21st century life.

Click here to read the rest of the review:

Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,560 reviews8,692 followers
October 31, 2016
“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 parts. I cried and giggled at parts. There are books I love for their power. There are books I love for their art. Their are other books I love for their soul. I love this unfinished, rough and beautiful novel for everything.
Profile Image for Kemper.
1,390 reviews6,830 followers
January 1, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Tom Quinn.
546 reviews148 followers
January 14, 2021
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 The Pale King I was struck by two thoughts of equal intensity: with elation, "This sounds just like Infinite Jest!" and with disappointment, "This sounds just like Infinite Jest!" IJ is an exceptionally important novel to me, perhaps my favorite and certainly the single title that has occupied the most of my time in reading, re-reading, pondering, and re-examining. And so I was both eager and skeptical to read The Pale King as an extension of or a successor to DFW's masterwork. In the same way IJ explored addiction and recovery, isolation and community, editor Michael Pietsch assured me The Pale King would explore boredom and sadness. DFW had already proven himself, in my estimation, acutely insightful and capable of expressing to a T my own thoughts and experiences on the whole of contemporary adult American experience. But would this novel serve to heighten my opinion of him or would it instead lower it, perhaps by planting the worrying seed of doubt that the man was a one trick pony?

The discovery of how I might feel had me practically frothing at the mouth with anticipation. I will maintain fervently that reading David Foster Wallace's works is an Experience in a way that other authors' just isn't. Reading DFW is a lot like hearing my own thoughts articulated, refined, expounded and expanded upon in a way that both confirms and surprises at once.

So, what's my verdict? It is a lot like Infinite Jest -- the most casual and dismissive review would probably be "Substitute tennis with taxes and AA with the IRS and you know what to expect." And that's (thinly) true; if you did not enjoy Infinite Jest you're not likely to enjoy this book, for probably a lot of the same reasons. Though less fragmented, the point of view shifts frequently between characters who are often not clearly named right away. There is technical jargon and terms from a largely obscure arena. There is a sudden introduction of supernatural elements in the form of ghosts and levitation. People's inner monologues are highlighted while action is minimal (in one case, DFW writes a 100 page long chapter in which an IRS agent goes on and on about his father and his formative years--even I, a rabid fan, found that excessive--plus the whole thing is almost immediately undercut by a footnote declaring it, in essence, irrelevant and a waste of time.). And, yes, there are footnotes but they're limited in this instance to a handful of chapters rather than the full work and they appear on the same page as true footnotes rather than the end of the book as endnotes.

Other similarities begin to crop up the further along this goes: some discussion of the various effects of various recreational drugs; an irritated depiction of the intake procedures of mental health facilities; a very pretty female character who expresses both the power and the prison that extreme prettiness creates.

Actually, this book really IS a whole lot like Infinite Jest in retrospect... Honestly what I enjoyed most was reading the closing "Notes and Asides" section in which Wallace alludes to a larger, undeveloped thread about the IRS assembling an X-men-like team of superpowered agents capable of approaching routine and boredom with paranormal abilities. That story, had it been completed, would have definitely distinguished The Pale King from Infinite Jest

Yet despite a lot of thematic and stylistic similarity, there's a different je ne sais quois to segments of this which marks it as at least attempting to be non-derivative of IJ. It's tricky to pin down in words, so I'll just blurt it out: this book seems blunter than Infinite Jest. Its presentation is rougher and there is less of an obviously crafted structure. This is likely due to the fact that DFW's editor took the various pieces written and organized them using his best guess as to DFW's intent. But other than the style, the content is more bluntly judgmental and preachy; where IJ is all about tearing down irony and erecting honesty this one is more overtly didactic, or perhaps I should say "biased." And while Infinite Jest made its point by performing, by realizing the vision of a heartfelt attempt at cutting through bullshit and conveying the absolute need for and baffling difficulty of real, open, honest communication, The Pale King is just kind of overt in its statement of purpose and Wallace's main ideas. It's less clever that way. And I know that this is a criticism many have leveled against Infinite Jest as well, and I know Wallace isn't typically what you'd call subtle in his sometimes desperate-seeming attempts to get his point across in any of his canon. There's a very in-your-face message about being uncomfortably in your own head in this book which is a carryover from most of Wallace's works. In fact, he includes an author's note as a sort of handy key for reading the thematic symbolism throughout. And I'm the kind of reader who loves a good allegory, and this whole "IRS as a backdrop to analyze how the systems we create both reflect and consume the people who construct them" is a really interesting starting point. But it isn't the power punch I'd expected. The language, strikingly and obviously DFW's prose, is less poetic than IJ's (which is saying a lot, since IJ is mostly known for being systematically, laboriously, obfuscately clause-laden and hardly lyrical at all). So all these things combine to make it read like a logical follow-up to Infinite Jest, but one that lacks finesse.

3 stars out of 5. I suppose on principle I can never award "full credit" to an unfinished novel, and will have to wonder how close this publication comes to DFW's vision. It's good, but it often seems more like reading someone doing a very good Wallace impression rather than a wholly realized piece of his work. It often reads kind of like a short story collection more than a cohesive novel, particularly the first third. I feel like it needed to be better revised to really shine as distinct and perhaps could then have attained a higher level than it has.
Profile Image for Mariel.
667 reviews1,055 followers
November 25, 2011
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 "universal" to me over and over again, like my reading it and getting it made it universal. The "I didn't know other people felt this way" and "I thought I was all alone" and feeling too familiar and then pleased at the recognition. It can prickle a bit like talking to someone who calls you on your shit and manages to sound generic psychic hotline lady (I've never called one of those)/cocky therapist (maybe because people are sometimes generic) and still be right enough to make you feel uncomfortable. I appreciated this feeling about The Pale King the most (maybe something else will get me later in future musings but for now this is it). Something I like to do is try to pay attention to mannerisms of other people, especially if they are around family. If I catch myself doing something someone else does that pleases me even more. I'm really into this self awareness stuff. Bordering the line between too damned painful and looking for patterns in behavior and what is like someone else. It got me when a character finds out that other people take lots of "breaks" when studying (here is a youtube clip from the Uk series Spaced of Daisy the writer taking any break she can think of - even cleaning!- to avoid actually working. That scene is the best depiction of this I've ever seen). The "I didn't know that other people did this". Leaving your own personal area of the familiar and then venturing into what's also familiar, but surprisingly so because you didn't know you would see it there.

Chris the wastoid and his father with their controlled anxiety about not getting there on time. I've had those same exact train platform crazy paranoid fantasies right down to how the dad died. I didn't know anyone else was that crazy! When you are driving on the road are any other driver's paranoid that a woman in a house dress will step onto the road and you won't see her in time to stop? I go through a lot of what ifs. I love to trace mental trains and wonder what led to what. I love to imagine it could stop somewhere else. Chris talks about his shameful past, how his dad must have seen him with his fellow wastoid friends. The painful self awareness. The kind that can stop in time to not do anything about it and come back in time to keep you from accepting yourself enough to feel good. Chris's mental trains must go back a lot and without their '70s speed. I wish I could say I needed drugs to have those moments like Chris does. No weed. I felt that universality again reading it. Self conscious is right on. DFW knows. Two left feet in the mouth.

Meredith's obsession with not being seen how she wanted to be seen and the talking and talking circles around the truth (that old cliche that's true) and doesn't get there because she probably talks about it too much (her husband was right that she wanted to be flattered, I felt). I haaaaaaaated Meredith for a good while. I liked her a bit more when she bothered to see if Shane Drinion was listening, like it mattered what he thought. I couldn't be judgmental after that, at least I didn't wish she'd stop talking any longer. There was no way she had solved her problem from six years ago when she was a teenager and married her husband the dying guard from the psych ward. She was too happy that her beauty could make a man cry and run away. What's the cure? Could it ever be talk? It was fascinating that Drinion didn't have my kind of context when I think I "know" the type and don't want to listen to the "I need to lose weight" spiel again when said person is twenty pounds lighter than I am. Who else could this chick possibly talk to? It would be interesting to not be "you", exactly, when approaching other people's shit. It would be a different kind of a sponge to soak up all the influence and shit in the world. Or facts. I'm not good at facts. I guess I'm like the anti-Shane (other than feeling just as clueless when faced with people talking). I'd be looking and then I'd have to compare for patterns.
Probably not ever a cure, though. I don't have that much faith in the healing powers of talk. Scratching an itch, maybe.
Their ending in the notes made me laugh and feel bad at the same time. I don't like having those cynical observations that a chick is with some ugly guy to feel charitable about herself. I mentally smack myself when I think something like that. That's being an asshole).

Boredom is universal. Tedium is every day. Okay, I read this ages before I read The Pale King. I was expecting it to be different. I don't know what I was expecting but I was expecting it to be hard. Reading TPK to me felt like if you could sit down some place busy (or shut in like an IRS office?) and mind read. Like what if you didn't know what was going to be the important part and you had to process everything. Then the point turned out to be that you took in everything without the point. The boredom and the tedium wasn't what got to me. It was the spacing out and arriving at what feels like it could be important when you weren't really doing anything, like walking or tying your shoes, and you don't really know if it actually is important. I kind of just value that quiet of the thinking without trying, like it could be some kind of peace. I don't feel truly bored unless I feel like I'm trapped, though. Put me somewhere I can't leave and I'm going to be bored no matter what. What's hard is trying to make it all make sense to someone else. Trying to make something of worth out of talk. I didn't mind that it was unfinished. I liked the thinking about it parts too much.

I started reading The Pale King during one of my I can't get interested in anything mood. TPK got me out of it because I read these instances of people not really doing anything but thinking like it could go anywhere. Just don't stick me somewhere thoughtless.

Well, I felt all wise and thoughtful and shit while I was reading it, anyway.

P.s. I forgot to mention that fans of The Pale King's hated benevolent little boy will want to read City Boy by Herman Wouk. I'd also recommend the film Barton Fink. I love this kind of story.
Profile Image for Lee Klein .
800 reviews853 followers
August 26, 2011
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 novel, linked collection of stories, fragments, dialogues -- whatever you call it -- like a massive Snickers bar offered to all those famished for Mr. Wallace's particular sort of caloric content, really satisfied on micro and macro levels.

