265 of 292 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Pale King: Short recommendation for a Wonderful, Messy Read
There are so many different reasons to love David Foster Wallace's work, and so many reasons to feel that his death ripped an irreparable hole in the fabric not just of literary culture in America, but also in our daily world. In everything he wrote, DFW was grappling with the hardest subject of all--what does it feel like to be alive, not generally, but specifically, in...
Published on April 4, 2011 by Elias Z
25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The IRS is hell for other people . . .
. . . and so too may be this book, for some of you. It will not appeal even to all of David Foster Wallace's fans. You should give it a try, though.
I'm halfway through The Pale King as I write this, so keep that context in mind as you read (or not) what follows.
The three-star rating seems most appropriate to me: As Michael Pietsch's Introduction...
Published on June 2, 2011 by John B.
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265 of 292 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Pale King: Short recommendation for a Wonderful, Messy Read,
These elements, and more, are abundantly available in The Pale King, DFW's unfinished novel. In terms of organization, it is understandably a huge mess, although neatened admirably by the editor. But who reads DFW for conventionally organized plots? And why should you read this novel? For starters:
1) The language. DFW is a masterful stylist, a brainiac who always could have sounded much more intellectual than he chose to, instead embracing an easy-going, colloquial tone because he wanted people to read his books. The opening lines of PK alone ring with the linguistic sensibility that sounds like him and him alone. His signature music courses through passage after passage. His verbal precision, so simple word-wise, gives a jolt by making you see things in a new, though until-now, overlooked, way.
2) The characters. Sure, they're a lot of them. Some will grab you, others won't. But at least one of them you'll probably recognize and glom on to and follow and love. The great thing about the juicy, rich, character-bound novels of DFW is that you really can (and must) skim through the sections that bore you. (Skimming, skipping, lingering, underlining and rereading are interactive engagements that mean the book is making you do things with it and to it over a long period of time.) This is another way DWF is like Tolstoy and Dosteovesky. Just read, they seem to say, don't try to think too hard as you read. And then read again and again. This isn't school, after all. This is LIFE.
3) The humor. The idea/hook is, let's face it, flat out funny. And poignant. A novel set in an IRS Center in Peoria. The po-mo stuff is also sardonic, even as it's instructive. If you don't like the "apparati" ignore them. And you'll see why they're not just snooty, but also funny ha ha. DFW was, tragically, too smart for his own good, but he tries not to be too smart for us, and that disjunction laces the novel with humor. I also suspect that he took it in stride that people would inevitably make fun of him too; that's how we work.
4) The love of mind. This book brims with it, not negatively, as in his masterpiece Infinite Jest, but more sloppily. DFW was not afraid to address the fact, and to delve into it for page after page, that we have minds, and that what we choose to do with our minds every day of our lives is what makes us finally who we precisely, irrefutably are. If this is a novel about the plague of boredom, it is also a revelation about the rippling power of imagination and play, flexibility and hope, as it copes with and escapes from that plague. This power lies within each individual. We may be amused, or tempted to mock, but really what makes anyone measurably any better than anyone else? If I'm really using my mind, I'll know the answer.
This mindful modesty is, of course, DFW's greatest legacy. He was a critically depressed man of prodigious talents who could have become simply a seething cultural critic, marked by a sense of superiority to the masses. But he wasn't superior--his depression made him see that--so he chose, and it was a choice he kept making from page to page, section to section, to be both kind and sardonic to all of us, as equals, at once. This is the combination that makes him wonderful to read. His hugeness, his too-muchness, may feel annoying at times, but this immensity also feels brimming with possibility. There's nothing neat about The Pale King, and that makes it unusually wonderful. It doesn't seem to be "over," because it is in no way "finished." It's raggedy and keeps going.
Such a novel-ish thing can teach you how to read with patience and generosity and a curious openness to lived experience. Another DFW trademark. He understood that writers have an obligation to make their readers work for their reward. The work needn't be grueling, but the truth is, reading through a novel should be a little like living through a life. You should feel that you've really done something big, been somewhere life-changing, by the time you're through.
