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The Pale King Paperback – April 10, 2012
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"Feverishly encompassing, sharply comedic, and haunting...this is not a novel of defeat but, rather, of oddly heroic persistence....electrifying in its portrayal of individuals seeking unlikely refuge in a vast, absurd bureaucracy. In the spirit of Borges, Gaddis, and Terry Gilliam's Brazil, Wallace conducts a commanding and ingenious inquiry into monumental boredom, sorrow, the deception of appearances, and the redeeming if elusive truth that any endeavor, however tedious, however impossible, can become a conduit to enlightenment.'"―Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
About the Author
Wallace taught creative writing at Emerson College, Illinois State University, and Pomona College, and published the story collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion, the essay collections A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and Consider the Lobster. He was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and a Whiting Writers' Award, and was appointed to the Usage Panel for The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. He died in 2008. His last novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011.
- Publisher : Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (April 10, 2012)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 592 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0316074225
- ISBN-13 : 978-0316074223
- Item Weight : 1.35 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.2 x 1.8 x 9.35 inches
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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"To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it's because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that's where phrases like 'deadly dull' or 'excruciatingly dull' come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that's dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that's always there, if only in an ambient, low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention."
The Pale King is comprised of a series of anecdotes about employees at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois. It's disjointed and unfinished, with not a whole lot of narrative cohesion. In some ways, it's an interesting companion piece to Infinite Jest: where Infinite Jest focuses on the problems of a modern American culture saturated in mind-numbing entertainment and distraction, The Pale King offers somewhat of a solution to living a meaningful life within this reality.
If you've ever read or listened to Wallace's commencement speech, "This Is Water," it's sort of a hyper-condensed version of the solution offered in The Pale King. We're each tasked with constructing meaning out of experience and choosing what and how we pay attention to the world around us. What Wallace seems to be suggesting is that we must have the self-discipline to deliberately endure the inevitable tedium and dullness of day-to-day adult life without succumbing to endless distraction.
"The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you can't accomplish."
Wallace loved playing around with form, and The Pale King is a testament to this. It's a book about boredom and dullness, and so Wallace made it intentionally boring and dull. There are entire chapters dedicated to IRS codes. There's 50+ pages of a man showing up for his first day of work. And yet there's such brilliance within these pages. Take, for example, the beautiful phrase "every love story is a ghost story" sandwiched arbitrarily in between dozens of sentences about IRS agents turning pages. Or the chapter-long anecdote about a little boy whose goal "was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body"—a passage that will haunt me for the rest of my life. The novel itself proves Wallace's point: that if you discipline yourself to pay attention and endure tedium, you will be deeply rewarded.
"Almost everything you pay close direct attention to becomes interesting," says one character, Wallace's equivalent of a modern-day hero, toward the end of the book. We live in an age where we're constantly bombarded with information, entertainment and stimuli. If, as Wallace suggests, "almost everything" has the potential to be interesting, this is even further incentive to make smart, disciplined choices about where we direct our attention.
I highly recommend this book for fans of David Foster Wallace who want further insight into where his mind was at in the later part of his life.
It pains me to contemplate what THE PALE KING could have been had DFW not committed suicide September 12, 2008 at age 46. There is some indication it would have rivaled INFINITE JEST, his 1000-page masterwork. As it is, THE PALE KING is a 538-page patchwork of episodes revealing that DFW brilliance, pieced together from notes, finished chapters, and fragments by his editor, Michael Pietsch. My first reflex on Goodreads was to give this a rating of 4-out-of-5 stars -- I know, I feel foolish even rating literary works like this on some arbitrary scale, but I do anyway, feel foolish, I mean -- since it doesn’t really hold up as a novel in the traditional sense, due partly, I’m sure to its unfinished nature. However, as a patchwork of scenes, character sketches, stories, asides -- footnotes even! -- THE PALE KING is brilliant writing. So 5-stars it must be.
The themes of boredom, loneliness, addiction are woven heavily into INFINITE JEST, and now into THE PALE KING. For those who know something about the author, it’s natural to read reverberations of DFW’s life in those themes, which, while legitimate or not, add another deeper layer onto THE PALE KING.
THE PALE KING is about boredom, and it revolves around a cast of IRS agents at the Regional Examination Center -- REC, for short -- in Peoria, Illinois. It is work so tedious and repetitive that boredom survival training is provided as part of the job. What sort of personality type would willingly submit to day after day of such mind-numbing, soul-tormenting tedium? Ah, this is the interesting cast of characters DFW has assembled for us in THE PALE KING: Shane ‘Mr. X’ (short for, sarcastically, Mr. Excitement) Drinion, who levitates from his chair when in full concentration mode over a particularly complex return; Claude Sylvanshine, GS-9, a ‘fact psychic’ ; Frederick Blumquist, dead at his tax examiner’s desk for four days before anyone noticed; Director of the Midwest REC, DeWitt Glendenning; Leonard Stecyk, who gives out National Zip Code Directories door to door as tokens of greetings to his new neighbors -- there are many more.