Not really an office novel. More like a longer Brief Interviews with Hideous Men than a shorter Infinite Jest. A++ sequencing job by the editor -- seems like controlled pomo chaos instead of old-fashioned mess. Conflicts and thematic dealios are explicated by the author in the final "notes and asides" section: maturity/responsibility requires ability to pay attention, especially in the face of "boredom," which is really just an inability to pay sufficient attention -- and paying attention has a moral dimension. Apparently purposefully dull passsages come studded with easter eggs -- toward the end of a long dull footnote there's a "woodpeckerishly intensive round of fellatio" --- fellatio performed by an Iranian women who seems sort of like the Indian woman in "Freedom" -- wonder if Franzen cribbed her, or if he and DFW colluded to sexualize the long liquid hair of such women, or maybe as an inside joke re: their attraction to Jhumpa Lahiri?

Minor magic realism: a character just barely levitates when he's immersed, paying serious attention to work or listening to someone. Also a pair of minor phantoms. Four major writers mentioned in the book as major writers a writer might aspire to be like are echoed throughout: Gaddis (dialogue onslaughts of JR), Perec (Life: A User's Manual -- attention to detail, structure, the name Sylvanshine echoes the name Bartlebooth), Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio -- portraits of an ensemble cast in the midwest), Balzac (ridiculous attention to detail? I haven't read enough to have much insight). LOLs a-plenty, often at revelation of a paradox (see essay on humor in Kafka, the bit about "A Little Fable"). Several dozen pages turned down, sometimes top and bottom corners turned in -- first time I've done that since Gilead.

A systems novel -- like most of DeLillo or Kafka -- focused on individual/very much individuated lives (thanks to author's observations) inside a major faceless institution. Structurally, the book would've been loosely organized to have something to do with a yaw system -- that is, attention, responsibility, maturity are the rotor that turns the propeller that cuts through the wind of boredom, loneliness, excessive thought, and, as Shane Drinion demonstrates, enables levitation/flight (temporary transcendence). As noted early on in the book, "yaw" backwards is "way," which is the English word for "tao."

For a 1200-word version of this impression, get the tenth edition of The Lifted Brow.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,196 reviews9,487 followers
November 14, 2011
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 render to all goodreading DFW fans and fence-sitters alike:

“The novel contains a mass of technical detail and jargon about tax collection; satire about bureaucracy; digressions on work, routine and boredom; miniature treatises on ‘organisational psychology, elementary civics and tax theory’; ghost stories; minutely detailed traffic jams; and long passionate descriptions of the acountant’s vocation. All this is executed in Wallace’s unmistakable style, with ultra-long sentences that in some cases cover more than four pages; footnotes; footnotes within footnotes; brackets within brackets; and many ‘cute self-referential paradoxes’. (One of the narrators is David Foster Wallace writing his memoir of working in the IRS, which he claims is 100% true, but obviously isn’t.) Plots and characters emerge from nowhere and disappear back into it. This is partly because the novel is unfinished… but Wallace’s other novels are also, by conventional standards, unfinished.

Wallace, in short, is a fairly maddening writer. His career illustrates an intriguing paradox: that it is possible for an American novelist to have a mighty critical reputation and to sell books in large numbers – while being pretty much unreadable and indeed unread on a huge scale (I know only one person who actually claims to have finished Infinite Jest). And The Pale King seems to me like its predecessors to be fundamentally wrong-headed, a deeply unserious endeavour undertaken in a deeply serious fashion – or perhaps it is vice versa, I find it hard to tell.

Which is not to say Wallace’s reputation is undeserved. On the contrary, I would say his almost certainly a genius… [great praise for his style follows]… but whereas the style is mostly an immediate pleasure in his nonfiction, his novels come replete with thich wodges of hyper-detailed, impenetrable prose up front, like keep-out signs. They seem to be aimed primarily at literature students or other writers, rather than your average paying customer. I read The Pale King in a week when as it happened I has practically nothing to do. And after some desperate struggling early on, I began not just to enjoy it, but in places to love it… but if I had read it for fun in the course of a normal life, snatching a bleary half hour before bed or on public transport, there is no doubt at all : I would have thrown in the towel around page 50.”
Profile Image for B0nnie.
136 reviews49 followers
September 11, 2012
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.
§ The Forms?

§ What is The Pale King?
There's a long answer, and a brief one: a book about several IRS examiners who process tax returns, looking for taxpayers to audit and yield additional revenue. Although this may seem like the least promising of plots, I promise it is very entertaining.
dick ii
a pale king

§ Who is the Pale King?
The "Pale King" is the nickname of the former director of the IRS in Peoria, Illinois (the one before DeWitt Glendenning Jr.), "And Desk Names are back. This is another plus under Glendenning. Nothing against the Pale King, but the consensus is that Mr. Glendenning is more agent-morale oriented, and Desk Names are one example." And, "Though it’s not exactly like before the Pale King. It got out of hand, there’s no denying."

§ DT Max writes that the Pale King "was a synonym for the depression that tormented [Wallace]." Winston Churchill called this "the black dog".

§ There are several literary allusions as well:
- Keats's La Belle Dame Sans Merci
- Revelation 6:8: "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.
- The Fellowship of the Ring: ‘What has happened? Where is the pale king?’ [Frodo] asked wildly.

§ The David F. Wallace in the novel tells us that this is a fictional memoir.
what follows is, in reality, not fiction at all, but substantially true and accurate. That — The Pale King is, in point of fact, more like a memoir than any kind of made-up story.

I believe him. But...there's a large assortment of David Wallaces here: the author, and two characters with the name David F. Wallace. The blending of fiction and memoir also happens by giving many of the other characters some aspect of the author.

The layers of fictionalized self-referencing in the "Author's Forward" is a literary game in which the author is holding all the cards, so to speak. It's up to us to decide if we want to play.
Plus there’s the autobiographical fact that, like so many other nerdy, disaffected young people of that time, I dreamed of becoming an ‘artist,’ i.e., somebody whose adult job was original and creative instead of tedious and dronelike. My specific dream was of becoming an immortally great fiction writer la Gaddis or Anderson, Balzac or Perec, & c.; and many of the notebook entries on which parts of this memoir are based were themselves literarily jazzed up and fractured; it’s just the way I saw myself at the time.

§ Another blending - or bending - happens in style and genre. Should I shelve it with satire? the magic realists? Perhaps with the historical novels (The Pale King is set in 1985, just having escaped George Orwell but on the cusp of a technological revolution). I could place it with sociological or anthropological studies. If I had a business shelf it could go there. Certainly in humour. Or fantasy? Philosophy? Politics? Paranormal? Psychology? Poetry??

Well actually in my library it will go on the shelf for white books. Near the blue ones. The theme of The Pale King is similar to Infinite Jest, if boredom is a similar theme to entertainment.
To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly...but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.

