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The Magic Of David Foster Wallace's Unfinished 'King'

by Daniel Roberts
Apr 5, 2011

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Author David Foster Wallace reads selections of his writing during the New Yorker Magazine Festival in New York September 27, 2002. He died in 2008.

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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."

The dialogue is dead-on, real to the point of occasionally being exhausting, such as the section in which a character describes how she met her husband in a psych ward when she was seventeen and had been cutting herself. (Frequent mentions of suicide make it all too easy to see each character as a Wallace double, but that would likely be a facile conclusion.)

But this is also a David Foster Wallace novel to its core, which means it employs literary devices that will tire many readers. It boasts pages upon pages of IRS jargon and protocol, in which Wallace steeped himself tirelessly for the sake of research. It uses footnotes—a DFW trademark that originated with his masterpiece, Infinite Jest. Add those quirks to a score of characters that get named repeatedly but never appear in focus, and the inverse as well: entire sections that painstakingly detail one relationship or event to which the book never returns.

This is an unfinished novel, after all. In fact, many literary outlets have wondered whether this book would turn out to be an accessible read for all fiction lovers, or a piece of memorabilia for devoted DFW-heads only. The answer (either unfortunately or happily, depending on your level of fanaticism) may be the latter.

A character named David Wallace is the supposed narrator of the book, and frames The Pale King as his own "vocational memoir." In a section called Author's Foreword, he introduces himself: "Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona." Of course, it's all very "meta"; the character is not the Wallace that died in 2008, but a close representation, a guy who dreamed of "becoming an immortally great fiction writer a la Gaddis," got booted from college after writing other students' papers for money, and ended up at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois. The present tense of the book takes place here, in 1985, as a number of new recruits arrive.

In actuality, about half the book consists of the characters' past experiences leading up to their IRS careers. Meanwhile, the device of David Wallace is doubly self-referential; in a clever gag, he is treated like a king upon arrival at the Peoria REC because he is mistaken for a higher-up, also named David Wallace, also arriving that day.

The notion that this book is "unfinished" should not be given too much weight. The Pale King is, in many ways, quite complete: its core characters are fully drawn, each with a defining tic, trait, or backstory: Shane 'X' Drinion levitates when he is intensely focused. David Cusk has a debilitating problem with sweating. 'Irrelevant' Chris Fogle was a serious stoner in college (a 100-page confessional in which he describes his experiences of being high on Obetrol is the book's best section). Claude Sylvanshine has "Random-Fact Intuition," which is like ESP for useless details about strangers. Leonard Stecyk was an incessant goody-goody in childhood. And David Wallace has grotesque acne.

Moreover, the book is far from incomplete in its handling of a host of themes, most of them the same major issues, applicable to all of us, with which Wallace also grappled in Infinite Jest: unconquerable boredom, the quest for satisfaction in work, the challenge of really knowing other people and the weight of sadness. Nonetheless, it cannot be overstated just how crushing it feels to reach a collection of Wallace's notes at the end, which his editor Michael Pietsch has included in full. Before we reach the notes, we can entertain the illusion that the novel was not at all a rough sketch —that Wallace wanted loose ends.

The notes cast heavy doubt on this possibility. Wallace had intricate plans for many of the characters, including ideas about an entire IRS conspiracy that he was never able to realize. It's possible he was content to leave loose ends, but it's more likely that the 538 pages we have make up only half of what the full novel might have been.

Pietsch, meanwhile, deserves immense credit for his editorial work; in a touching introductory note, he recounts the daunting task of assembling the book. Sections were not found in any order, phrases were repeated more than Wallace likely intended and character names were reinvented throughout. The Pale King is therefore in many ways the triumph of an editor that truly knew his client.

The experience to be had from reading The Pale King feels far more weighty and affecting than a nicely wrapped story. Its reach is broad, and its characters stay with you. It will not become known as his masterpiece, but for Wallace's fans — a legion that has grown exponentially since his death—the book is candy, albeit bittersweet.

Daniel Roberts is a reporter at Fortune and has written about books at Salon, The Millions, The Rumpus and elsewhere.

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