THE PALE KING is very funny, darkly funny. Where DFW was going to take THE PALE KING is anyone’s guess. In a short two-page chapter 44, one of the characters sums it all up: The underlying bureaucratic key [to survival] is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable... It is the key to modern life. If you are immune from boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish. 
Still, whole sections are vintage, brilliant David Foster Wallace. Check out the long chapter (#46) toward the end of the novel describing the Pod C's revenue officers one Friday at leisure with their cocktails ('necessary to blow off some of the unvented steam that's accreted during a week of extreme tedium and concentration, or extreme volume and stress, or both') during the one hour Happy Hour at Meibeyer's (most of the revenue officers leave when the H2 discounts end), but the 'wrist-bitingly beautiful' (married) Meredith Rand stays on to chat up a new cohort, the enigmatic, inscrutable Shane ("Mr. X") Drinion in a tete-a-tete, which she begins by saying, "You know, if you want to know the truth, you kind of interest me" and which gradually opens into a heart-breaking, slow-moving, intimate encounter.
Top reviews from other countries
I found the comedic moments particularly powerful. See paperback pages 352-356 (disgustingly but hilariously described) and pages 524-525 pig Latin dialogue:
'Atiencepay, Aylortay. Onay uttingcay etyay.'
'You think I don't speak Latin?'
'Sir, I'm pleased you speak Latin.'
"Everyone conducts a rapid unconscious scan of each social sense object they encounter. Some scans' big concern involved fear and the threat-potential of each new datum; others' involved sexual potential, revenue potential, aesthetic grade, status indicators, power, and/or susceptibility to domination. Toni Ware's scans, ...were concerned entirely with whether the object could be affected." (p 513).
DFW was a uniquely insightful person.
My sense is that probably 70-80% of the novel was completed but there is clearly considerable uncertainty about the final structure and for this reason the novel is perhaps best approached initially as a series of short stories with a strong unifying theme: the activities of a group of employees of the US Internal Revenue Service in the mid 1980s when the organisation was undergoing some radical reorganisation.
The novel is at least to some extent autobiographical; Wallace apparently worked for the IRS for a year or so during the period when the novel is set. Chapter 9 is a strange `Authors Forward' in which DFW addresses the reader directly and states that the `characters and events are fictitious' disclaimer at the front of the book is completely misleading and that in fact everything is true. He then goes into a lengthy discourse about discussions with his publisher's lawyers, the obtaining of legal releases from some of his former colleagues featured in the book (plus the refusal of one of his family members to give such a release) and the extent to which autobiography can be truly accurate when filtered through memory and the writer's subjectivity etc. This all has the ring of truth but to what extent this is DFW throwing red herrings to his reader is hard to guess.
The book itself consists of 50 chapters of greatly varying length and no clear narrative structure connecting one chapter with the next; events do unfold through the novel however via the activities of the people in the group but the reader has to be very alert to the allusive character of the work.
DFW chose to set the novel largely at an IRS `Examination Centre' where employees are tasked with sifting through hundreds of tax returns that have been flagged up by a primitive computer system as possibly containing discrepancies indicative of underpayment; the work is unremittingly tedious while at the same time requiring a continuous high level of concentration and alertness in order to do it well - a production line without the option of switching off one's brain.
The main theme of the novel is around the people who have submitted themselves to this work regime, their individual characteristics and the way they approach the work and interact with each other. Many of the players have unusual personalities with several having strange and magical talents: Chris Fogle's ability to track the exact number of words he has spoken at any point during a conversation; Sylvanshine's unconscious acquisition of random facts about people in his vicinity (two colleagues unknowingly related `through a liaison five generations ago in Utrecht') and Drinion, a high-functioning autistic, gradually levitating from his chair during a lengthy and intense conversation with Meredith Rand, the office beauty. All this leavens long passages describing in comprehensive detail the inner workings of the IRS bureaucracy in DFW's meticulous and rather addictive prose (plus footnotes). Many chapters are in the first person where the speaker is not explicitly identified; the reader had to pick up clues and cross-correlate information from other chapters to fully work out what is going on.
This book will undoubtedly be compared with `Infinite Jest'; `Pale King' has a similar convoluted structure but is much more circumscribed in its theme. It is also a darker work with none of the big set comic pieces which intersperse `Infinite Jest' though not without a lot of black humour. Above all, DFW's writing is a huge pleasure to read and the novel has a great degree of empathy with its characters. Not perhaps the best novel for newcomers to DFW but definitely recommended for fans.
L'edizione è economica, ma ben fatta.