Profile Image for Sofia.
282 reviews92 followers
March 27, 2019
«..το πραγματικά ενδιαφέρον ερώτημα είναι γιατί η πληκτικότητα αποτελεί τόσο ισχυρό εμπόδιο για την προσοχή. Γιατί υποχωρούμε μπροστά στο πληκτικό. Ίσως ο λόγος να είναι ότι η πληκτικότητα είναι εγγενώς οδυνηρή· ίσως από εκεί να προέρχονται φράσεις όπως “θανάσιμη πλήξη” ή “βασανιστική πλήξη”. Ίσως η πληκτικότητα να σχετίζεται με τον ψυχικό πόνο, γιατί κάτι πληκτικό ή δυσνόητο δεν καταφέρνει να προκαλέσει αρκετά το ενδιαφέρον ώστε να τραβήξει τους ανθρώπους από κάποιον άλλο, βαθύτερο, πόνο που είναι πάντοτε παρών, έστω και αδιόρατα, και που οι περισσότεροι από εμάς ξοδεύουμε σχεδόν όλο μας το χρόνο και όλη μας την ενέργεια για να καταφέρουμε να μην τον νιώθουμε, ή τουλάχιστον να μην τον νιώθουμε άμεσα και με όλη μας την προσοχή.»
Κάποια στιγμή πρέπει να βρεθεί μία λέξη για το αίσθημα που σου προκαλεί το τέλος της ανάγνωσης ενός μεγάλου, κυριολεκτικά και μεταφορικά, βιβλίου. Ο Χλομός Βασιλιάς είναι για όσους δεν γνωρίζουν το τελευταίο μυθιστόρημα του Wallace το οποίο μάλιστα δεν ολοκληρώθηκε ποτέ λόγω του θανάτου του συγγραφέα. Πρόκειται για ιστορίες διαφορών ανθρώπων που εργάζονται ως υπάλληλοι σε τοπικό παράρτημα της Φορολογικής Υπηρεσίας μέσα από τα μάτια του νεαρού εκπαιδευόμενου, Ντέιβιντ Φόσ��ερ Γουάλας.
Επι της ουσίας είναι ένα βιβλίο που μιλάει για την ανία. Ο Γουάλας βρίσκει το θάρρος να κοιτάξει κατάματα ένα από τα πιο δυσβάσταχτα συναισθήματα, χωρίς καμία διάθεση να ωραιοποιήσει ή να λειάνει γραφή και γεγονότα προς τέρψη του αναγνώστη. Αυτό αποτελεί το σημαντικότερο πλεονέκτημα, αλλά ταυτόχρονα και την μεγαλύτερη δυσκολία του βιβλίου.
Υπήρξαν δύσκολες σελίδες που ένιωθα να κουράζομαι, αλλά και ολόκληρα κεφάλαια που απλά υποκλίθηκα στην ευφυία αυτού του ανθρώπου. Προσωπικά, είμαι της άποψης πως όποια δουλειά και να επιλέξει κάποιο��, αργά η γρήγορα θα έρθει η στιγμή που θα νιώσει να βαριέται. Όταν, μάλιστα, η ίδια η φύση της δουλειάς είναι μονότονη, όπως στην προκειμένη περίπτωση, τότε όλα είναι πιο δύσκολα να τα βιώσεις και ίσως δυσκολότερα να τα περιγράψεις.
Κι όμως ο συγγραφέας φαίνεται αστείρευτος ως προς τους αμέτρητους τρόπους με τους οποίους μπορεί να μας παρουσιάσει αυτό το θέμα όλοι τους με κεντρικό άξονα ένα διαρκές αίσθημα στασιμότητας έως κι εγκλωβισμού. Σχεδόν σε κάθε κεφάλαιο βλέπουμε διάφορους ήρωες να την διαχειρίζονται ο καθένας με τον δικό του τρόπο στον δικό του μικρόκοσμο. Άλλες φορές μπορεί και να μην καταφέρουν να αναμετρηθούν μαζί της. Άλλες φορές ο Γουάλας μας διηγείται τον τρόπο με τον οποίο κάποιοι οδηγήθηκαν σε αυτή την δουλειά ξεδιπλώνοντας ακόμα περισσότερο το ταλέντο του στην ψυχογράφηση χαρακτήρων.
Σίγουρα υπάρχουν πολλά ακόμα που θα μπορούσαν να ειπωθούν για τον Χλομό Βασιλιά αλλά νομίζω πως όσους αναγνώστες έχει, τόσες θα είναι και οι σημασίες που θα του δοθούν. Η σχέση που αναπτύσσουμε με την δουλειά μας, ακόμα και για όσους την κάνουν αποκλειστικά για βιοποριστικούς λόγους, είναι από τις πιο πολύπλοκες, ιδιαίτερες και καθοριστικές. Όσο και αν δεν θέλουμε να το δεχτούμε κάθε, μα κάθε, μέρα για τουλάχιστον ένα οχτάωρο είμαστε εμείς και αυτό που επιλέξαμε ή αναγκαστήκαμε να κάνουμε ως επάγγελμα.
Ίσως γι’ αυτό τον λόγο, αίσθησή μου είναι, ότι καλό θα ήταν να διαβαστεί όταν θα έχετε πατήσει τα τριάντα. Όχι γιατί αυτή η ηλικία κουβαλά καμιά σπουδαία σοφία, αλλά γιατί λογικά μέχρι τότε θα έχετε βιώσει όλοι στο πετσί σας, για μικρότερο ή μεγαλύτερο χρονικό διάστημα, αυτό για το οποίο μιλά ο Γουάλας.
Σε μένα, η ολοκλήρωση του Χλομού Βασιλιά κατάφερε να εδραιώσει μέσα μου μια αντίληψη για τον κόσμο που την επέτρεπα μόνο σαν υπόνοια στον εαυτό μου. Αυτή όμως δεν είναι και η δουλειά των μεγάλων βιβλίων;
«..κύριοι, ιδού μία αλήθεια: το να υπομένει κανείς την ανία σε πραγματικό χρόνο μέσα σε ορισμένο χώρο, αυτό είναι το πραγματικό κουράγιο. Θα έλεγα μάλιστα ότι αυτού του είδους η αντοχή αποτελεί το απόσταγμα αυτού που είναι σήμερα, σε αυτό τον κόσμο που δεν έχει φτιαχτεί ούτε από εσάς ούτε από εμένα, ο ηρωισμός….
Κύριοι, καλώς ήλθατε στον κόσμο της πραγματικότητας-δεν υπάρχει ακροατήριο. Δεν υπάρχει κανείς να σας χειροκροτήσει, να σας θαυμάσει. Δεν υπάρχει κανένας να σας δει. Καταλαβαίνετε; Ιδού η αλήθεια- ο πραγματικός ηρωισμός δεν γίνεται δεκτός με επευφημίες, και δεν διασκεδάζει κανέναν. Κανένας δεν στέκεται στην ουρά για τον δει. Κανένας δεν ενδιαφέρεται.»
Profile Image for Jimmy Cline.
150 reviews189 followers
June 16, 2017
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, and that particularly stormy and tumultuous period in which he wrote The Fragile, and subsequently crawled out of depression, alcohol and drugs, bulked up, made a comeback, and released a new album. And so that album now strikes seriously personal emotional chords within my being because I feel that I know what Reznor is getting at, even if the lyrics are comedically self-pitying, they're cathartic and bold, still-'
'Yeah, a little off topic I guess. What I'm basically trying to say is that I just relate to him ... like I don't relate to Pynchon so much, or Gaddis, or Bellow ... maybe Mishima and Vollmann. Vollmann is complicated though, saying I relate to Vollmann risks sounding sort of pretentious. He translates the human condition well, but as far as being capable of relating to Vollmann as a person ... not so much. Anyway, Wallace just gives voice to how difficult it is to explain what's going on inside one's head. My own thought process works in a very similar manner to his. He seems to give voice to a lot of the anxieties and neurosis that I try to articulate to people sometimes, or maybe he just expresses the occasional failure in attempting to do so.'
'You know, I really try to avoid reading the reviews. I guess I just don't care. I know that I like it, and a few close friends do. It's personal. Like, I don't even want to attempt to sound objective when talking about Wallace. There's just no point. I'm emotionally and cerebrally transfixed by his books.
'Sure, that's going to be a focal point in a lot of the subsequent criticism. Already has really. I mean, they published a fucking commencement speech of his. But you and I basically know that it happened. He did it. He's not coming back, but thanks to Michael Pietsch, who I think did the right thing by working on releasing this material, we have a semblance of what he was going for. I say, it's best to just focus on the work at hand. Attempt to imagine what Wallace was going for with this piece, rather than try to diagnose his suicide.'
'Honestly, the man was clinically depressed. All that I can say is this: I get it. Clinical depression is fucking horrifying. Like, in example: have you ever experienced total nihilism? Like, as in nothing? As in I feel nothing about anything right now, and I'm just emotionally and mentally numb and sort of inert and dead?
'And that's just the thing. David struggled with every creative bone in his body to fight the depressed temptations of nihilism and apathy and self-gratifying cynical irony. I mean, he worked so hard to get away from it. One thing that I pulled from the first half of the book is ... like, look, nihilism is many things, but it most certainly is not cool or fun or hep. It's an awful, life-defeating, soul-murdering cognitive phenomenon. People need to fight that urge, and life, and well, the various like soul-murderingly dull jobs that most people come across in the span of said life, will test ever fiber of your earnestly engaged being. David's books all seem to suggest that we fight that urge to not care. It's hard work. He taught me that. One of the most valuable life lessons I'll ever fuckin' learn.
'Well, it's unpleasant to say the least. Personally speaking, I wake up certain mornings, and possibly due to how boring sobriety has made my life seem, feel nothing about my life. So much to the point at which, yes, it does seem like a rational decision for me to simply eliminate my own map. I doubt that I will, but speaking as a depressed person, I understand how unbearable that can be. Add anti-depressants to the mix, and one's head can, chemically speaking, turn into a fucking nightmare. It just breaks people down sometimes. I've felt numb all day, but that's another story.'
'Yeah, I miss him almost like I would a real friend. There is a part later in the book ... another vignette which illustrates the character Steyck's pathological niceness and diligence. It's sort of a drawn out, intensely morbid yet hilarious joke. The joke itself is sort of like black humor on steroids. It's so dark and sardonic, yet sympathetic and brilliant and basically hilarious, that no one but Wallace could've written it. And as I sat in my room on the couch, reading this part in the book, I sighed, this deep melancholy sigh, and sort of just intoned out loud, "Oh Dave, this is it, huh?". And as sad as this little moment was, it was just so richly imbued with gratitude and admiration and a generally warm feeling of fondness for his sense of humor and originality. I was upset, yet simultaneously sort of comforted by that moment.'
' ... '
'I mean, generally speaking, it's about human boredom, that, and the remarkable ability that certain human beings have to basically immerse themselves in the real-world epitome of dullness and tedium. He used the IRS; the culture of "wigglers" and CID agents as an example.'
'I think it's pretty brilliant, really. And after reading the material that Pietsch had arranged, I get the impression that Wallace had such elaborate intentions for this book. Even in it's unfinished form, it's still massively impressive.
'It is similar to his previous stuff, thematically and otherwise. The unfortunate thing is that it seems like he really hit this peak in his strengths as a storyteller and narrator before the suicide. There is a certain laid-back cadence and rhythm to his prose. It's just so casual yet engaging. I mean, a lot of people seem put off by the sheer length of some of his sentences, and while I'll totally concede to them being sort of dense, they're really not that ... 'difficult'? I dunno, again, that's more like me trying to defend Wallace's writing and justify his cultural relevance, which, as I hinted at before, I just don't care to. I know that I like it.'
'Well, it's fiction; these are all basically just gut reactions and opinions anyway. With most novels, short stories, etc, I like play around and attempt to put them in their respective historical context and everything, listing the flaws and strengths of the plot and all that, but in the end, it's just a drawn out way of saying either "I really like this", or "I really dislike this".
'Okay ... '
'Apparently, Wallace was working as a GS-9 public sector employee in the early 80's, which I guess was in order to pay off his tuition from Amherst? I believe it.'
'Yeah, there is an author foreword ... about eighty pages into the story. It's done very tastefully, but taking the incompleteness of the work into consideration, it might look dubious to some.'
'Of course that came to mind. I just think that it's a cheap way of explaining why it's there. I mean, Wallace had such a keen perspective on all of the common tropes of post-WWII, 'postmodern' fiction, that it just seems a little silly to imagine that he was naive enough, especially at this point in his career, to lazily fall back on such a common self-insertion. It could be argued that the enormous mindfuck of a legal conundrum that writing a memoir about being a GS-9 IRS employee must be, led Wallace to avoid the straightforward memoir format, and attempt to explain why he was seemingly blending fiction and reality. It's all just too difficult and painful to theorize about though. Who knows what he really had in mind? Who knows if he even wanted that part in there? Again, it seems irrelevant at this point. I have total faith in the fact that it would have been great ... even better than it already is.'
Profile Image for Michael Perkins.
Author 6 books357 followers
July 27, 2022
New article on DFW (7/27/2022)



Unlike Infinite Jest, DFW is employing a more conventional narrative style with PK. Whereas, 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....

"The writer's voice took on a life of its own, which I think he found very constraining. I think part of what he was struggling with was how to change that voice. Cleverness, particularly for someone as clever as David, is the hardest thing to give up."


From PK.....

trying to cope with working at the IRS....

"Lane Dean Jr. with his green rubber pinkie finger sat at his Tingle table in his Chalk’s row in the Rotes Group’s wiggle room and did two more returns, then another one, then flexed his buttocks and held to a count of ten and imagined a warm pretty beach with mellow surf as instructed in orientation the previous month. Then he did two more returns, checked the clock real quick, then two more, then bore down and did three in a row, then flexed and visualized and bore way down and did four without looking up once except to put the completed files and memos in the two Out trays side by side up in the top tier of trays where the cart boys could get them when they came by.

