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on April 4, 2011
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 the here and now, with billions of details crashing through our fields of perception? For that reason, although always dark, his work shimmers with a kind of graceful light. He was a philosophical novelist in the way the great nineteenth century Russians were. He couldn't hide the fact that he loved people, and he loved teasing out the unique predicaments that people encounter by just being people who love things and hate things and want things and enjoy things and grow tired and jealous and bored.

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.
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on May 13, 2011
I'm going to start off by saying that this book made for one of the most frustrating reading experiences of my entire life. Before even considering reading TPK, know this: it is grossly, grossly unfinished. Wallace fictions are never a walk in the park. They usually never seem to "come together" the way most stories do. That's just not who Wallace was as a writer. Despite this, the amount of narrative threads that just sort of trail off and the almost total lack of anything even resembling a gesture towards a plot is a bit much, even for DFW. One gets the sense that we are reading nothing close to the completed Pale King we would've gotten had Wallace not eliminated his own map.

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.
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on June 2, 2011
. . . 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 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.
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on April 4, 2011
DFW relates in his notes on The Pale King: "Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens."

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).
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on June 8, 2011
Probably everyone reading this review is aware that the author, David Foster Wallace, took his own life in 2008, and that "The Pale King" is an unfinished work. It was impossible for me as a reader to keep thoughts of Wallace's suicide far from my mind. There's something inexpressibly sad about someone with such gifts suffering so much mental anguish that death somehow became preferable to life. But, as trite as it may sound, no-one can every truly know or understand what is going on inside another person's mind, and in that sense we are all of us alone.

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.
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on February 15, 2012
In spite of it being cobbled together by someone else and being 'incomplete' (a label that technically also applies to his two other novels) the Pale King is my favorite of Wallace's novels. Gone are the delirious, syntactical pyrotechnics which made Broom of the System and Infinite Jest such vertiginous, linguistical tidal waves, which is not to say that the prose in The Pale King is a cake walk, but that it feels more disciplined, and better tailored to what the book is about. Namely, boredom. Especially boredom as it's filtered through an institution as monolithically boring as the IRS. What Wallace did for recreational drugs, AA and video art in Infinite Jest he does equally well for tax auditors, accountants and 1099 forms; he throws you into their wonkish little world of technical minutia and not only manages to make it almost comprehensible (and at times, somehow compelling) but also shows what such a staid, endlessly bland institution really says about being a modern human, about our deep need to create meaning, maybe even a sort of beauty, out of years of thankless, numbing repetition. He creates a sort of metaphysics of bureaucratic boredom the same way that Thomas Pynchon creates a metaphysics of paranoia, by pulling back the lid on something we tend to ignore and loathe (come on, whether you feel morally obligated or not, who really enjoys paying taxes?) and treating it with a dignity and respect that few people would ever think for a nano-second it actually deserves. It's far less sexy and hip than the world of psychotropic drugs and video art he conjures up so richly in Infinite Jest. It's also far more real (whose never been bored?), and, arguably, far more important. Also, the Pale King contains what has to be one of if not the single funniest 'author forwards' ever written. It kills. I mean it literally kills. It's nine chapters in, naturally.
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on August 24, 2012
"An Unfinished Novel," reads the subscript. I've read more or less the complete Wallace canon, his interviews, his books' reviews--One of which reviews gave such a novel the highest praise. And it does deserve accolade, but not for a novel's typical reasons. To begin, the fragmented structure is immediately apparent. What's primarily disorienting about it is that Wallace's finished work often had the same fragmented form, such that the reader may be falsely impressed with the notion that the work is more finished than it truly is. Because surely there is much worthy of publication in this book, the real Wallace on display in all his glorious verbosity and obsessive eye for detail. It has in many ways the depth of his opus "Infinite Jest," which--please note--was qualified by DFW himself as primarily a character study. This is the immense, intimidating strength of all his work. It is establishment of character by accretion of detail, it is coloring the reader's perception, at which he is astonishingly adept.