If you like novels to be neat, pre-packaged, tied-up, not roiling and complicated and baggy, chances are you won't love anything by David Foster Wallace, but reading him will teach you something about yourself. He's that good.
If this will be the first DFW for you, I recommend starting not here but with his first published boyish novel The Broom of the System, and reading your way through them all. You'll find the same brilliance and snarkiness, tenderness and dark, precise humor, shot through with simple hope. Enjoy.
58 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story,
Now that that's out of the way, let me tell you: this book is amazing. Wallace meditates on heroism, boredom, civics, duty, attention, authorship, religion, family, love, language and nature with levels of grace, humor and wisdom that other contemporary writers could only dream of having. DFW sure has come a long way from the cold cerebral linguistic games of The Broom of the System and the mind-bending erudition of Infinite Jest. The Pale King showcases Wallace at his most accessible, most heartfelt and most mature.
Reading this book is like finding some pieces of a beautiful shattered urn. The shards in themselves are gorgeous, so much so that it makes the heart ache wondering how they're all meant to fit together, what the urn would look like if it were made whole. This doesn't make the broken pieces any less beautiful, though.
49 of 58 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent for DFW fans,
Nothing happens, but the nothing is so interestingly worded and in such comprehensive settings that reading about things like debilitating boredom and tax forms becomes, at times, pleasant. The book feels similar to Infinite Jest but seems less overarching (probably since TPK is half as long and unfinished). I was very happy to find actual, coherent, planned chapters in this unfinished work rather than a series of notecards (sorry Nabokov!). Characters seem absolutely believable and come with their own signature nervous ticks. Chapters alternate between one-offs and magnified microcosms existing in other chapters; the prose style also varies between easily-understood-conversation to surrealist-interrogation.
DFW gives the novel some intrigue by claiming within the work of fiction that he is not making any of it up, once again bringing up the problem of what it means for a work to be "fiction." I have yet to find a source for the progressive sales tax bit, but I found it hilarious and indicative of exactly the stupid things bureaucracies dream up sometimes. I also found the insights about the intense mental strain of tedious tasks highly accurate (speaking as someone who has worked in the fields of data entry and observation of potentially abusive parents).
Content-wise, if you're uncomfortable with injury-gore, a few sexual scenes, and/or some swearing, you will probably find some parts of this book, well, uncomfortable.
In short, if you loved Infinite Jest and wish there were just a little more, you should buy this book. If you haven't read any DFW, you'll probably still enjoy parts of the book, but would benefit from reading one of his other works first (Infinite Jest if you want to tackle that, or A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again for some essays).
25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The IRS is hell for other people . . .,
I'm halfway through The Pale King as I write this, so keep that context in mind as you read (or not) what follows.
The three-star rating seems most appropriate to me: As Michael Pietsch's Introduction makes clear, what we have here is NOT Wallace's final intention for The Pale King, but Pietsch's version of that intention. That doesn't mean, though, that we shouldn't have this. While it may be unfinished in and of itself, I think that it clearly reflects Wallace's larger concerns in the latter years of his life--both life-affirming ones and, yes, darker ones as well.
(Something else you might want to keep in mind, by the way, is that I think it's a mistake to read The Pale King only or primarily as an indirect suicide note.)
The review proper is here: The version of The Pale King that we have takes us into a place most of us loathe, into the minds of the people who work there (whom most of us would probably regard as at least unpleasant), recreates (deliberately, through its prose style) the tedium of that place, and reveals its workers as, sure, flawed human beings (but who among us is not?) yet strangely drawn to (and more or less good at) the work that loathsome place requires of them. He locates their humanity, in other words. We may not want to hang out with some (most?) of them, but we end up acknowledging and maybe even respecting them as we say, yes, I'm glad it's not me, but someone has to do this work. But then again, that is the notion of Service in a nutshell. I'd argue that that's not just thought-provoking but ultimately life-affirming. At its best, literature should get us to really think about ourselves and others, to the point that, in Harold Bloom's formulation, it should make the world look strange. The Pale King is not a great novel, but I'd argue that it does that work, at least for me.