After just an hour the beach was a winter beach, cold and gray and the dead kelp like the hair of the drowned, and it stayed that way despite all attempts."


"I’d always felt frustrated and embarrassed about how much reading and writing time I actually wasted, about how much I sort of blinked in and out while trying to absorb or convey large amounts of information. To put it bluntly, I had felt ashamed about how easily I got bored when trying to concentrate. As a child, I think I’d understood the word concentrate literally and viewed my problems with sustained concentration as evidence that I was an unusually dilute or disorganized form of human being, and laid much of the blame for this on my family, who tended to need a lot of loud noise and distraction going on at all times and undertook almost every kind of activity with every available radio, stereo, and television set on, such that I’d taken to wearing special high-filter customized ear plugs at home from the age of fourteen on.

It took me all the way up to the age of finally getting away from Philo and entering a highly selective college to understand that the problem with stillness and concentration was more or less universal and not some unique shortcoming,"


“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

― Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews54 followers
January 9, 2023
“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”.

This incomplete rough-draft novel…..has a fascinating introduction > setting the context of ….. what ‘unfinished’ looks like …
….a novel with many characters and stories …but overall feels more like an autobiographical memoir, The fictional characters feel like David Foster Wallace, himself.

IRS employees received Boredom-Training’.
That’s funny…..(was to me anyway)….
….as in brilliantly boringly funny!!

Sadness permeates throughout.
DFW’s death is felt though out.
In some ways ‘The Pale King’ is similar to ‘Infinite Jest’…. with long deeply profound and reflective nuances.

Between the exploration of boredom - loneliness - apathy - and depression…. our hearts hurt.
Parts were soooo funny ….
Parts were a slog ….
Parts were simply non-linear and disjointed.

David Foster Wallace died unfinished…
He was a deeply brilliant thinker …a brilliant artist …
….and even now years later, I can feel the sadness for his loss. I’ll never forget my experience reading Infinite Jest. — I had never read anything like it before - or since ….

I loved DFW’s inner critic ….
his humbleness …. his keen observations about everything….and his profound inquiry into life and our places in it.

Not a perfect novel — not finished —(by him)— but it’s one of the books I’ve owned for years and hadn’t read it…I’m glad I finally did.

“How odd I can have all this inside me and ‘to you’ it’s just words”. (love this excerpt)

4 stars.

Profile Image for Edward.
419 reviews399 followers
June 21, 2018
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 attempt to give the reader a sense of the tediousness of this kind of work (finding purpose in the tedium of daily life being one of the novel’s major themes). But there are other times when he writes with penetrating clarity and simplicity. The recounting of a father’s death in a tragic accident, the story of a woman becoming close to and falling in love with her husband, and the bizarre story of a boy secretly compelled to touch every inch of his own body with his lips: these stories demonstrate a profound grasp of the human condition and the subtle intricacies of human interactions.

There are glimpses of much more to come, and the appended notes provide some insight into what the finished product may have looked like. The intention was for DFW himself (who is purportedly the main protagonist and subject of this “autobiographical” novel), to simply disappear into the bureaucracy of the IRS after 100 pages, never to be heard from again - I love this, it’s so DFW. Also typical of DFW is the tendency to hide the real action in the background, between the chapters, generating a plot somehow only by allusion and inference. I have no doubt that the finished novel would have been a profound and intricate work, perhaps on the level of Infinite Jest. What a pity that Wallace’s own story ended the way it did.
Profile Image for Nick Craske.
120 reviews179 followers
December 27, 2019
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 on a flight to Illinois, Peoria and initiates the themes of confined spaces, bodies, consciousness and the conscious focus on facts. There is an ethereal, Faulkneresque(?) and elegiac quality to the writing describing the physical landscapes, which map it to the psychological terrain of the novel.

There are themes of lakes, of bodies of water, and of bodies, of concrete, of carriages and compartments, perimeters and boundaries, all expressed in recurring metaphors and genius word play ('to bore, to drill down into a hole') and which, by the trance-like-osmosis of reading DFW's sprawling sentences, I found the concept of heightened awareness permeating my life. It's enlightening and invigorating in the same way that The-Big-IJ-Thing is too.

David Foster Wallace's three novels are written in rich, dense prose that express the intertwined complexity of our inner thoughts and consciousness. Alluding to his prolix style and hyper-articulate range, DFW wrote (in one of his short stories): 'What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.'.

In The Pale King, this hyper-articulate range and perceptive talent are expressed with crystalline detail and lucid seer-like vision, and incites a sense of euphoria in me.

It’s hard not to read The Pale King as companion or extension to Infinite Jest, because it too explores the existential state of being and our relationship with information. Explicitly, TPK is a psychological deep-dive into boredom. It’s the simplest of ideas executed with the deepest of conceptual rigour and articulates the defining anxieties of a working life. It is deeply sad, it is highly funny, it's a middle-management Heart of Darkness and a work-in-progress masterpiece.

Also like Infinite Jest, the same glorious encyclopaedic trawling of anxieties, obsessions and impulses happens here, and for me, the writing often surpasses his most iconic novel. For realz. The Pale King is more compressed in focus and tone. There are still the absurdist magical realist qualities (exam stress hallucinations; Blumquist and Garrity the exam hall ghosts; levitation through concentration(that sounds like a good mantra, doesn't it?)) and DFW's inherent use of the double-bind, but the writing here is honed to the sharpest elongated pencil-point as DFW drills deeply down into the human psyche.

The opening words of Infinite Jest are ‘I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies’. And the following second single-line paragraph, simply ‘I am in here.’. These themes of consciousness and disassociation are explored throughout The Pale King. There is intense drama in the intimate minutiae or working in an IRS tax corporation. Trivial details in the Pale King have revelatory significance.

In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, there is a supposedly unfinished poem by John Shade who died before its completion.

Although Wallace worked to assimilate and overcome the influences of the Postmodern patriarchs, like the geniuses Joyce and Vlad(let's not even mention Thommy P. again), I wonder if DFW named this novel ironically (a wink to Nabokov ), in reference to being heralded as the literary king of a generation and yet himself, still so infinitely sad. That said, there are a handful of significant characters, who impart wisdom or have access to knowledge, that are described as pale in the book. To add even more head-fog to understanding the title and clouding the issue of the unfinished book in relation to DFW's suicide, Canto 2 in John Shade's poem in Pale Fire, is about his family and the apparent suicide of his daughter.

I tried really hard to separate thoughts of David Foster Wallace’s death in reading, comprehending and feeling my way through it. I wanted to elevate it above and away from his own sad ending as the writing is so full of vigour and life-force. It’s hard though to ignore the repeating theme of suicide in the writing while one is discovering motifs, unveiling rhythms and echoes, pattern-matching sentences and hearing turns of phrase – and even on a simple surface level characters ruminate on it.

To read The Pale King is to experience the elation and clarity of seeing the fog of life clear before your very eyes. It invokes self awareness and a heightened sense of the world. It is a truly beautiful and enigmatic book. An unfinished masterpiece and candy for David Foster Wallace fans.

I hope DFW's is somewhere ensconced in the most encyclopedic of encyclopedic novels, upon his elysian throne.

Meanwhile, here on earth, Bill Murray has a soothing word about paying attention and being mindful, in life.

Profile Image for Roula.
502 reviews139 followers
August 4, 2019
"Αυτό το θεμελιώδες γραφειοκρατικο κλειδί είναι η ικανότητα να αντιμετωπίζεις την πλήξη. Να λειτουργείς αποδοτικά μέσα σε ένα περιβάλλον που εμποδίζει καθετί ζωτικό και ανθρώπινο. Να ανασαίνεις, για να το πω έτσι, χωρίς αέρα. Το κλειδί είναι η ικανότητα, είτε έμφυτη είτε επίκτητη, να βρίσκεις την άλλη πλευρά του ανιαρου, του ευτελους, του ματαιου, του επαναλαμβανόμενου, του άσκοπα περίπλοκου. Με άλλα λόγια να μη νιώθεις ποτέ πλήξη..
Αυτό είναι το κλειδί της σύγχρονης ζωής. Αν έχεις ανοσία στην πλήξη, τότε δεν υπάρχει κυριολεκτικά τίποτα που να μη μπορείς να το καταφέρεις. "

Όπως αναφέρουν διάφορες πηγές στο ίντερνετ, λίγο καιρό πριν αυτοκτονήσει ο David foster Wallace, μάζεψε όλα τα "κομμάτια" του χειρόγραφου του "χλομου βασιλιά"- που βρίσκονταν σε σημειώσεις, αναλύσεις χαρακτήρων, δισκέτες, δύο προσωπικούς υπολογιστές και εκτεινόταν σε περίπου 1000 σελιδες-και τα έβαλε σε ένα σημειο που θα μπορούσε αργότερα να τα βρει η γυναίκα του και να τα δώσει στον εκδότη του. Για αυτό το τεράστιο εγχειρημα(κυριολεκτικά και μεταφορικά) του να πάρεις ένα ημιτελές αλλά υπέρογκο πόνημα και να το "δουλέψεις" με όσο περισσότερο σεβασμό γίνεται προς έναν άνθρωπο που δε βρίσκεται πια εκεί για να επικροτησει ή να απορρίψει τις ιδέες σου, πιστεύω ότι αξίζουν πολλά συγχαρητήρια τόσο  στον συγγραφέα, φυσικά, όσο όμως και στον επιμελητή και εκδότη του τελικού μυθιστορηματος.
Ο Χλομός βασιλιάς είναι ένα βιβλίο που αποτελείται από 50 κεφάλαια ασύνδετα μεταξύ τους, τουλάχιστον εκ πρώτης όψεως. Διάλογοι, περιγραφές, κανόνες του φορολογικού συστήματος των ΗΠΑ, αναμνήσεις και γεγονότα από τη ζωή εργαζομένων στην φορολογική υπηρεσία, πρώτο πρόσωπο, τρίτο πρόσωπο αφήγησης. Όσοι έχετε ξαναδιαβάσει dfw, καταλαβαίνετε και βγάζετε νόημα από αυτόν τον χαμό. Όσοι δεν έχετε ξαναδιαβάσει, θεωρώ ότι η καλύτερη ιδέα θα ήταν να ξεκινήσετε από αυτό το βιβλίο. Νομίζω ότι αντιπροσωπεύει 100%το στυλ γραφής, τα θέματα με τα οποία καταπιάστηκε αλλά κυρίως την ευφυΐα του wallace. Μερικά κεφάλαια είναι απλά αξεπέραστα και έπιασα τον εαυτό μου τελειωνοντας το βιβλίο να τα ξαναδιαβάζω. Σίγουρα δεν είναι ένα εύκολο βιβλίο για όλους τους προαναφερθέντες λόγους, αλλά πιστεύω πως η ανάγνωση του αξίζει 100% για να γνωρίσει κάνεις ή να θαυμάσει ξανά την εξαίρετη ικανότητα που απεκτησε ο  Wallace στη σύντομη ζωή του να βλέπει τον κόσμο ακριβώς όπως είναι και να την περιγράφει συνδυάζοντας το καυστικό χιούμορ με την συγκίνηση.
Υ. Γ. Αλήθεια τι γίνεται με τη μετάφραση του infinite jest?
Profile Image for L.S. Popovich.
Author 2 books324 followers
November 10, 2020
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.” The repetitions appear blatant at first glance, but deeper resonances emerge toward the thrilling closing, albeit inconclusive chapters.

