Think of the most boring thing you’ve ever endured, something so brain-meltingly dreary that you can barely stand to contemplate it. Like, say, doing your taxes. What if that dreaded annual chore were your entire life? In his strange, entertaining, and not-at-all-boring third novel, David Foster Wallace — who committed suicide in 2008 — wades into the deep waters of crushing dullness, wondering if perseverance in the face of drudgery might just be a sort of heroism. ”Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is….” a character says at one point. ”Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui — these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.”
Published on April 15 (ha-ha), The Pale King loosely follows a bunch of employees in the IRS ’ Midwest ”Regional Examination Center”: their odd backstories, their struggles to navigate maddening complexity, their constant battles with boredom and bureaucracy. Wallace transforms this driest of settings into a vivid alternate IRS universe, full of jargon and lore and elaborately behatted characters, many of them with weird afflictions and/or puzzling supernatural abilities. Wallace revels in the supposed inner workings of this secret world, relishing the mouthfeel of accounting insanity like ”for ruling requests concerning the classification of an organization as a limited partnership where a corporation is the sole general partner, see Rev. Proc. 72-13, 1972-1 CB 735.” You will eventually encounter such lines as ”Lane Dean Jr. with his green rubber pinkie finger sat at his Tingle table in his Chalk’s row in the Rotes Group’s wiggle room” and actually understand every word. The effect is both numbing and, as the book builds, increasingly hilarious.
The Pale King is billed as ”an unfinished novel,” and nobody has a clue what form it would have taken had Wallace lived to complete it. Posthumously assembled by editor Michael Pietsch from a 250-page manuscript left out on a table and a trove of fragments and notes, it reads more like a collection of parts than a cohesive work of fiction. Did Wallace actually envision something more akin to the ambition and sprawl of his last novel, Infinite Jest? The Pale King has little in common with that epic masterpiece and displays only flashes of its jaw-on-the-floor mad genius, but it’s easy to imagine it could eventually have headed in that direction. In a 2009 New Yorker article, Wallace referred to The Pale King as ”The Long Thing,” implying something more mammoth even than Infinite Jest. As published, it’s a relatively snappy 540 pages.
What’s missing? Maybe quite a lot. An appended ”Notes and Asides” section suggests Wallace was still working out even the basic plot, and it’s possible that these bits and pieces are an early sketch that only hints at what he had in mind. Or maybe Wallace really did intend something fragmentary and inscrutable, a more modest book not too different from the published version. But it’s pointless to wonder what could have been: The Pale King is what we have, and while it might not be everything his fans were hoping for, it’s still brilliant and bizarre, another dispatch from Wallace’s overstuffed, troubled, and endlessly fascinating brain. How desperately sad that it’s most likely the last. A?