Book Review: The Pale King

David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, was my first exposure to any of Mr. Wallace’s books (although I’ve read several of his essays). As such, I must question the wisdom in doing this: is it wise to read a posthumously published work as your first exposure to an author?

If you’ve never had any exposure to Wallace’s work, and are looking to get a feel for his writing, I’d recommend reading this article, “David Foster Wallace on Life and Work“, that was adapted from a commencement speech Wallace gave to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College. I really like how John Jeremiah Sullivan’s review of The Pale King describes Wallace as a writer.

He’s maybe the only notoriously “difficult” writer who almost never wrote a page that wasn’t enjoyable, or at least diverting, to read. Yet it was the theme of loneliness, a particular kind of postmodern, information-saturated loneliness, that, more than anything, drew crowds to his readings who looked in size and excitement level more like what you’d see at an in-store for a new band.

The Pale King is loosely about a group of people who work at a particular IRS processing station in Illinois. Two of the characters are strangely named David Wallace. Don’t expect to find a coherent plot to this unfinished work though. Largely, there isn’t one; in fact, in a way, the novel never really seems to begin.

Being that this was my first exposure to Wallace as an author, I found his signature stylistic tendencies to be interesting to say the least. Whatever the reason, he seemed to be a big fan of using footnotes, often in a humorous, yet confusing way. From what I’ve read about him, this is common in most of his fictional works. As if the novel and its plot (or lack thereof) weren’t confusing enough, there is a chapter in the book that leads the readers to believe that what we’ve been reading is an actual memoir of a man named David Foster Wallace. This, however, merely turns out to be another one of Wallace’s crafty writing tricks. In case that’s still not confusing enough for readers (especially first-time Wallace readers like me), there’s actually another character named David F. Wallace in the book too. And then there is a character named David Cusk, who coincidentally shares many biographical similarities with the real David Foster Wallace.

There were long parts of this book that were flat out painful and tedious to read, but strangely, as the book’s editor alludes to, this was by and large the entire point. James Lasdun’s review sums it up as follows:

The subject matter is as narrowly focused as that of Infinite Jest was richly profuse. It is, in a word, boredom. Boredom and its various effects on the spirit, ranging from suicidal despair (suicide was a constant motif in Wallace’s work) to a transcendent power of concentration. The latter is periodically held up as the nearest thing to heroism left in a world where there are no more frontiers to push back, and all that remains to challenge the aspiring hero is the drudgery of organising data. “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space,” one character remarks, “is what real courage is . . . “

Mind you, that’s 547 pages of boredom to be exact, and I as I said, that’s unfinished, and at times, jaundiced boredom. As I was reading I often thought it would be more interesting to watch the paint decay on the wall at the coffee shop where I was reading. If boredom was the intent, then this novel (in its finished state) would likely have been a work of genius (it could be argued that it still is).

Anyway, amidst all the boredom there were several insightful, disturbing, humorous, and brilliant passages interspersed in an often contextually confusing way throughout the book. Both Wallace’s fictional character “David Foster Wallace” and the real David Foster Wallace understood a paradox of professional writing that the former mentioned in the novel. “One paradox of professional writing is that books written solely for money/acclaim will almost never be good enough to garner either.” I think it’s pretty clear that this book was written with neither in mind and I think that’s ultimately what makes Wallace a respectable writer that I will give another chance. Virtually anyone who is even remotely familiar with Wallace’s work knows that he took his own life back in 2008. John Jeremiah Sullivan ruminates on the emotional toll writing took on Wallace’s life:

It ought to remind us of the psychic risk involved in writing at the level he sought. Like all good citizens, I’m with those who wish to resist romanticizing his suicide, but there remains a sense in which artists do expose themselves to the torrents of their time, in a way that can’t help but do damage, and there’s nothing wrong with calling it noble, if they’ve done it in the service of something beautiful… It’s the reason most of us can’t write great or even good fiction. You have to let a lot of other consciousnesses into your own. That’s bad for equilibrium.

This book was incredibly difficult to get through, but I think in many ways it was incredibly rewarding too. Anyway, if I had it to do over, I would have started with a different book of Wallace’s, say, his most popular novel Infinite Jest. As a general rule of thumb going forward, I will not be reading a posthumously published novel before reading the author’s other novels.

[click the following for and copies of the book]


11 Comments on “Book Review: The Pale King”

  1. J Scott Shipman says:

    Check out Jose Saramago’s All The Names if you haven’t already read—the lonely bureaucrat theme…

    • Greg Linster says:

      Thanks for the recommendation, Scott!

      • J Scott Shipman says:

         If you’ve not read Saramago, he’ll take some getting-used-to. First, unless you read Portuguese, it is a translation, and second, he doesn’t use a lot of punctuation. All The Names is a very clever story; The Cave is also very good. I did not like Blindness—-too coarse and vulgar.

  2. datxomin says:

    Reading this post I’ve been reminded of a poem (by a Spaniard, I think) that might possibly be translated as…

    In my solitude
    I’ve seen many things clearly
    none of which are true.

  3. […] “Book Review: The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace“ […]

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  5. Quora says:

    What is the best introduction to David Foster Wallace for someone who has never read any of his work?…

    I’m not sure, but I can tell you which book not to start with. The only book of DWF’s that I’ve read is The Pale King and I would not recommend reading this book unless you’ve read some of his other work first. I was even inspired to write a short …

  6. Jordan Peacock says:

    As for a post-humous work that is challenging but worthwhile, I recommend Roberto Bolano’s 2666.

  7. […] “Book Review: The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace“ […]

  8. Patrick Goggins says:

    Great review Greg. I’m still slogging through Infinite Jest. Here’s my review of The Pale King:

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