After the dizzying complexities of a literary behemoth like Infinite Jest, no one would expect a conventional, page-turning experience from David Foster Wallace’s final, posthumously published work, The Pale King.
And indeed, this is not what anyone should expect. It is a work that manages in places to give a feeling that its author had absolutely no awareness of the established concept of a novel, and yet – conversely – to present itself as something akin to the perfect, archetypal example of what a novel could and should be – like discovering Plato’s true form of the novel and finding it to be rather far from its earthly imitations.
The Pale King – Wallace’s final, incomplete novel – incorporates over a decade of work, and it follows the lives of a number of IRS employees in 1980s Illinois: a premise that appears simple enough. Yet, in his own unique style, Wallace presents a plot that seems to encompass very few events, focusing rather on intense psychological exploration and variation.
The close-to-600-page narrative is divided into 50 chapters of varying length and extreme contrasts of subject matter and tone. The overarching work is loosely linked together by a fascination with boredom and the depths of the human psyche in a world where the only thing outside the characters’ heads is sheer tedium. However, each chapter stands very much alone in its own merit, ranging from traumatic childhood stories to the banal day-to-day workings of the IRS. At all times, these are portrayed in profound detail. It is a novel that gives a sense of immediacy throughout, and Wallace even narrates parts of the story through a semi-fictional version of himself, a character who – as explained in the author’s notes – then gets lost in the impersonal system of the IRS, much in the same way as the reader can become lost in The Pale King.
The smorgasbord of writing styles, subject matter and tone does create a novel that is unlikely to appeal to every reader at all times. Still, struggling through certain chapters has its rewards and often such sections’ significance only becomes clear to the reader later on in the novel. For me, The Pale King climaxed spectacularly with the 66-page dialogue between two Service employees in a local bar – a scene that explores everything from light-hearted romance between colleagues to intense psychiatric suffering. Here, Wallace’s uncanny imagining and understanding of the entire scale of human emotion is truly showcased to its full potential.
The Pale King was incomplete at the time of David Foster Wallace’s death in September 2008, leaving the manuscript open to some interpretation. On publishing the novel in April 2012, Penguin took the decision to include four hitherto unpublished scenes, printed after the end of the novel as it previously stood. The first three of these extra scenes are worthy additions, but they add little to the lasting impression of the novel in comparison with the fourth and final scene. The last hurrah for The Pale King presents in great detail a wonderfully Infinite Jest-esque plot among Service employees to defeat those who provide cable television by watching everything that they provide. It was originally not included, since this plot does not appear elsewhere in the manuscript, and it ultimately gives the same sense of an inability to destroy the tedium of human life that is given in the original ending. However, this quasi-alternative ending to The Pale King offers a distinct reminder of the profundity and dark humour of David Foster Wallace’s work, making it – in my opinion – a worthwhile inclusion.
The Pale King is a novel that is elusively difficult to summarise. Somewhat like Joyce’s Ulysses, it can frustrate and infuriate the reader at times with its density and repetition, yet is beautiful and rewarding at others. Although certain chapters were close to perfection, it is most definitely not the perfect novel and I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed every last page. The Pale King is very much an exploration of the human mind rather than a conventional novel and – while one cannot hope to truly understand the author from such a work – it is ultimately a pleasure to shut out any objections and simply rejoice in having the privilege to experience a world of such intelligence.