Philadelphia Inquirer // The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

My review of David Foster Wallace posthumous, unfinished novel The Pale King ran yesterday (5/29/11) in my hometown Philadelphia Inquirer.

The story lines here never fully converge, but many of them involve the employees of an Internal Revenue Service regional examination center in Peoria, Ill. An editor’s note at the beginning of The Pale King describes the challenging process of turning shopping bags full of manuscript pages into a salable book. Apparently, at the time of his death in 2008, Wallace did not leave behind detailed plans or outlines for the project. That said, the lack of a traditional, linear plot works to the advantage of Wallace’s inimitable style, which combined a maximalist obsession with the intricacies of arcane topics (such as Reagan-era tax codes, as is the case here) with a microscopic or even pointillist ability to examine the subtlest nuances of our ever-shifting attitudes and inner lives. He was willing – or was compelled – to probe the darkest and remote crevices of the human psyche, where few other authors dare to venture.

The Pale King is sure to delight the zealous fan base that made Infinite Jest into an unlikely cult phenomenon. I mean, you try lugging a 1,104-page book around all day in your messenger bag! Wallace was known for his frequent and manic use of footnotes and endnotes, a device that purposely disrupted linear reading by making us flip back and forth and often injected a kind of absurdist humor. Sixty-six pages in, we get to an Author’s Foreword, in which a character named David Wallace insists that he is the real author David Foster Wallace (not to be confused with another David Wallace character here):

Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation.

The risk with these hey-looky-here devices is a kind of cuteness or cleverness that often comes at the expense of nuanced and carefully crafted characters in the traditional sense. But the traditional sense didn’t appear to be Wallace’s primary concern in The Pale King, and one has to admire his ability to make fiction work in fruitful new ways. He effectively expanded the range of what a work of fiction could look like and how it could behave.

While in The Pale King we get – for better and for worse, I must admit – all the so-called po-mo pyrotechnics his readers have come to expect, it also features a number of characters for whom we can’t help rooting. The most memorable among them is probably a schoolboy named Leonard, who is such an overzealous goody-goody that even the authority figures begin to detest him.

My favorite section of the book involves a Jesuit professor attempting, on the last day of an advanced tax course, to impress on his students the value of drudgery:

“To experience commitment as the loss of options, a type of death, the death of childhood’s limitless possibility, of the flattery of choice without duress – this will happen, mark me. . . . True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care – with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world. Just you and the job, at your desk.”

The apparent if not actual tension here between the transcendent and the mundane is vintage David Foster Wallace. The Pale King, like everything he wrote, is prone to long bouts of intense navel-gazing, but his ability to bring the ponderous back down to Earth with a carefully chosen detail or image helps keep his characters and readers grounded in the real (whatever that might be) here and now.

It’s never a good idea to scour the dung heap of fiction for corn kernels of autobiographical insight, not even when a character or two shares the author’s name (especially not then), but it seems to me that in The Pale King (as elsewhere in his oeuvre), Wallace wrote very, very honestly about his own internal fragilities and occasional moments of enlightenment. No American writer has ever known himself better. The Pale King is a novel to savor, to read slowly, to allow to steep in the imagination, to recite aloud to a loved one when the house is quiet. But it’s also terribly sad, reminding us of just how much American letters has lost with his tragic and untimely passing.