The problem, though, is that there is little thrust beyond the characters and thoughts themselves. The modifier "unfinished" starts to throw its weight. There is despair, humor, there is passionate intelligence, but there is no impetus to push the reader along as in his previous two novels. Like "IJ" it is a staggering Jenga tower of ideas and impressions. Unlike "IJ", it is always just short of coherence.

I posit that the label of a novel is in this case even slightly misleading. Read as a series of stories, this is an immensely fulfilling and thought-provoking book at times. The problem is that there's too much structure for simply a series of shorts, and not enough for a coherent novel. Whether there was ever meant to be a plot is rather a different question.

In all of his writing Wallace sought communication with the reader, and one can spot certain author-mouthpiece characters in each of his works. Communication, relation, the exchange of ideas, this was his primary goal. There are certain things, about boredom and the human condition and the relation of each to the other, he was indisputably getting across to the reader, however disjointed, and in this respect the work is a success.


Do not expect this novel to be a novel. Expect an amorphous romp through the mind of a solitary man. It will raise your awareness of things you'd never imagined. Enjoy the writing for what it is. Extract what you can. Think about it, and think about yourself thinking about it. The book after all is meant to be a reflection of humanity.
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on February 11, 2013
It would be unfair to assess David Foster Wallace's The Pale King as a work equal to his earlier novel, 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.
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on October 24, 2011
Indeed an impossible book to review. The fact that this is an unfinished work is both its appeal and its downfall. The purity of David Foster Wallace is starkly evident throughout but one constantly contemplates how this would have turned out had he had final sway. The paradoxes abound here and seem to dwarf the intended story completely. I feel both guilty and intrigued reading this...almost as if I've discovered this in-progress work myself. His voice is classically brilliant at times; at others it's clear that further development was necessary. What's presented here, alas, is a Hendrix-ian final effort, left to the imagination as to the brilliance of what this could have been.

What we do posses, however, is a monumental and loving work by Wallace's editor Michael Pietsch. Contacted by David's widow Karen Green and his agent Bonnie Nadell upon discovering the remnants of this work following his 2008 suicide, Pietsch took this material and formed what we're reading today. Of anyone alive today, Pietsch is perhaps most familiar with Wallace's fractured narrative style and the format of this work fits that mold as best as the material would allow. Religiously avoiding changes to any of the wording or content, Pietsch attempted, using left behind notes and, importantly, intimate conversations with DFW himself, to construct the vision of those conversations.

David clearly was interested in conveying the unending boredom associated with working at the IRS and the tedium of unraveling the ever changing tax system. Having completed a mountain of research to the extent that he seemed explicitly conversant in that language, he then constructed a story whereby he implants himself (fictionally) as a low level worker in an Illinois IRS office and lets himself go. Now with an educated David Wallace armed with knowledge of intricate tax code information, one can surmise what he'd be able to do with that...and as this story was being formed, we get classic Wallace: humor, cynicism, intellect, wordiness, otherworldly observations and the always ubiquitous footnotes. Again, depending on the point of development, these extracts are brilliant or seemingly becomes almost obsessive to the reader to wonder how this book would have turned out.

The fact that there isn't a conventional ending isn't is an unfinished work after all. What is important or shall I say disheartening is that as the book tails off, it's with the realization that there will not be any more lobster fests, no more tennis academies, no more cruise ships...etc. What's published is all we have. So I give this book five stars, perhaps unfairly and biased, because it certainly does convey David Wallace at his best. Admittedly disjointed and at times unconnected, The Pale King is nevertheless a strong enough vehicle to carry the DFW myth and, more importantly, earns enough literary points to garner the title `a good read.'
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on September 5, 2012
David Foster Wallace's posthumously published unfinished novel is better in every way than the polished work of most writers. Bad news for aspiring novelists, as famously evidenced by the ambivalence of some of his contemporaries; good news for readers. If you're a fan of his work you don't need me to tell you to get this but let me say in case you were wondering since it's unfinished- this isn't an attempt to cash in on his reputation, it's a thoughtful attempt to make his last work available and it's well worth a read. And a re-read. That last is why I thought to punch in a quick review.
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