What follows is some commentary on how I think this fits with Wallace's prior work.
Systems (most of them) are not evil, but they ARE necessary, whether or not we like that fact (or them). The ones that really matter, such as the IRS (in The Pale King), or entertainment culture (see Infinite Jest) are meant to serve some need we have (and yes, amusement, in the case of entertainment, is a need). I think, early on, Wallace feared Systems, like all good, thoughtful young people (and postmodernists) do, as infringements on Freedom: Beneath the hysterically-funny surface of his 100-page essay on a week-long cruise, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (absolutely essential reading, by the way), there's a serious question lurking: Do we REALLY want to submit ourselves to a System whose sole purpose is make sure we have no needs (or desires, for that matter) unmet whatsoever, often without even asking or being asked whether we have needs? His meditation on the cruise's promotional material's recurring word "pamper" is a case in point--the only other time when all of us now alive had absolutely all our needs met automatically and without our thinking about it was when we were in the womb; and while being in utero is certainly a version of the human condition, is it, finally, the most fulfilling version we know or can imagine?
The usual postmodern move is to make the case that, if a System wrongs us, those who maintain that System are also monsters, and those of us who participate in it must be, ipso facto, unthinking dupes or sheep. But in his Kenyon College commencement address (also essential reading) and, I think, in The Pale King, Wallace proposes something subtler: these Systems exist, and work at their best, when they serve not just their maintainers but their participants--however imperfectly, all benefit when the System works. It's our responsibility to be just as attentive when the System works as it should as when it doesn't--or, in the case of the IRS, to think about our relation to it and about the people employed by it at times other than tax season. To deny or not actively consider other people's humanity in favor of our own is, for Wallace, at least a social sin, if not something more metaphysical.
In his close, thoughtful attention even (and especially) to the ordinary, mundane things and people of the world he comes into contact with and finding something special, even revelatory, in them, Wallace resembles no one so much as he does Thoreau in Walden. Like Thoreau in his call that we live deliberately before, at our death, realizing that we had not lived, Wallace at his best is the writer-as-public-servant, and I think that as he approached middle age he was finding his voice in that role. THAT is the loss I feel most deeply as I think about his death: in more ways than one, his work was unfinished.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A more mature, balanced work than its notorious predecessor,
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Uneven Yet Satisfying Read,Infinite Jest. The truth is that we will never know exactly how it would have met his professional standards, which means that the book as it exists must be seen exactly as it is. To do otherwise would render it moot, which would not be fair to its editor, Michael Pietsch. Without his constructive work, this novel would not exist in any form whatsoever, and he deserves a great deal of credit for this labor of love and respect.
The chapters that appear more refined are those replete with Wallace's signature footnotes, and these are the more hauntingly personal fragments of The Pale King. In other chapters, we see hints of what might have been and even these show elements of the quotidian pathos central to the theme and setting of the novel: the intersecting lives of lower grade IRS workers and managers co-existing in Peoria, Illinois during the Spring of 1985. Beyond the surface attempt to explore organizational change and the resistance to same within this microcosm of the IRS, elements central to Wallace's work--i.e.: drug abuse, clinical depression, existential dread seething under the veneer of banality--flicker as shadows within these pages.
The biggest surprise of The Pale King is the inclusion of David Wallace as a character, whose presence at the Peoria Training Center results in a decidedly Kafkaesque nightmare. Thanks to the additional Notes and Asides that Pietsch includes towards the end of this novel, it is possible to see where Wallace could have taken these themes had he finished this novel. Those chapters which the author had been able to shape into being exhibit a seamless melding of memoir and fiction that makes it difficult to see just how transparent these elements are. One cannot fault the editor for being unable to think like Wallace--who could, after all? According to Pietsch, "In several notes to himself, David referred to the novel as `tornadic' or having a `tornado feeling'--suggesting pieces of story coming at the reader in a high-speed swirl." Had any other person been able to match his intent, there could be more of this intended `swept away' feeling rather than the more conventional narrative as it exists. Having said this, it becomes clear why this novel is such an uneven work in the first place. It can't help but be.
