This was a terrific year for fiction and a particularly strong year for first-time novelists. Some of the literary debutantes who glide through this "10 best" list are so young, their wisdom teeth probably haven't had time to become impacted yet. Majestically bringing up the rear of the procession are some much-decorated veterans whose sustained achievements in fiction should ensure that the young 'uns don't rest too comfortably on their laurels.
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.
After struggling with depression for most of his adult life, writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide on Sept. 12, 2008 at age 46.
In one of his final acts, he tidied up the manuscript of a novel he'd been working on. The book was to be a follow-up to his 1996 masterwork, Infinite Jest. He called it The Pale King, and many said it would be a monumental contribution to contemporary fiction.
The manuscript was unfinished, but Michael Pietsch, Wallace's editor at Little, Brown and Company, felt it was too important not to make the work available to the public, finished or not.
So The Pale King will hit the bookstores later this month, incomplete but still a window into the mind of a writer considered to be one of the most gifted of his generation.
"We chose to publish on April 15 as a way of casting a comic light on a novel that has a lot of darkness surrounding it," Pietsch tells All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz.
A Boring Book - Mostly On Purpose
The Pale King is focused with the way we regulate our attention to the dull, rote and boring. Wallace laid out the premise of his novel in a typewritten note before his death.
"Bliss — a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom," he wrote. Pietsch says it attempts the greatest challenge he's ever seen a novelist take on: "To write a novel about the boring parts of life."
By working through the boring, complex and difficult details of life, Pietsch says Wallace believed it was possible to truly connect with another person in a meaningful way.
"The book deals with boredom," Pietsch says, "But it's because it wants to deal with joy."
The novel centers on the life of several IRS tax return processors, and parts of it contain entire passages dedicated to the details of tax code policy. Some of the boredom here may not be entirely deliberate, Pietsch says — after all, it is an unfinished story. Wallace did not revise some chapters as tightly as others.
"I would imagine this novel, if David had continued working on it, would not have been boring for a second," Pietsch says. "But I'm prejudiced."
Putting Together An Unfinished Story
Wallace dug into his subject by taking accounting classes starting as far back as 1997. As it turns out, his longtime agent Bonnie Nadell tells Raz, Wallace was also quite good at math. "He could take very advanced accounting classes and follow them."
Papers left in his office reveal Wallace started correspondences with various accountants around the country. He took great interest in his own accountant, Nadell says, "who loved him to pieces, because no one ever asks about all the minutia of doing someone's taxes."
Wallace sought these details, Pietsch says, because he wanted to write a novel that connected to peoples' true lives.
"He's trying to write about what's it's like to go home every day to the same spouse for 40, 50 years," Pietsch says. "How do you look into the face of a job that you know you're going to do again and again for 40 years?
"How can you find meaning? How can you find delight? How do you find love? How do you find someone who will sit with you while you talk about what happened to you in line waiting to get to the bank teller?" Those are questions Wallace grappled with until his death, Pietsch says.
The evidence of that struggle was found in nearly 3,000 pages of drafts left in Wallace's office. Some were typed. Some were handwritten. Some were on floppy discs.
"When I first encountered it, it was this mass of material," Pietsch says, like a puzzle with no directions for assembly.
The Posthumous Question
Did Wallace's struggle to finish the The Pale King lead to his death? According to Nadell, it may indeed have played a role in the author's suicide.
Wallace got married in 2004 and by many accounts, became as mature and happy as he'd ever been. He enjoyed his teaching job at Pomona College. In 2007 he even decided to stop taking an anti-depressant he'd been on for many years — reportedly in hopes that it would aid him creatively. Still, Nadell says, "It was a hard book for him to finish."
"And he never did finish it," she says. But he did intend to publish it, she believes. "He left it in his office for people to find."
"And he was someone who threw out things constantly," Pietsch adds. In fact, he says, Wallace threw out nearly every piece of correspondence he ever received.
"He was clearly capable of throwing out things he didn't want to have," Pietsch says. "As I read these pages, I had no doubt at all this novel contains writing and thought as great and deep as anything David ever did."
"It's heartbreaking it's not finished."