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The Pale Kingby David Foster Wallace
The Pale King, David Foster Wallace's posthumously published novel, is an awe-inspiring tornado of a book. Even unfinished, it's worlds above what most writers can do: mesmerizing readers with a novel about IRS agents and boredom is a transcendent feat, and Wallace's prose, as always, is pyrotechnic.
If I told you this book consists of 500+ pages detailing the inner workings of the massive bureaucracy that is the Internal Revenue Service as well as the interior lives of the people who work there, you'd probably tell me it sounds like a great way to cure insomnia. But Wallace successfully invests his characters and their surroundings with an almost mystical air, suggesting that what lies on the other side of utter dullness is brilliant transcendence a point that is driven home when you reach the end of the book and realize you don't want to stop reading.
"The Pale King is a work that, as expected, only further proves David Foster Wallace's genius. Most of the time the unfinished novel (published posthumously after Wallace's 2008 death) is a thrilling read, replete with the author's humor, which is oftentimes bawdy and always bitingly smart. Characters have names like Merrill Errol Lehrl and Dick Tate. One man shares a hilarious childhood memory in which he fell, slipped in dog excrement, then ran around after his friends, 'crying and roaring like some horrible shit-monster.'" Daniel Roberts, NPR (Read the entire NPR review)
"Almost three years have passed since David Foster Wallace hanged himself on the patio of the house he shared with his wife in Claremont, California. Wallace was 46, an icon, for readers and fellow writers, of talent, ambition, humility, humanity. The publication of Infinite Jest in 1996 had established him, by wide agreement, as the writer of his generation. Revered for his brilliance of mind, he was beloved for his generosity of spirit, his willingness to stand for sentiment and sincerity in an age of irony and nihilism. In the world of letters, his death was received as a collective tragedy; no fewer than four public memorials were held. Suicide is a black hole, attracting explanations only to bury them beyond its event horizon, but the meaning of Wallace's death was, if anything, overdetermined. The lifelong depression he never spoke about in public is everywhere implicit in his fiction, where thoughts of self-slaughter are seldom far from the surface." William Deresiewicz, The Nation (Read the entire Nation review)
"When David Foster Wallace writes about boredom, it's anything but boring. This is a good thing, as coping with acute ennui is the main theme of his posthumously published, unfinished novel The Pale King. If I told you the book consists of 500+ pages detailing the inner workings of the massive bureaucracy that is the Internal Revenue Service and the interior lives of the people who work there, you'd probably tell me it sounds like a great way to cure insomnia. But Wallace successfully invests his characters and their surroundings with an almost mystical air, suggesting that what lies on the other side of utter dullness is brilliant transcendence — and I would argue that the book itself performs the same trick for the reader." Nathan Weatherford, Powells.com (Read the entire Powells.com review)
Synopses & Reviews
The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace. But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that new employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling. And he has arrived at a 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.
"A pile of sketches, minor developments, preludes to events that never happen (or only happen in passing, off the page), and get-to-know-your-characters background info that would have been condensed or chopped had Wallace lived to finish it, this isn't the era-defining monumental work we've all been waiting for since Infinite Jest altered the landscape of American fiction. (To be fair, how many of those sorts of books can one person be expected to write?) It is, however, one hell of a document and a valiant tribute to the late Wallace, being, as it is, a transfixing and hyper-literate descent into relentless, inescapable despair and soul-negating boredom. --The story ostensibly follows several recruits as they arrive at an IRS processing center in Peoria, Ill., in May 1985. Among them is David Foster Wallace, 20 years old and suffering 'severe/disfiguring' acne. Everyone he encounters at the Peoria REC (Regional Examination Center; Wallace elevates acronyms and bureaucratic triple-speak to an art) is a grotesque: socially maladjusted, fantasizing of death (a training officer keeps a gun in her purse and 'has promised herself a bullet in the roof of her mouth after her 1,500th training presentation'), and possessors of traumatic backstories. One recruit watches his father's death by subway car; another survives an adolescence of sustained and varied sexual abuse only to witness her mother's murder; another sweats constantly and so heavily that he dampens those unfortunate enough to be near him. These are the recruits training to become 'wigglers,' low-level IRS drones who crank out rote tax return reviews at Tingle tables (no etymology given) in the regional IRS office, calculating return-on-investment for potential audits and resigning themselves to a lifetime of tedium in an office where time is ticked off in fiscal quarters. They are only slightly aware of one another and exist as cameos outside of their own chapters. Meanwhile, a nebulous and menacing bureaucratic intrigue is afoot with the arrival of 'fact psychic' Claude Sylvanshine, who is in Peoria to do advance work and intelligence gathering for his boss, Merle Lehrl, 'an administrator of administrators' and dark puppet-master figure.--That's the structure. Wedged in are snapshots, character sketches, and anecdotes. There's a bombing at another IRS office, a mass poisoning, the specter of culture shift in the form of the 'Spackman Initiative,' a messy bureaucratic hangover spurred by a backlog-induced meltdown at another IRS office.--Stretches of this are nothing short of sublime-the first two chapters are a real put-the-reader-on-notice charging bull blitz, and the David Foster Wallace sections (you'll not be surprised to hear that these are footnoted) are tiny masterpieces of that whole self-aware po-mo thing of his that's so heavily imitated. Then there are the one-offs — a deadening 50-page excursion to a wiggler happy hour, a former stoner's lengthy and tedious recollection of his stony past — but this is a novel of boredom we're talking about, and, so, yes, some of it is quite boring. And while it's hard not to wince at each of the many mentions of suicide, Wallace is often achingly funny; a passage that begins 'I have only one real story about shit. But it's a doozy' and ends with a 'prison-type gang-type sexual assault gone wrong' is pants-pissingly hilarious.--Of course, this is an unfinished novel. It's sloppy at times, inconsistent in others, baggy here, too-lean there, and you rarely feel that the narrative is taking you somewhere. Instead, it's like you're circling something vague, essential, and frustratingly elusive. Yet, even in its incomplete state — Michael Pietsch, who assembled this from the reams of material Wallace left behind, deserves a medal and a bottomless martini — the book is unmistakably a David Foster Wallace affair. You get the sense early on that he's trying to cram the whole world between two covers. As it turns out, that would actually be easier to than what he was up to here, because then you could gloss over the flyover country that this novel fully inhabits, finding, among the wigglers, the essence of our fundamental human struggles. Reviewed by Jonathan Segura" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
David Foster Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, in 1962 and raised in Illinois, where he was a regionally ranked junior tennis player. He received bachelor of arts degrees in philosophy and English from Amherst College and wrote what would become his first novel, The Broom of the System, as his senior English thesis. He received a masters of fine arts from University of Arizona in 1987 and briefly pursued graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University. His second novel, Infinite Jest, was published in 1996. Wallace taught creative writing at Emerson College, Illinois State University, and Pomona College, and published the story collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion, the essay collections A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and Consider the Lobster. He was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and a Whiting Writers' Award, and was appointed to the Usage Panel for The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. He died in 2008. His last novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011.
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