For what it is, though, it seems more akin to Wallace's unrefined Id. In this respect, The Pale King offers a glimpse into what might be considered his true natural state of thinking. This is not a terrible thing, really. Indeed, it offers the reader a more compassionate glimpse into an author whose battles with depression became too much to bear. While the Editor's Note makes no mention of Wallace's 2008 suicide, the assumption is that readers will be aware of this fact and there is no need for Pietsch to belabor it further. This may be a blessing for the cognoscenti, but a mystery to the uninitiated reader. Suffice to say that for many who loved and respected Wallace, his sudden death was a tragedy. There are certainly hints regarding his eventual plans within the text--in Chapter 24, he curtly mentions "Durkeim's theories of suicide" as if it signifies nothing at all.
The intent of this review is not to psychoanalyze the late author, but rather to humanize and perhaps destigmatize what seems incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the reality of clinical depression. Rather than put it into anyone else's words, the best one to describe how David Foster Wallace felt was the author himself. There are plenty of such unpolished moments within The Pale King` such as within Chapter 46. Wallace uses this chapter's dialogue between Shane Drinion and Meredith Rand as a means to express to readers what the reality is for someone living with depression to describe the condition to those who will never fully understand its personal impact. (As is the case with much of his fiction, Wallace inserts portions of himself into all of his significant characters, and GS-10 Rand is no exception to this literary M.O.) Drinion's conversational and physical mannerisms appear reptilian in nature, which elicits frustration from Rand as she relates her experiences at the psychiatric hospital where she met her husband. However, it's not easy to determine how much of Rand's characterization is based on Wallace and how much is based on those whom he met during his life. The reader's inability to figure this out is a testament to the author's ability to fit within the skin of others, thus weaving a realistic narrative.
Other parts of the book could have been less compelling to read, such as the seemingly interminable descriptions of IRS standard operational procedures, or a training session in which David Cusk sweats profusely and anxiously fantasizes about a mysterious female behind him based solely upon the sound of her legs crossing and shifting and the scent of her perfume and leather accessories. Those humanistic qualities folded into mind-numbingly dull information are what prevent The Pale King from being yet another Pynchon meme of post-postmodern proportions. In fact, there might be a need for a new category altogether in order to fully describe Wallace's narrative style without the use of -esque. Hyperrealism, perhaps, might be the best word to describe the work of David Foster Wallace. It certainly describes The Pale King in its only reasonable and accessible form.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Sometimes what's important is dull. Sometimes it's work.",
With no knowledge of accounting and little of taxes, I learned a lot about both. Wallace includes plenty of expository detail in a deft manner, difficult when it's discussed (as is mentioned in a telling footnote) by characters who deal with its minutiae every boring day. The parking lot at the Peoria center, the confusion of the two David Wallaces in the bureaucratic snafu, and the Midwestern sunrise that comes like a light switched on with ten degrees increase at once: such scenes enliven the plot.
Two characters stand out, signs of how the novel if completed might have succeeded if they had been allowed to develop more. Toni Ware's coming of age in a trailer-park hell, told in a faintly archaic, British style of prose, sears. Likewise, Leonard Stecyk's cringeworthy do-goodism early on segues into a dramatic voc-ed scene which the author handles masterfully to enrich this difficult character. Wallace does not flinch from the challenges of constructing the novel, and his notes let us in on the process in a less-preening, more informative manner than post-modern authors often assume.
I transcribe a few passages that reveal the potential novel of ideas that underlies the storyline of many characters and different perspectives. The story is surprisingly coherent in its assemblage, and the brief notes Wallace left about the shape of its foreshortened arc shows the control he had over it.
Chapter 19 is masterful as it maps out, with Glendenning as the titular figure involved in a three-way conversation about the transition of the IRS from an ethical purpose--to run the country fairly by requiring all to contribute their fair share--to a profitable entity which seeks to maximize revenue by monitoring with newfangled (as of circa 1984) technology designed to minimize human and maximize computer scrutiny of "noncompliant" returns from those audited who will pay more in penalties to please a Reagan-era shift in tax laws and loopholes and income and power-shifting.
