The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel, by David Foster Wallace ’85 (Little, Brown)
Reviewed by Dale E. Peterson
[Fiction] When a living author’s voice abruptly falls silent, readers, along with friends and family, grieve the loss of an intimate relationship and crave closure. David Foster Wallace left no note to assuage the pain and perplexity produced by his 2008 suicide, but he did leave, with apparent deliberation, a rich and troubling legacy for posterity to ruminate upon. Waiting to be found in his garage office was the workshop of a prodigious mind—multiple hundreds of typed and handwritten pages stored in paper and digital files and accompanied by notebooks and rough drafts indicating the potential shape of a massive work in progress. In a laborious act of devotion, Michael Pietsch—Wallace’s editor at Little, Brown—has assembled these rudiments into a facsimile of the text intended for publication as The Pale King. This ingenious fabrication gives “ghostwriting” a new meaning, and the result in no way coheres as a novel, but it does allow readers the satisfaction of eavesdropping on the last project with which the writer struggled. It is, in fact, a true legacy. We now can begin to appreciate what was on Wallace’s mind, what he left us to contemplate.
Well before the book was published, rumors were swirling that the author of Infinite Jest had enrolled in accounting courses and was seriously at work on a large novel about lives enmeshed in the Internal Revenue Service and its phenomenally boring routines. The main narrative focus of The Pale King is, indeed, on the inner workings of the federal tax collection agency at a moment in its history (the mid-1980s) when the modes and motives of the operation are under internal scrutiny. In the book, two competing groups descend on the Peoria Regional Examination Center in the aftermath of a directive known as the “Spackman Initiative,” which mandates a crucial shift in efficiency measurement from “throughput” to outcomes. The sedentary examiners, or “wigglers” (presumably named for their buttocks-flexing exercises), will no longer rise in status for rapid, impartial processing of returns, but for quick calculation of profit margins for the agency. At stake is a change in the federal ethos from enforcement of civic accountability to an obligatory accounting of maximum revenue streams, and this change results in an intra-agency war between advocates for professional civil servants and champions of computerized audits.
Into this contest Wallace thrusts a large cast of raw recruits and wily bureaucrats, all converging on the Midwest REC facility on Self-Storage Parkway, a destination whose name evokes the bureaucracy’s isolated cubicles, which are equally conducive to recreation or wreckage. It’s notable that the embattled rear-guard director of the Peoria office is named DeWitt Glendenning; this is an allusion to the title character in Herman Melville’s novel Pierre, who has the same surname and is similarly an outmoded idealist. In a striking digression—a philosophical dialogue conducted in a stalled elevator—it is Glendenning who cites the The Federalist Papers and bemoans the demise of citizenship and individual responsibility for the common good: “something queer is going on in terms of civics and selfishness in this country, and we here in the Service get to see it in its most extreme manifestations.” Wallace’s unfinished novel, like the IRS but much more broadly, examines what it might mean to be called to account for oneself.
In this new book, fans will find much that is recognizable. There is the same wild Dickensian inventiveness in corralling multiple characters and plots within an external system that encloses them. And there is no ebb in Wallace’s manic verbal energy that spills over the page in compulsively chatty asides and bloated footnotes. Critics have rightly noted that Wallace’s favored mode is a kind of parabolic realism in which exaggerated attention to detail and grotesque situational comedy combine to make a common institution (tennis camp, halfway house) uncommonly representative of a circumambient culture. True to form, The Pale King utilizes the numbing regulations of the tax code and the dull concentration required of IRS examiners to exemplify in a central national institution the inevitable challenge of overload and boredom that confronts adults swamped in an “information economy.” As Wallace’s evangelical recruiter of future accountants puts it: “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.” Yet there is something different, some greater intensity in The Pale King. Wallace’s big book is much larger than a civics lesson or profile in adult courage. While it certainly makes a timely comment on the state of the nation and meditates on modern maturity, the manuscript that survives is a parable of many parts, a work of more serious ambition.
One of Wallace’s greatest gifts as a writer is his ability to depict, in all its hilarity and angst, the tragicomedy of self-awareness. His last writing displays a rich variety of mindscapes in which he captures the convulsions of minds in extremis. We are treated to many variations on the dazzling digressiveness of human consciousness as Wallace’s characters struggle to manage their attention span in order to concentrate on a task or evade a core anxiety. We watch with amusement and horror the awkward leaps and disabling consequences of intense self-auditing. Some characters undergo unwelcome incursions of irrelevant associations, while others cannot free themselves from personal obsessions or fixed ideas. One of the oddest cases is the Kafka-like young contortionist who harms himself in a futile attempt to kiss every part of his own body—surely a parable about the inevitably inaccessible self!
No character in The Pale King better expresses at a philosophical level the fundamental urgency and complexity of accountability than “The Author” himself, who intrudes twice in the book he describes as a “vocational memoir.” Wallace’s final project thus becomes, from another angle, an experiment in full disclosure by the real person as fiction writer. This is tricky territory, not only because the legalities of publishing fiction in America require a disclaimer of similarity to real persons, but also because Wallace, like any honest memoirist, cannot disentangle imaginative truth from experienced reality. So, whether or not Wallace actually was a “wiggler” in the Peoria REC facility after suspension from an unnamed college for paid service as a “ghost writer,” The Author is true to his vocation of inventing a multileveled parable about the moral and personal complexity of being “called to account” as a public citizen and a private self.
In a 1996 Village Voice Literary Supplement review of Joseph Frank’s four-volume critical biography of Dostoevsky, Wallace vowed to honor an older model of “serious” literature that did not distance itself from a passionate moral engagement with the messy struggle to reconcile values and personality. Although the parts do not yet cohere in an integrated “polyphonic” novel, it is not hard to see that The Pale King offers compelling evidence of Wallace’s commitment to honor that pledge. Like Kierkegaard, another bold explorer of the absurd contours of subjectivity, David Foster Wallace has left us what he could—his version of a concluding unscientific postscript.
Peterson, the Eliza J. Clark Folger Professor of English and Russian, was Wallace’s senior honors adviser in English. For his honors project, Wallace wrote a 400-page work that became the 1987 novel The Broom of the System.