A main thrust of the work is: Our interaction with the world is in large part an effort to understand ourselves. A commonality in much of his oeuvre.

Many parallels with I. J. draw attention to themselves, in terms of motifs, themes, and stylistic choices, such as the coping mechanisms we contrive to deal with modern life’s challenges, the psyche’s games and gymnastics in service to our perilous mental heath, the inevitability of pain, discomfort, and the fear of said states. - We are all tragically mortal, the world is much larger than our dreams – all dramatized in scenes which will accompany you in memory for a long time.

It could be that the source of DFW’s mental aberrations were traced throughout the course of his writing in the form of his characters, detailed and scrutinized and thinly disguised, but one cannot know the full extent of this theory unless one were inside his head at the time.

It can be a difficult task indeed to separate the author from his work. His presence as a character does not aid you in this. His authority is always difficult to ignore, and wondering how much of the amplified social anxiety, paranoia, crippling doubt, OCD, overanalysis, etc. was a direct reflection of his typical thoughts and how much was put on, exaggerated, etc. is another futile speculation. The “demons of ordinary life” are nonignorable in his estimation. They are the whole of life.

Most sections of the novel could be viewed as successful short stories, which, when united, form a cohesive collage, a dense, rich, enigmatic, immersive, elaborate, unpredictable and not quite perfect whole. The poignancy of boredom is a central gravity well, drawing in and trapping the characters. The inescapable sadness of modern existence patterns the fabric of the pages. The myriad things we do to deal with stress take up so much of this liminal space that they define the boundaries of this vision.

Key players are Claude Sylvanshine (the fact psychic), Stecyk (the courteous), Cusk (the sweaty), the 2 David Wallaces (the pseudo-doppelganger), Drinion (the levitator), Toni Ware (the unblinking), and several more minor individuals, who drag along half-concealed heartbreaks and tragic flaws.

Society’s tendency to cater to the lowest common denominator runs through the whole. The official obligations which arise as a result lead to no end of tributaries. The author exerts effort to bore the reader on almost every page. For some this will mark a major downfall. But note, this should not be read as an anodyne to I. J. It is a complementary corollary of well-expressed meta-narrative. Much more symbolism and satire than I detail below could be derived from a careful chapter guide, which I almost composed in the margins but gave up eventually in the process of doing.

There are also these things to look out for: Status as a determination of self-worth, recognition, validation, being a cog in the system, cognitive systems, the unintended betrayal of true intentions through benignity, many breeches of propriety, the stress-inducing backlog of work as this looming prefiguration of Death, the remedies which must be devised for combatting the physical and mental demands of bureaucratic existence, the obsessions everywhere rampant in our day-to-day grind, the routines, the little pleasures, the tics, how we are plagued by a sense of failure, and one’s efforts suggest progress in one direction while necessitating lack of progress in another, this always running to catch up and yet falling so many steps behind, in multiform personification of failure and hopelessness, while subliminal cues trigger knee-jerk reactions, and the analysis of scrum principles can be a creative form of procrastination, how we bury the unfaceable truths of our unfinished lives, how the recurring images life composes during our attentive efforts, applied to constituent activities result in insecurities manifesting along the way, even given our weary stoicism, the trudge-factor, the essential powerlessness, the illusion of movement, progress, the thought of failure which leads to stress, which creates the anticipation of failure, the meticulous internalization of exterior observation, the ceaseless double binds, inevitable hypochondria, information overload, until he discusses the techniques to regulate harmful thoughts and unproductive methodologies ad nauseum and you begin to feel the tarnish on this man’s soul. Extract from this what meaning you will.

Perception in terms of the all-consuming microcosm of accounting terminology, the
entropic details unraveling a lack of connection with others – with no soul-entaglement what are we but isolated animals scrounging in the wild? hunting for importance in a sea of data, which is the analogue of life, in the form of the archetypal businessman, how the lack of variance in successful human beings, the constraints, restrictions, codes, and the dependable fear of wrongness within people leads us down the rabbit hole. How indulgence in nostalgic reminiscence by proxy constitutes this storytelling mania, this water cooler gossip craving, how observation often allays anxiety, and wild extrapolations of conceivable complications arising from our imagination’s proposed alternative propositions slowly console us into acceptance. These are a series of improbable events in the form of cogwheels cyconling out of control in the mind, and somehow assembling into the jetplane of reality.

Some chapters have a more universal quality, and he employs unassigned pronouns. Later, we might infer which characters are speaking, but direct handholding does not exist in this book. Comedy abounds if you read between the lines. He every so often pinpoints a precise sensation so well: such as the uncomfortable sensation which arises when a complete stranger violates social etiquette, crosses the line, and provokes our disgust.

Not to mention the threat of death from exhaustion, burn out, the fanatical devotion to work, the disturbing lack of humanity in the workplace, the human automatons, amid the surprising humbleness, the humility, the meekness of those specific characters who manage to come out the other side, turning the other cheek, yet burdened with the servile mentality, believing kindness is its own reward, drowning in mindless obedience – an astute use of maximalism is everywhere in evidence – all the while insinuating, ingratiating, until dark fantasies inspired by twisted perception consume their puerile efforts.

The disturbing undercurrent of disappointment inherent in all forms of good intentions is all too clear. The startling effect aberrant behavior has on those nearby. (I’m just rattling off my notes at this point, self-aware, and not even believing any of you have read this far – but if you give up on endless sentences and paragraphs before they resolve, you are bound to founder in this books tangled Charybdis.) Where was I? Doubt, the precipice of emerging adulthood, the slide from safe, mundane, and clean life to darker living, into tense atmosphere encumbered by moral obligations. He builds tension in these relationships, subtly portrayed with heartbreaking elegance. The conformity and the accumulating guilt and adversity, the hell on earth crafted by the human mind, the intimacy, the sincerity. Deciding between fear and responsibility, young love’s complications, so much subtext in all this, even though a lot of it is simply stated, right up front. Hyperbolic literary descriptions as good as anything else he wrote, plenty of wild, figurative language, jargon-heavy musings, crucial metaphorical concepts are bandied about, bizarro-absurdity situations compound into goofy, surreal commentary. Quite a few factoids like: Remaindered ice cream trucks were used to transport IRS personnel – to the point where you can’t tell when he is making shit up. Malleable time and constant smirk-worthy details, free associative reminiscence, sentences encompassing several molten layers of description, through osmosis absorbing psychic scenery, inner landscapes. Virtuosic prose, warped syntax, self-referential deceptive intermissions, service speak, the internalized lingo of the Service as its own language leaking into the narrative.
DFW’s backstory offered as an explanation for some of the manuscript decisions, as a digressive essay on institutional hypocrisy, telling us escapism is necessary in a life rife with painful, irrelevant complexity. All of this parallels the overwrought sophistication of DFW’s style, the judgmental gaze, the repetitive double-bind mentality, how we are always trying to understand our personal compulsions, in many pieces hearkening back to sections in Brief Interviews. The art of mimesis and spoof, mixing up rhetorical approaches constantly, he brings down his institutional study to the personal level, trying the reader’s patience by minutely describing the inflexible rules of life which engender madness.

magical realism intrudes, so does dry meaningless prattle, white noise conversations, hyperrealism, contemplation of abstract freedom, American paradoxes, autonomy, perception of civic responsibilities, governmental interference, corporate zombieism, Nationalistic fervor, by turns didactic, scholarly, civics-minded, historical, philosophical, psychological, economical, consumerist, but always maximalist. The obsession with productivity, the politics of change management, how to outrace insignificance, the ins and outs of groupthink, sickening family dynamics, a satire of period clothing and mores, recreational drug use, catalogues of character quirks, cultural references passing into obsolescence, conjuring that demon of nostalgia. Self-analyzing through reflection on the past, regret at time lost and relationships destroyed, desk life, being a tax auditor as an allegory to being a writer, the state of hyper awareness also described in I. J., i. e. “doubling,” several convoluted backstories about love, death, solitude, powerlessness, meditations on familial damage, divorce, litigation, madness, aging, wisdom, nihilism, maturity, locating realistic expectations, disappointment, self-delusion, narcissism, compassion, faith, directionlessness, apathy, “wastoid” existence, choosing to use one’s time well, television addiction, discernible epiphanies, respect for authority, and finally, the interminable bus ride chapter mirroring the bus ride itself, the minutiae of traffic logistics, slowly bringing isolated characters together, but ending like a choked off climax, just when it was nearing incredible heights of insanity. The grueling and breathtaking chapter which is meant to catch you off guard by inserting a sexual encounter into footnote 67 was amusing. But we have to sit through the IRS Training course chapter thereafter. The accumulation of irrelevant data becomes necessary to create holistic value, as info acquires significance in combo with other info.

