Benjamin Chandler's Reviews > The Pale King

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
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's review
Aug 01, 2012

liked it

This was an interesting and sometimes frustrating read.

As many of you know, The Pale King is comprised of the partial-novel David Foster Wallace left behind after his untimely death. It's my understanding that the material in his office was whittled down by those close to the author to the rather lengthy tome that was published. (The book published was about half the size of the original material.)

What's it about? The plot is hard to catch, but it's essentially about people with strange abilities or unique skills that are collected to one IRS center in Peoria. But, you really wouldn't know that that's what's happening while reading the book. (I'll explain more later.) The book almost reads like 50 short stories, all revolving around people who work for the IRS when this congregation of super-powered IRS agents is assembled. Names appear and disappear between the chapters, and many chapters involve no names at all. Some chapters are just conversations about politics or IRS procedures. Others read like transcripts of people reciting their life stories. Some are comical, some are dark, some are really well written, others feel like loose attempts at trying to maintain a certain decidedly uninteresting voice.

I won't lie: some of the chapters are incredibly boring. I mean it. Just lists of IRS protocol or arguments about the various rules of forms and the like. This book was the first I can remember in a long time where I started to skim. Sometimes when I was affronted by Sylvanshine or Wallace's (the character "David Wallace" in the book, not the author [though, I suppose it could be argued it was the author saying those things...]) long tirades on the IRS, I just skipped to when someone else started talking. However, I think that those boring bits were there just to give an example about how boring life can be. About the boring stuff we are confronted with every day. In a lot of ways, the characters in the book are all trying to overcome boredom and have different techniques for doing so, let alone dealing with various odd things that interrupt the boredom (like a disturbing IRS ghost). Some characters go into so much detail about the ins and outs of life (describing how someone chews on their thumb, or explaining the patterns and structures in the parking lot outside the IRS center) that you begin understand why a person of that mindset would even want to read tax forms all day checking for errors and signs of cheating.

As interesting as all of the 500+ pages were (I read it on the Kindle, so my page count is a guess), I kind of felt like I was reading fossils or artifacts. I was just getting pieces of the book, just facets of the whole story, but never the whole picture. At the end of the text, the editors included many pages of Wallace's notes on plots, characters, and directions he wanted the book to follow, revealing the foundations for a really interesting novel. The real tragedy is that the book that was made doesn't match the cool novel those notes and portions of the surviving prose hint at.

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