The Pale King
David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown and Company (2011)
Reviewed by April Sullivan for Reader Views (6/11)
Would a 500+ page book about IRS workers really be able to hold my interest? This is what I thought upon cracking open “The Pale King” by David Foster Wallace. The answer is “Yes!” It was not only interesting, but it was highly entertaining and a great novel.
David Foster Wallace did intensive research for this book, and even included himself as a character, a new IRS recruit, a GS-9 at the Midwest Regional Examination Center in Peoria, IL. His account of the intake system, of the other employees, the detailed descriptions of locations, people, and actions are riveting. The novel jumps scenes with each chapter, but somehow still maintains a flow. Wallace focuses on the tedium and boredom of the IRS post while juxtaposing this with the eccentric nature and weird quirks of the employees. Some chapters go into detailed IRS lingo, almost losing the reader. Other chapters dive into the lives of characters with psychiatric issues ranging from self-mutilation to excessive sweating to catatonic behavior. Not knowing what is coming next entices the reader to push ahead. Each chapter I felt like I was diving under water and holding my breath, only to come up for air at the end, ready to dive back under for the next chapter. And that was hard when chapters ranged anywhere from 1 page to over 60 pages.
The great thing about a novel based on IRS workers is that we are all taxpayers. We all deal with the IRS. We all have a little bit of fear of the IRS. They are this large bureaucratic entity that can strike down and mess up our lives at any time based on numbers we fill out on a form. So reading about the lives of the people involved in this bureaucracy, and reading about the inner workings of the IRS, even though fictional, makes us as readers, have a tiny feeling of a shift of power. We realize these are people, just as screwed up as us, doing a job just as boring – or even more boring – than ours, and that we all make mistakes. Based on the bizarre tales told through Wallace, I was completely intrigued! My plan is to give the book to a friend who is currently working a seasonal job at the IRS to find out if any of this is real.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that it was published after the author’s death. David Foster Wallace’s previous novel “Infinite Jest” was published in 1996. He had not published a novel since then, and when he died in 2008, he had been working for over ten years on “The Pale King.” Although unfinished, friend and previous editor Michael Pietsch was given the daunting task of pulling together this novel from notes and drafts found in Wallace’s office. So the question I ask myself is, “Is an unfinished novel, edited by someone else to a finished state, really that author’s novel?”
While we will never know how David Foster Wallace would have finalized this novel, this version is all we have. So the only options are this, or nothing. And I would rather have this. I think Pietsch did a good job of qualifying the work he pieced together through his “Editor’s Note” at the beginning and the “Notes and Asides” at the end. Having never read any of David Foster Wallace’s previous work I look forward to reading some. His writing is brilliant and we are lucky to have what we do of “The Pale King.”