Chapter 46 might be my favorite. It depicts the stunted sexual development of yes-men males, within complex social hierarchies and the intricacies of teenage development. The pseudo-intimate undercurrent of the unromantic conversation is relaxing, the analysis of conventions and behavior within the tete-a-tete, all of the desperate, crazy things we do in life are loneliness avoidance tactics. Meredith (the ephemeral beauty) expresses her inner desire to be recognized for something other than her prettiness. Drinion’ s inhuman aspect facilitates this. Above all it startles through the elaborate defense networks constructed within the human mind, toward the discovery of the abyssal self, and how in this instance body image bias in a tavern confessional setting can be as moving as the greater part of life. As a summation, it stands out as the one irreplaceable moment in the whole unforgettable book.
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467 reviews1,229 followers
April 21, 2013
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 what was transpiring on the page; I forged near zero connexions with any of the characters receiving a fruitful degree of page time; and, most prominently in the retrospective gaze, not once did I crack a chuckle, indeed rarely became aware of a smile having formed amid the flow of words, let alone finding myself reduced to helpless, tear-pissing laughter as so frequently proved the case with the set piece hilarity of Wallace's wonderful second novel. Which is all to say that on every level The Pale King made for a muted textual passage, a subdued still life as set against the boisterous and carnivalesque roller coaster of the Jest pulled upon an ONANist world.

Not that I greatly minded the difference in the moment, since I was, for the most part, enjoying what I was ingesting at a steady rhythm; but that kind of somber progression built upon its very essence, such that, when I had turned the final page, I set aside this pieced together, final novel from Wallace with a numbness in lieu of the exhausted exhilaration that coursed throughout my frame at the completion of its younger kin. And the very first thought which pushed through the jumble and announced itself was a question: Have I lost the capacity to be dissolved within a novel? It's an odd and plaintive query to have formed, but one perhaps long gestating and brought to the forefront by the changes that have taken place in how I consume books these days. With IJ, the act of reading was one of immediacy, an attunement with story alone; whereas I find that, some four hundred-plus reviews later, I currently make my way through a book with a degree of detachment, analyzing what's before me, making comparisons, taking note of phrases, characters, events, connexions; finding flaws and distractions where previously existed nothing but brushed-aside niggles. I am now ofttimes composing a review as I'm reading, when the old method had no concern for the critical apparatus ere the entirety had been laid to rest. It's not a case of better or worse, but simply different—and I've been circling around that difference ever since. What's more, the lack of firm answers—and troubling nature of the question—has been part of what's blocked me from assembling words into a coherent review. Books are all that I have left. And if the trade is one of a better understanding of any single work, both as an individual work of art and a component of a literary whole, for that unconcerned enthusiasm that used to rev up near the redline, it is enough to give me pause. Which is all of a one with the rather fragmented nature of the following: whether it all adds up to anything or not, I've got to purge myself of The Pale King, that I can move on to different fictional pastures.

I believe that a considerable part of this surprisingly somnolent state was engendered by the fact that I was much more aware of the author as a person—IJ was the very first thing by Wallace that I read, whereas my entry into The Pale King had been preceded by a number of the late author's essays and short stories, as well as a greater immersion within and grasp of his importance to a broad swathe of the reading public; and, of course, permeating it all is the sad reality that he has passed from our world, that a man whose energies were channeled that he might explicate the myriad ways in which we suffer—however inane we deem the roots to be—and how that knowledge could lead to an extension of our humanity, a willingness to commit and dare to be hurt, an opening limned to the spiritual element that resides within every single fiber of an otherwise deadened and deadening materiality, the outreach and connexion available as an ameliorative egress from a suffocating solipsism, could not himself endure another lived moment. That knowledge somehow carried into The Pale King as a tactile disquiet; I had trouble absorbing the succinct opening chapter, with its restrained request to read these. Oh, I would: but accompanied by a sense of the finality and, ultimately, the loss of it all.

You cannot get away from the fact that The Pale King exists as Wallace's long-time editor, Michael Pietsch, pieced it together; it's impossible to know what the late author would have amended or discarded, reworked or introduced, had he lived to see it through to completion. What's been given us is a series of chapter-length vignettes of varying length, temporal reference, and point-of-view, centred around a group of IRS workers in Peoria, Illinois, in the mid-eighties—and including David Foster Wallace himself—of whom a select number display unusual aptitudes and talents that lend themselves, upon one side or the other, to a looming showdown between an IRS old guard believing in the vitality of the human element within its bureaucratic structure, and the incursion of a well-connected team of adepts determined to march the service into the modern era by computerizing, automating, and standardizing its money-assessing and -gathering mechanisms. Operating in tandem with this disjointed IRS theatre is an exploration, exquisitely, almost lovingly undertaken, of the tedium of existence, particularly within the sclerotic confines of a bureaucratized routine, wherein the passage of time is stapled to a series of movements of ordered minutiae both known and capable of being perceived running, in an unattenuated chain, into a second-, minute-, and hour-handed future intuited unto an enervating degree of precision. That Wallace strained to reproduce the thin substance of tedium within the procession of words is absolutely remarkable, and the more so in that, for myself at least, its draining nature was conveyed to perfection while yet never affecting me as regarded the chore of making my way through one thickly measured paragraph after another of that very art. In a moment of pure genius, one of the benumbed IRS workers, Lane Dean, Jr, pictures himself running out into an empty field, flapping his arms all the while: releasing subdued energy? Attempting lift-off from a world of appalling existential demands? Finding within absurdity the existence of a vital human release valve that might allow joy, however bruised, to inflow within the emptied spaces? All of the aforesaid? It's a bit of authorial leavening magic that almost snaps on a page packed to the brim with monotonic and trudging words. The same Lane is also privy to an appearance by the phantom of the Peoria office, a spectral presence summoned when the depths of tedium have been plumbed with such concentration that a level of transcendence is achieved. The ghost proceeds to discourse to a stricken Dean upon the etymological roots of the word boring, having incorporeally discerned its birth within a newly arisen industry and its pressed servant, mass man; a linguistic representation of a drilling into, a hollowing out, worked against the human soul even while its entombing body performs the same actions upon inanimate matter. Being stretched upon the rack of time is, of course, an experience humanity has always possessed itself of—but Wallace here gives a nod to its modern refinements, wherein one is no longer a hunter, a gatherer, nor a farmer, but rather one who simply endures.

Throughout the book, but particularly within the first score of sections, Wallace revealed himself as a writer at the height of his powers. In particular, §8, in which we are introduced to Toni Ware, a quiet and early-steeled young girl living a peregrine existence with her raw-living mother, which meant enduring a steady succession of brutal, coarse, leering men all twitchy with violence and lust, eying the child not as a figure to be cared for or protected, but exploited for their own undisciplined needs, is breathtakingly good. You could have placed it within, say, Denis Johnson's Already Dead, at any point, and it would mesh imperceptibly with the whole. Each of the (regrettably few) times she made an appearance, I was amazed. Having survived a pubescence of routine exposure to insanity, immorality, groping, and blood, she emerges as perhaps the sole character whose dysfunctions are not self-agonizing. Early inured to suffering and boredom and existential anxiety, Toni seems coldly and clearly aware that life is neither promised nor meant to be easy—and when she acts, she does so quickly, efficiently, evincing few regrets or hesitations. Surrounded by sections packed to the brim with self-doubt and self-recriminations, Ware is ice enfleshed; her way of living is linear, not circular. Jack Benny's hardly the man to bring her down.

Which leads to §22, the longest section of The Pale King and, in many ways, its greatest. It's a manner of bildungsroman narrated by an employee of the Peoria REC—a former wastoid going by the handle 'Irrelevant' Chris Fogle—who has taken the request to speak about himself to heart in a way nobody could have been prepared for. It's glacially-paced, peppered with a steady stream of hasty and formulaic qualifications, that the repeated attempts by Fogle to reach deep into the generalized banality of his young, cool-seeking, drug-imbibing, aimlessly-drifting life as the son of a father who always seems to be eying him with disappointment and ridicule, and a mother whose mid-life crisis leads to a lesbian relationship that terminates her marriage, and draw a measure of profundity from that life experience, might not appear so sincere as to be worthy of dismissal or mockery. In the story's unfolding Fogle comes to view his deceased father, and remorse-stricken mother, in a new and fulsome light, trying to piece together where they came from, why they lived as they did—which leads him to an admiration for how his father refused to let recurring disappointment derail him from the responsibilities and demands required of the choices he had made. To the question that torments the modern generation—Am I happy?—Fogles' father answered with a shrugged Whatever. Towards the end Fogle describes how he awoke from his wastoid slumber via a transcendent experience with a Jesuit accounting professor. Having come across this figure through an erroneous understanding of college architecture, Fogle is awoken to the potential for fulfilment within the world of an ordered reckoning of the mathematical figures that render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. A man who seems relatively content with his lot in a life of organized tedium, Fogle's is the first, and strongest, inclination of the potentials within a stultifying boredom for pushback against modern malaise. It's a part of an understanding at play in The Pale King—addressed superbly in §19, a dialogued discussion of US politics in the mid-eighties—that the end for modern civilized man cannot be, perhaps should not be, to live a life of ease without test or suffering—for such will breed its own antithesis. That Wallace is so well-equipped to depict those tests, that suffering, is one of the strands of irony within, and which, of the latter, the author had previously stated as being both a harmful force for a member of postmodern societies and yet almost impossible to extricate oneself from.

Other reviews have excellent summaries of the various sections, which serve to either introduce, often via childhood glimpses, the various personalities involved in the looming IRS internal struggle, or their aligning of means and ways in setting the stage for its undertaking. Wallace tries his hand in a variety of forms, from page-turning subsumption within boredom of a near divine essence, to nightmare panels of voiced chaos and vignettes of a quiet that hum with humor and/or menace. But there's a reason I gave the book four stars, and I'd like to try and get a handle on that below. And be warned: if you thought the above was an impressively portentous amount of pud-pullage, what follows is sure to leave all the came before in the dust.

