Review: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
It’s a surreal experience, reading the last novel from David Foster Wallace. Cobbled together from sheaves of notes and files Wallace left behind at the time of his death in 2008, the version of The Pale King that we have is likely a far different one than he would have completed himself. To many Wallace devotees, the fact that the novel was constructed not by the author but by his longtime editor, Michael Pietsch, could be a concern, but this worry quickly disappears once you realize how much of Wallace’s prose and ideas have remained intact.
Instead of the fictionalized future Infinite Jest presented us with, The Pale King transports the reader back to the 1980s, when a silent war for the soul of the IRS was already well under way. A new breed of bureaucrats is about to take the stage, one concerned less with the art of traversing the tax system than with simply maximizing revenue. Throughout, Wallace allows us some glimpses into the ne plus ultra of mind-numbing dullness. But is staring into this Nietzschean abyss of boredom a bore?
Not really, it turns out. Even the passages of deliberate hyperblandness are interesting in their own way. And a few of the chapters—one about the “heroic” nature of tedious work and another long one about how David Wallace (the character) lost his father and subsequently got into the “Service”—rank up there with some of the best work the author ever wrote. As characteristically disjointed, disorienting and labyrinthine as the book is, it also provides some small consolation: However much we lament Wallace’s absence, there may be no author whose work better lends itself to incompleteness.