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David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, in 1962 and was raised in Illinois. His bibliography includes novels The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, story collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion, and the essay collections A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and Consider the Lobster.


"Deeply sad, deeply philosophical . . . By turns breathtakingly brilliant and stupefying dull -- funny, maddening and elegiac...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

"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. . . . achingly funny . . pants-pissingly hilarious."

– Publishers Weekly

"One of the saddest and 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."

– Benjamin Alsup



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The Pale King

David Wallace Disappears 100 Pages In


“David was a perfectionist of the highest order, and there is no question that The Pale King would be vastly different had he survived to finish it.”

-  Michael Pietsch in the Editor’s Note for The Pale King

People die, even when they are in the middle of something important. And not only did David Foster Wallace write himself out of his own life, he wrote himself out of The Pale King, his last unfinished novel. David Wallace himself appears as a character in the densely populated IRS Center in Peoria where the majority of the book takes place, but David Wallace the writer had no intention of seeing his own story through to the end. Pages of his notes accompany The Pale King, and I found this one to be the most haunting: David Wallace disappears 100 pages in.

I’m not the type of person who is affected by the death of public figures. I understand that no one is exempt, no matter how talented that person may or may not be. But I was sitting in a cubicle at a dead end job, decrying my lack of writing time and my slow ascent up the slip’n’slide of success when his death appeared as a blip on the Internet. I hit the denial phase first and plugged his name into every search engine. Then I got pissed. How could someone so talented give up like that? How could he be so selfish? That’s when I shut down. I stopped working, put my head on my desk and breathed shallowly into the crook of my arm. I didn’t cry. Honestly. I just needed a minute to reassess. He and I had grown close as I read through his books and short stories and essays. Infinite Jest, in particular, had seen me through an extended bout of unemployment. These embarrassing emotions happened over the course of maybe three minutes and in plain view of my co-workers. Turns out I wasn’t sad, though. I was extremely disappointed.

I waited to read The Pale King. Part of me was going on about how busy I was, and I didn’t have time for a 600-page book. But in reality, I didn’t want to be done. When I put this book down, there wasn’t going to be another.  So I didn’t even buy it. I kept looking at it in the bookstore, pulling it up online, reading a few reviews. It wasn’t until the paperback was released that I desperately searched for a first edition hardcopy that I would have gotten if I’d just bought the damn book when it came out in the first place. Sorry everyone, I got it on Amazon.

First I read the editor’s note by Michael Pietsch. Then I read it again. Then again. I read that handful of pages six times before I even looked at the first chapter. I made my wife listen as I read excerpts of Pietsch’s account of assembling The Pale King from all those finished and unfinished pages. All those notes.

The book feels fragmented as a result. I’m confident that you could pick up The Pale King and read any chapter and it would stand alone. In fact, a few of my friends actually read it that way. There is some overlapping and some chapters give backgrounds into later characters, but it’s very much like a series of vignettes with no resolution. The emphasis on no resolution.

The most surprising element is the warmth of the book. There is a real affection, a gentle touch. Gone was the aloof wise-cracker who wrote The Broom of the System. This was a mature, caring creator of real people, even if they still found themselves in ludicrous situations and possessed unworldly abilities. I’ve heard this book described as an exploration of boredom, but I found the book to be alive in a way I hadn’t seen from him before. It was full of insight into human nature. Many times I found myself nodding along when Wallace got something exactly right.

Like this:

"The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, 'What’s wrong?' You say it in a concerned way. He’ll say, 'What do you mean?' You say, 'Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?' And he’ll look stunned and say, 'How did you know?' He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it."

Wallace spends pages describing the traffic patterns in front of the IRS center and the “me first” culture of driving. Entire chapters are devoted to what characters do to stave off the tedium of looking at tax returns. One character in particular is so detached from the repetitive nature of the job that he is visited by the ghost of a previous employee. Another concentrates so intently that he levitates in his chair.  In a section that also appeared in the New Yorker, we learn that one of the men spent the majority of his childhood attempting to kiss every inch of his body. Which of course, took a lot of dedication and concentrated thought. If you like all of your questions answered, this would not be the book for you. But if you’re looking for a meditative look at the redundant minutiae of life, then look no further. We all experience the tedium of the workplace and the small horrors of our advanced society, but no one can portray it more hilariously or with more generosity than David Foster Wallace.

I’m the first to admit that not everything works here. Namely the chapters that are almost exclusively dialogue with no indication as to who is talking. But I truly believe if you’ve never read Wallace before, this is the place to start. Or if you read his previous stuff and he left you cold, give The Pale King a shot. It doesn’t matter if you can keep everyone straight or remember how one person relates to another. It’s worth the price of admission to read the David Wallace chapters, where he interjects as the author to talk about his own (totally bogus) experiences at the IRS center. The bureaucratic foul-ups that propel his first day are some of the funniest stuff I’ve read in years. But I work in an office. I think the first chapter of Something Happened by Joseph Heller is a laugh riot. If I even think about the hacked emails that are sent out in Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris I giggle uncontrollably. The really fun thing about The Pale King is that if you don’t like the chapter you’re on, you’ll probably love the one coming up.

And then it’s over.

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1 Comment

  1. Brian said on 12/01/12 at 6:11 pm Reply

    I’ve always thought of Infinite Jest as being DFW’s “perfect novel,” in that, even where it flags, it points to the ascensions of its possibility. DFW seemed to want to reach for extraordinary limits while at the same time stretching himself in the opposite direction towards the daily, awful human imperfections that fill up our days. He used language that was in one breath intellectually stimulating and with its exhale completely vernacular. If we can think of DFW as someone who made the imperfect perfect, then the ultimate expression of that is Pale King.


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