So it is that everything was trucking along swimmingly until §24, wherein the David Foster Wallace earlier incarnated inside The Pale King—a reflection of the author's substance, not his essence—makes a lengthier appearance, narrating his arrival in Peoria, excruciatingly stretched car journey to the REC, and confused introductory tour of the facility by an attractive Persian known as The Iranian Crisis. I was so utterly absorbed in the Wallacian strength and shine of what had come before—particularly the lengthily and patiently unfolded §22 mentioned above—that the sudden intrusion of Wallace, very meta, very ironic, very purposively comic, jarred me out of that bemused reverie to a degree that I resented. Neither because of its quantity nor its quality—the former was no problem, the latter attendant in abundance—but because of the tone. In the fictive state of mind I had attained up to that point, §24 had no place. As an IRS-themed essay, it would have been marvelous; as a section of The Pale King in its pieced-together existence, in my opinion it simply does not belong. Doesn't fit. Shatters the glass so beautifully set into place, piece by piece, in all that had come before. I'm not normally a stickler for these kinds of things, but it honestly felt to me like an intrusion, a lack of commitment to, or belief in, what had come before: almost as if Wallace felt he needed a tried-and-trusted to glue the whole together. Now, that plaint is directed at this version of The Pale King which the author had no control over—perhaps he would have removed his self-narrated parts. And maybe I'm just digging for a chest that doesn't exist: all I know for sure is that §24 snapped me out of a book-slung reverie, jolted me sufficient that I never quite attained the same degree of fused comfort afterwards.

Which might explain my otherwise inexplicably edgy response to §46, one of the longest sections of the book and which transpires almost entirely inside of Meibeyer's Bar, a drinkery popular with the REC crew, and wherein we are privy to a remarkable interlocution between Meredith Rand, the IRS resident hottie, and Shane Drinion, an artless, perhaps autistic young man with a penchant for speaking a carefully- and thoughtfully-arrived at truth. Meredith, intrigued by Shane's candid persona, unloads upon him a voluminous tale of how she met her aged (and dying) husband when he counselled her during her admission to the Zeller institute, a stay occasioned by the acceleration of her habit for cutting herself. The story, and the characters, were great: what began to eat away at me in the course of reading, and the more in considering it all afterwards, was how Wallace configured it: Meredith, having deep-rooted insecurities about her beauty being the only thing men value in her—and, at a deeper, darker level, the only quality she believes she possesses that is worth offering—cannot achieve a cathartic transcendence from her lengthy unburdening if she suspects the man opposite is maneuvering within it for a pass. As luck would have it, Drinion is incapable of abrading her suspicions at any of the levels she is probing. And that came to strike me as too pat, too convenient; that Wallace used this paradigmatic male, as per Meredith, that he could tell what he was interested in—her story—without having to bother with the complexities and difficulties of crafting ordinary, real people, with all of their hidden agendas and non-copacetic traits—would perforce need to have that tale pried out by means of entwined, messy, sometimes argumentative or hostile or misunderstood conversation, instead of a lopsided, narrative outpouring. In other words, it speaks to us, but only of an us who are nearly non-existent archetypes. It struck me, both in the moment and then stronger subsequent, as taking the easy way out. Abandoning an opportunity for deep revelations as against more of a bout of armchair story-dumping by controlling all of the variables.

Sound ridiculous? Well, that's how unbalanced and interiorized I had become by that point in the story, perhaps dragging far too much of what I (mis)understood from Wallace's fantastic essay, E Unibus Pluram, and believing, in this unfinished labour of love, that he was going to use his mature authorial skills to take me to a different, irony-shedding level. So I was chewing on this one particular nugget of disappointment—surrounded by copious amounts that I loved—working to mine it of something profound, something stirring, perhaps in the process revealing myself as displaying a better ability to think through fictional works. Snagged on a rock and concentrating upon it, at the expense of the gorgeous waters, and riverine scenery, that surrounded me otherwise. And then, blossoming from within a frustrated discontent, the dawning awareness that Wallace had a purpose in this alignment of gorgeous and garrulous young woman opposite a male counterpart incapable of using her loquaciousness as a tool of attempted seduction, or even derailment via sexual fascination shrink-wrapped within fear. Rightly or wrongly, I've come to believe that I had been overlooking the fact, as Wallace most certainly did not, that life is abundant with minor travails that develop an existentially gravitational mass; that the shallowest cuts, when accumulated, are enough to fell us on the quick. That we are so often ultimately brought low by the combined weight of otherwise trivial disappointments, fears, desires, and hatreds—and that the knowledge of their insignificance tends to rendering us helpless to address them at the root until they've become terrifyingly daunting, rooted like a mountain—is addressed by the author through their revelation, in their minute composition, within scenarios oversized in every way. Being put off by the unrealistic nature of a Wallace segment, or believing he should be able to move beyond mining the humor and absurdity into a steady gravitas, is to demand the man address something beyond that which he desired to. With this scene in The Pale King we peel away the grossly-sized whole that me might espy the thousand cuts that led to the (near) death of something dear and vital within Meredith. In other words, I've accepted that this was a case of wishing the author had written a different novel, which is simply a futile way to go through literature even when it isn't a posthumously-assembled work.

And which may all be another generous dollop of Sastrean horseshit. After all this time entangled within the book, its marvels and mishits, magnificence and miscues, I can no longer tell. But here's the thing: every single day, when I arrived home from work, I took in the overabundance of pagewise choice immediately at hand, of which at least a dozen titles were competing against The Pale King—and yet every single time it was the book I picked up, and after but a second's consideration. If I experienced little giddiness within, it was there upon each renewed entrance; and so while it may be that I wasn't, in fact, dissolved within the novel, I am still dissolved, nightly, in reading. And in that losing of myself, I'm still finding all kinds of amazing, life-worthy things. So how about that?
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1 review22 followers
June 18, 2019
"Υπήρχαν 224 γραμμάρια καθαρής φαρμακευτικής μεθαμφεταμίνης μέσα σε εκείνο το κουτί[...]Δεν πουλήσαμε αρκετή, πράγματι. Όση πουλήσαμε όμως δημιούργησε χάος.
Οι τάξεις έγιναν ζωολογικός κήπος. Σπυριάρικα παιδιά που κάθονταν στην πίσω σειρά και δεν σήκωναν καν το κεφάλι να κοιτάξουν τώρα άρπαζαν τους καθηγητές από τον γιακά και τους έλεγαν απέξω τη θεωρία της υπεραξίας με φωνή ανακριτή των Ες Ες. Στυλοβάτες της λέσχης καθολικών φοιτητών συνουσιάζονταν με αυταπάρνηση στα σκαλιά της βιβλιοθήκης. Το αναρρωτήριο πολιορκούνταν από μεταπτυχιακούς φοιτητές φιλοσοφίας που εκλιπαρούσαν να κάνει κάποιος τις φωνές μέσα στο κεφάλι τους να πάψουν"

Παραληρηματικές παράγραφοι λογοτεχνικής οξύνοιας. Σάτιρα της σύγχρονης αμερικανικής (και όχι μόνο) κουλτούρας. Εξαίσιος χειρισμός αφηγηματικών τεχνικών: Στον διάλογο μεταξύ Ντρίνιον και Ραντ που διέπει το κεφάλαιο 46 ο Wallace αλλάζει την εστίαση της τριτοπρόσωπης αφήγησης με τον πλέον αριστοτεχνικό τρόπο (τουλάχιστον για τα δικά μου αισθητικά κριτήρια) θυμίζοντας μας ότι όταν οι αφηγηματικές τεχνικές εξυπηρετούν την οικονομία του λόγου μπορούν να κάνουν ένα κείμενο να λάμψει. Δεν μπορούν όμως σε καμία περίπτωση να δημιουργήσουν ύφος και όταν γίνονται αυτοσκοπός πολλές φορές χαλάνε τις ισορροπίες του έργου (βλέπε Confiteor του Cabre).

Ο Dave Eggers στον πρόλογο του Infinite Jest (20th Anniversary Edition, εκδ. Abacus) πολύ εύστοχα συγκρίνει τον λόγο του Wallace με αυτόν του W.S.Burroughs. Όπως και ο El Hombre Invisible έτσι και ο Wallace διαθέτει υψηλή λογοτεχνική ευφυΐα. Και οι δύο δημιουργούν εμπνευσμένοι από την εσωτερική τους 'τρέλα'. Βέβαια η τρέλα του Wallace πηγάζει από διαφορετικό σημείο και ως εκ τούτου εκδηλώνεται (σαν τέχνη) διαφορετικά. Ο Eggers συγκρίνει επίσης τον Wallace με τον Proust ως προς την εμμονή στην λεπτομέρεια, την ακρίβεια και την απόλυτη εστίαση του λόγου και των περιγραφών του. Εδώ -και από τις λίγες σελίδες του Proust που έχω διαβάσει- η μόνη παρατήρηση που μπορώ να κάνω είναι ότι ο Proust είναι από τους ελάχιστους, αν όχι ο μόνος, που συνδυάζει και έχει κατακτήσει την υψηλή λογοτεχνική ευφυΐα και την υφολογική τελειότητα. Για να το θέσω και αλλιώς: Διαβάζουμε μυθοπλασία είτε για να ρίξουμε ματιές σ'ένα μυαλό που θαυμάζουμε, είτε για να απολαύσουμε την ποίηση του λόγου. Ο Proust συνδυάζει και τα δύο στο υψηλότερο επίπεδο!

Ο Χλομός Βασιλιάς είναι ημιτελές μυθιστόρημα. Αυτό είναι φανερό και πρέπει να ληφθεί υπ όψιν από τον επίδοξο αναγνώστη. Ο επιμελητής έχει εργαστεί σκληρά για να παρουσιάσει αυτή την τελική μορφή. Οι εγκιβωτισμένες ιστορίες -που τόσο συχνά χρησιμοποιεί ο Wallace- κάποιες φορές παρουσιάζονται εν είδη υποσημειώσεων προφανώς διότι δεν μπορούσαν να αφομοιωθούν στην ροή της αφήγησης. Η εύλογη απορία του που θα μπορούσε να φτάσει αυτό το μυθιστόρημα ο Wallace, θα μείνει χωρίς απάντηση. Παρ'όλα αυτά Ο Χλομός Βασιλιάς δεν απογοητεύει. Φοροτεχνικές -απροκάλυπτα βαρετές- έννοιες και φιλοσοφικές θεωρίες (με μία φανερή προτίμηση στον Wittgenstein) εναλλάσσονται πολλές φορές μέσα στην ίδια πρόταση. Η σάτιρά του είναι καυστική και ακριβής χωρίς ποτέ να γίνεται κυνική. Αυτή η έλλειψη κυνισμού καταδεικνύει το ποσό ανθρωπιστής ήταν στην ουσία ο Wallace ακόμα και στις πιο αιχμηρές στιγμές του λόγου του. Μου δίνει την εντύπωση (αλλά μπορεί και να κάνω λάθος) ότι έχει μελετήσει και έχει επηρεαστεί βαθιά από το έργο του Wittgenstein* και αυτό μετουσιώνεται στον λόγο του σε μία ευγένεια και αξιοπρέπεια που δύσκολα συναντά κανείς στην σύγχρονη λογοτεχνία.

