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The Pale King Hardcover – April 15, 2011
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"One hell of a document and a valiant tribute to the late Wallace.....Stretches of this are nothing short of sublime--the first two chapters are a real put-the-reader-on-notice charging bull blitz, and the David Foster Wallace sections...are tiny masterpieces of that whole self-aware po-mo thing of his that's so heavily imitated.... often achingly funny...pants-pissingly hilarious....Yet, even in its incomplete state...the book is unmistakably a David Foster Wallace affair. You get the sense early on that he's trying to cram the whole world between two covers. As it turns out, that would actually be easier to than what he was up to here, because then you could gloss over the flyover country that this novel fully inhabits, finding, among the wigglers, the essence of our fundamental human struggles."―Publishers Weekly
"The final, beautiful act of an unwilling icon...one of the saddest, most lovely books I've ever read...Let's state this clearly: You should read THE PALE KING.... You'll be [kept up at night] because D.F.W. writes sentences and sometimes whole pages that make you feel like you can't breathe...because again and again he invites you to consider some very heavy things....Through some function of his genius, he causes us to ask these questions of ourselves."―Benjamin Alsup, Esquire
"Deeply sad, deeply philosophical...breathtakingly brilliant...funny, maddening and elegiac...[David Foster Wallace's] most emotionally immediate work...It was in trying to capture the hectic, chaotic reality--and the nuanced, conflicted, ever-mutating thoughts of his characters--that Wallace's synesthetic prose waxed so prolix, his sentences unspooling into tangled skeins of words, replete with qualifying phrases and garrulous footnotes...because in almost everything Wallace wrote, including THE PALE KING, he aimed to use words to lasso and somehow subdue the staggering, multifarious, cacophonous predicament that is modern American life."―Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"The overture to Wallace's unfinished last novel is a rhapsodic evocation of the subtle vibrancy of the midwestern landscape, a flat, wind-scoured place of potentially numbing sameness that is, instead, rife with complex drama....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 (1985), 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, or at least a way station in a world where 'everything is on fire, slow fire.'"―Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
"THE PALE KING represents Wallace's finest work as a novelist...Wallace made a career out of rushing in where other writers feared to tread or wouldn't bother treading. He had an outsize, hypertrophied talent...THE PALE KING is an attempt to stare directly into the blind spot and face what's there...His ability to render the fine finials and fractals and flourishes of a mind acting upon itself, from moment to moment, using only the blunt, numb instruments of language, has few if any equals in American literature..this we see him do at full extension."―Lev Grossman, TIME
"To read THE PALE KING is in part to feel how much Wallace had changed as a writer, compressed and deepened himself...It's easy to make the book sound heavy, but it's often very funny, and not politely funny, either...Contains what's sure to be some of the finest fiction of the year."―John Jeremiah Sullivan, GQ
"A thrilling read, replete with the author's humor, which is oftentimes bawdy and always bitingly smart.... The notion that this book is 'unfinished' should not be given too much weight. The Pale King is, in many ways, quite complete: its core characters are fully drawn, each with a defining tic, trait, or backstory... Moreover, the book is far from incomplete in its handling of a host of themes, most of them the same major issues, applicable to all of us, with which Wallace also grappled in Infinite Jest: unconquerable boredom, the quest for satisfaction in work, the challenge of really knowing other people and the weight of sadness.... The experience to be had from reading The Pale King feels far more weighty and affecting than a nicely wrapped story. Its reach is broad, and its characters stay with you."―Daniel Roberts, National Public Radio
"The four-word takeaway: You should read it!"―New York Magazine
"An astonishment, unfinished not in the way of splintery furniture but in the way of Kafka's Castle or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine ... What's remarkable about The Pale King is its congruity with Wallace's earlier ambitions ... The Pale King treats its central subject--boredom itself--not as a texture (as in Fernando Pessoa), or a symptom (as in Thomas Mann), or an attitude (as in Bret Easton Ellis), but as the leading edge of truths we're desperate to avoid. It is the mirror beneath entertainment's smiley mask, and The Pale King aims to do for it what Moby-Dick did for the whale ... Watching [Foster Wallace] loosed one last time upon the fields of language, we're apt to feel the way he felt at the end of his celebrated essay on Federer at Wimbledon: called to attention, called out of ourselves."―Garth Risk Hallberg, New York Magazine
"Wallace's gift for language, especially argot of all sorts, his magical handling of masses of detail...[these] talents are on display again in The Pale King."―Jeffrey Burke, Bloomberg
About the Author
David Foster Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, in 1962 and raised in Illinois, where he was a regionally ranked junior tennis player. He received bachelor of arts degrees in philosophy and English from Amherst College and wrote what would become his first novel, The Broom of the System, as his senior English thesis. He received a masters of fine arts from University of Arizona in 1987 and briefly pursued graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University. His second novel, Infinite Jest, was published in 1996. 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.
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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.