"'Sometimes what's important is dull. Sometimes it's work. Sometimes the important things aren't works of art for your entertainment.'" (138) This speaks for the novel's serious intentions.
A few pages later, in a prescient passage worthy of far more quoting, this key chapter predicts what not only Bush-Reagan represents for our current state of the nation no matter who's in charge. For, we elect "a symbolic Rebel against his own power whose election was underwritten by inhuman soulless profit-machines whose takeover of American civic and spiritual life will convince Americans that rebellion against the soulless humanity of corporate life will consist in buying products from corporations that do the best job of representing corporate life as empty and soulless. We'll have a tyranny of conformist nonconformity presided over by a symbolic outsider whose very 'election' depended on our deep conviction that his persona is utter [b---s---]. A rule of image, which because it's so empty it makes one terrified--they're small and going to die, after all--'" (149)
Further on, "Wallace" wonders whether "real memory is fragmentary; I think it's also that overall relevance and meaning are conceptual, while the experiential bits that get locked down and are easiest, years later, to retrieve tend to be sensory. We live in bodies, after all." (289) Wallace evokes the predicament of entrapment in an office, a job, a routine that snags many of us, and his own vision darkens, as does that of a nation as it shifts, mid-1980s, from producing to consuming things. What comforts or torments some, as in Toni and Leonard and the narrative Wallace's cases, are memories.
While being "immune to boredom" is an essential condition for one's success in a bureaucracy (and the happy hour conversation between Meredith Bond and Shane Drinion wears on me as it did on them), and while a bureaucracy famously represents a daily challenge in representing these states of mind and body and spirit for many of us "TPs," Wallace keeps the humanity in the dialogue and monologue. He means to plunge into reality at (near-)modern work, and few novels dare to do this well. He does not opt for mockery, but a more nuanced, reflective humor that leavens the serious message. Immersion in the moment, suspended like the massive clock's hand, symbolizes our response to our choice or our fate.
(P.S. One persistent if minor mistake if I may mention it, given the draft state: Jesuits do not staff the Catholic university of DePaul, which by its name derives from St. Vincent, and it was founded by Vincentian priests.)
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and gutsy work,
Readers of Wallace's previous works will know that reading him is difficult. He largely ignored the basic building blocks of fiction, like linear plot and rhythm. He often wrote in long, multi-clause sentences, about mundane things. And The Pale King sticks mostly to form.
The novel is about a group of IRS `wigglers', the agents who give a tax return its first look. It's set in the mid 80's, when Reagan-era tax reform resulted in massive changes to the code and a power struggle at the agency. The plot, such as it is, is about competing groups within the agency: the old-guard who sees tax collection as a matter of `self-righteousness' and pride in the patriotic hard work that goes into it; and the new guard, who want to run the agency like a business and focus on revenue-maximization.
Of course, this plot never resolves, either because the work is unfinished or because it wasn't Wallace's primary goal. His primary goal was to show us the boredom and tedium of the job as a proxy for the boredom and tedium of life. This was a major concern of his, getting us out of our comfortable but unconscious minds and into a life of full presence and compassion. (His book, This is Water, is a reprint of his 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon college in which this was the major theme.) And he does this by taking us into the world of these agents, showing us the ennui of their work and lives, and then pulling us back out before we get swallowed up and bored ourselves. (I assume that was the plan anyway.) This is a risky undertaking, and Wallace was probably the only writer who would have tried it and the only writer who could pull it off. (Maybe with the exception of Franzen.)
For example, here's a snippet from one thankfully short chapter: "Howard Cardwell turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page. "Groovy" Bruce Channing attaches a form to a file. Ann Williams turns a page." And so on. But then he writes a long, beautifully-written chapter relating the death of one agent's father and we're captivated. Much of the book's tension comes from this push and pull between tedium and beauty. One chapter will leave you scratching your head and the next will leave you in awe.