Profile Image for Makis Dionis.
477 reviews111 followers
July 11, 2020
Καφκικο, με στοιχεία Τζοισικου Οδυσσέα, μια συνεχής μακριά αλυσίδα ανωφελων σκέψεων που οι ενδιάμεσοι κρίκοι έχουν ήδη ξεχαστεί

Μια ωδή στον παρηκμασμενο πολιτισμο, του μη συνειδητά απελπισμενου ανθρώπου που κραυγάζει:
Κοιτάξτε τα έργα μου ισχυροί και απελπιστειτε.

Πολύ καλύτερο από ότι περίμενα και αρκουντως άρρωστο για να σε κάνει να θες να το κάψεις (ποικιλοτρόπως) αλλά και να δεις πόσο παραπάνω θέλει ο DFW να απλώσει τη σύγχρονη παράνοια

ΥΓ: Κορυφαία στιγμή το κεφάλαιο 22 με την ιστορία γιού και πατέρα
354 reviews43 followers
February 7, 2017
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 United Kingdom, appearing to me to like having him around on account of his aptitude for achieving economic success through conceptualism, a maieutic conversation about just this aptitude, my mother galvanized, having enjoyed a limoncello, my being unable to share her enthusiasm on account of harbouring enmity toward her tutor. She asked me whether I’d be willing to burn an artwork with her, to which I asked which, having assumed it to be that inspired by her having witnessed my deterioration away from my parental home, but instead watching horror-struck as she reached under the television in order to disinter The Demon², which she tore, hunched over before me, shielding it from my grasping hands, deaf to my stunted entreaties, having resolved to comply with her father’s wishes, feeling herself to have been freed from its clutches, set to make him proud. I told her that I would destroy my favourite of her paintings in retaliation, a treble clef ensō she’d gifted to me. She told me to go right ahead. I went to the kitchen and took the largest knife we own and charged upstairs with it in hand. The painting in question had previously fallen behind one of the bookshelves in my room and, try as I might, I was unable to reach it, unable to shift the bookcase, having briefly considered but decided not to remove the books one by one to reduce its weight. I went then instead to my parents’ room, after having told my mother what I’d intended, and removed the shunga-inspired erotic painting of my father and her from where it had hung above their bed, and proceeded to cut at it with the knife, bearing down with as much of my weight as I felt was safe, the blade bending against the wood which is her favoured support medium, which prevented me from making only the finest of scratches. I soon stopped, spent, not having considered the possibility of snapping it underfoot, though my performance had felt empty from its start. When I’d come downstairs my mother asked me whether I’d done what I’d intended, was I proud of myself, and I told that I’d been unable to do much damage. I wrote a message to one of my two best friends, neglecting to mention what I’d done after she’d torn the portrait, excited at the prospect of writing a lengthy message to a girl with whom I was infatuated at the time, detailing what had transpired, this story that I’d lived, this excitement inspiring me to decide to go downstairs and apologise to my mother, offering to help her with this immolation, wanting to live the story through to its end, and we reconciled almost immediately, her listening as I provided an ad hoc enumeration of reasons for having refrained from doing what she’d just done, when in fact I treated it as his distilled essence, archetypicalizing him, ignoring his having by all accounts found some measure of happiness with a woman who was not my grandmother, treating his step-daughter as his own, proud of my mother, whom he saw for the first time after the divorce only before her departure to university, but with whom he continued a detailed correspondence until his untimely death. I treasured it as an object of terrible power, saturated with meaning, a summation of all that was wrong with him, obsession and depression, image, icon. I told her that I considered it to be just as strongly tied to my present crises, though he’d died before we’d had a chance to meet, but that it was a thing of the past, a successful exorcism, a victory, that I felt destroying it ascribed undue power thereto, that it had been a gift to me specifically, that as it was simply, and in its infernal majesty, a work of art, it had no human executor, choosing inaction, which had in fact long been a problem in other spheres. I told her that I wished only that she’d acknowledged how much it meant to me, my measure of agency in the matter, that we’d talked about it. I saw within him, as within a former friend of my mother's who had shrunken down into his internet avatar, what I felt I'd been heading toward prior to entering my first relationship. After some halcyon days therein, I continued to decline. I was, then, at something of a crossroads. We went together to the garden and put the scraps on the barbecue grill, setting them alight, lighting a cigarette therefrom, which we shared as we laughed, hopeful before some uncertain future. The Demon burned well, and was soon ash.

¹I have already written this story, in another form, for some of the people I love. It feels spent. Writing it is a chore. I no longer feel compelled to share everything that I’ve shared with these people with those whom I let into my heart. The words I re-read seemed to have been written by someone completely different, but that’s okay.

²I travelled to Azerbaijan in the summer of the year before last in order to meet with relatives of my mother whom I’d never seen in the flesh, primarily to find out as much as I could about my maternal grandfather from his sister, my heritage, my right, in order to, potentially, turn these revelations into stories, or weave them into others. The Demon in question was the culmination of an increasingly dark series of drawings of the eponymous protagonist of the poem by Mikhail Lermontov, in whom he saw himself, the both of them, his having greatly admired his oeuvre, having his heroes, unlike myself at the time, everyone an adversary, modelling himself, to some extent, on Pechorin, the protagonist of A Hero of Our Time, repeatedly transcribing his poetry, in order to better appreciate it and to influence his own, little of which he produced, except in letters, which are beautiful, written in his signature baroque calligraphy. He published nothing in his lifetime, leaving behind a novel, barely begun, which I’ve yet to see. He ridiculed my grandmother’s success as a pianist, seeing virtue only in the composition of music, whilst resenting her success, hitting her, consumed by jealousy, harbouring antiquated views on the position of women in society, having even hit his sister, after which she refused to speak with him for a year, within whom he’d created himself as he’d wished to be seen, wished to see himself, wished to wish to be, a tragic figure of infinite potential, mine having often considered suicide for this very reason. Though I may well be projecting, I believe the feelings of artistic and intellectual inadequacy which he shared with me to have been in part resultant of the social ostracism he experienced on account of his being of mixed Armenian and Azeri ancestry. The morgue attendant who showed his sister his body told her that his was the most beautiful corpse she had ever seen, even whilst emaciated, sad, but beautiful. I have the photograph of me that he had on his bookshelf here with me. As I bade farewell to his sister and her family at the airport I kissed her on the forehead and said that I would live, as she had urged me, for myself, for him within me, and for the world entire. I brought back with me two volumes of his edition of the collected works of Lermontov, all that remained from his son having sold his possessions off in order to fund his alcoholism, these volumes heavily annotated, smelling like his apartment, giving them to my mother, who read them avidly. I wished I could save him in some sort of time machine*. I wished I could allow him to see me as I am now.

*I recently detailed what I’d learned from my mistakes over the years, vis-à-vis my relationship with writing, to a friend of sorts—this qualification on account of my finding it difficult to let people in, for various reasons—who had come up against obstacles similar to those which I believe I’ve overcome. He told me that I couldn’t possibly have any idea how much I’d helped him. I resented him this, that he’d had someone like me, feeling I’d created a competitor. I no longer feel this way.

Review Forthcoming

You know you're down in a the dumps when you find yourself reading Blood Meridian to cheer yourself up.

I can only describe my feelings by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on ethics which really was a book on ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world.Ludwig Wittgenstein

Review Forthcoming

"Gentlemen, you are called to account."

This, by the way, was what I listened to as the book began to wrap up, starting with §46:

The Stars of the Lid, and Their Refinement of the Decline

The conversation between Meredith Rand and Shane Drinion in §46:

Tarkovsky's <i>Nostalghia

That's where God lives
Profile Image for Lilith89.
17 reviews5 followers
October 18, 2020
Τι απόλαυση η πρόζα του, Θεέ μου.
Να ευθύνεται εδώ το ημιτελές του έργου κι ο απότοκος αναγνωστικός απεγκλωβισμός από την αναζήτηση ενός νοήματος καθολικού; Να είναι άραγε δικό του αυτό το φασματικό χέρι που αισθάνεσαι να σε χαϊδεύει σε κάθε γύρισμα σελίδας; Δεν ξέρω τι να πω. Αυτό μόνο: Τι απόλαυση η πρόζα του, Θεέ μου.
Profile Image for Nathan "N.R." Gaddis.
1,342 reviews1,331 followers
May 20, 2017
"'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 work but an infinite web of possible works. The Pale King as we know it is, in the end, just one of these, one possible iteration. There are many years of life left in these pages. I hope other readers of the archive experience something like the joy and wonder and despair and unending strangeness I’ve felt, swimming around in another person’s thoughts for a few months."

[Thanks to Friend Geoff for bringing this to my attention.]

And for folks with an archival bent, here is a blog from the Ransom Center, avec photos:

Ladies and Gentlemen, I implore you, this interrupted masterpiece was on its way to join other 20-years-in-the-writing novels of the late-20th/early 21-st century -- The Tunnel, JR, A Frolic etc, Women and Men, (something from Mr Vollmann, certainly), etc. What remains are a few crumbs and a clear idea that what our friend Dave had set before himself to accomplish would not be so terribly simple or easy to bring off. The crumbs that remain are delicious.

Re: The Pale King as a paean to Boredom. For better or worse the book is not boring. In the philosophical wars of the 20th century Dave was clearly on the Wittgensteinian side, but it is from the other side, from Martin Heidegger, that we find a full treatment of the experience of boredom which ought to supplement the thematic material of The Pale King. See Herr Heidegger's The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Had Dave been familiar with this work maybe -- just maybe -- The King, Pale, may have gotten itself more fully completed? Wishful what-iffings. . . .

Damn to mourn the loss of such a fine voice, a true believer in fiction, a rare human being.
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