There's also irony and humor in great abundance, two other hallmarks of Wallace's writing. He inserts a character who happens to be named David Wallace, though not meant to be the author, and not content with that, he pushes the joke further by only using his trademark footnotes in those chapters. He turns a Greyhound and shuttle bus ride into a hysterical reading experience. A 50-plus page dialogue between a beautiful female and male co-worker keeps us engaged that long mostly because of the painfully funny tension Wallace creates from the male character's shy and almost autistic manner of conversation.
As with any book, there are flaws. Almost all the characters are male and sound very similar to the author himself. The novel isn't complete and probably isn't in the form the author intended it to be read, so there will always be doubts about its structure. And this is a messy, challenging read, so is only for anyone willing to be patient with it-- probably, unfortunately, a small segment of the population.
But this is a work that deserves attention. What Wallace was trying to do was both gutsy and brilliant. It's no wonder he hadn't finished even after ten years. There are very few authors who challenge their readers the way Wallace did. And probably none who challenged them to the extent he did. His death was a major loss.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rewarding read from a writer who will be missed,
However, enough of the philosophizing. Is "The Pale King" worth reading? If you have read and enjoyed Wallace's work in the past, the answer is "yes." "The Pale King" has memorable characters, laugh-out-loud moments, wonderful phrasing, and situations portrayed with such truth you can't help but nod your head in recognition. This is a book about boredom, however, so be prepared for some (intentionally) mind-numbingly dull passages. The reader must keep in mind also that it is an unfinished work and it is impossible to know just what changes Wallace would have made to the final manuscript. The ending is quite abrupt, and, as might be expected, is not really an ending in the accepted sense at all. However, the editor does include a selection of Wallace's notes detailing his thoughts on characters and events, which I found really interesting. So, if you are a Wallace fan already, dig in. Hopefully you will find it as rewarding as I did. If you are new to Wallace, I would recommend starting with his short stories or essays. David Foster Wallace was a unique writer, and his voice will be missed.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An unfinished life,
It is true that The Pale King is about the IRS and the people who work for it and the people who it affects: Tax payers and tax avoiders; and there is a lot here on that and those subjects. That is one reason you should read it--to be informed. But more than that are the big ideas, or themes, that are constants in his writings': 1) That it is the doing of the thing that matters and not the goal; 2) Life as meaningless tedium; 3) The absence of love and understanding and compassion that permeates life's relationships; 4) The contrast and connection of pleasure and pain and the linkage between approaching and avoiding and the inept ways people deal with those unavoidable intrusions into existence. In other words, the interaction between persons as individuals with each other and the world those personalities' create.
In The Pale King Wallace wrestles with words that shape the way we think. Words such as: Interesting; Meaningful; Boredom; and Attraction. And attributes such as Beauty and Brains and how they affect personality. The importance of naming things. (Calling phenomena what it is - is important. After all, a Thing is what it is and not something else.) Despite his great vocabulary and manipulation of words Wallace seems to be inadequate at that, and that might well have been his undoing--confusion as to just what was going on - here in this world. He laments through out the novel the failure of people to understand others (Himself, likely - as all characters seem to be facets of himself. as was the case also in Infinite Jest.) But no one explores these intricacies of interpersonal and intra-psychic phenomena better than Wallace. There is a chapter (66 pages) of a conversation in a bar between a `hyper-attractive woman and an emotionless, affectless man--"Mr. Excitement," that is worth the cost of the book all by itself. Other outstanding chapters are an autobiographical sketch of an agent (David Wallace himself) on how he came to be in the employ of the IRS (101 pages.) There is a chapter of higher-ups in the Service discussing the merits of taxes and tax collection (19 pages.) There is a chapter that contains simply six lines of dialogue. Then there is a chapter that appeared in The New Yorker Magazine as a stand-alone short story, which is where it belongs. Its relevance (another word Wallace examines) to this story eludes me - other than it relates to DFW's major themes. And so on. The Pale King is an unfinished novel, but so was Jest. Wallace's was an unfinished life. But then, that can be said for most people, I suppose. Think/believe reincarnation.
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The Pale King by David Foster Wallace