Book Review: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace – A Posthumous Incomplete Masterpiece

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

I have been a little fascinated with David Foster Wallace since learning of his suicide on the blogosphere several years back. I have already written a little bit about my reading of some of his work and just happened upon The Pale King in the CDG airport on the way to Berlin. Perhaps it was just a funny twist of fate because the English book selection at Relais H in France tends to be something between the abysmal military fiction of Tom Clancy and the insipid modern novels pretending to be literature like the DaVinci Code. So, seeing a book by DFW jumped out at me and I grabbed it immediately in case it was just a mirage. It wasn’t. As opposed to Infinite Jest of which I still haven’t been able to get past the first 50 pages yet, The Pale King grabbed me immediately. I wrote somewhat recently that I was getting a little down thinking of the precipitous drop in reading in general and also about my own problems in having enough concentration to read fiction especially since having kids. Well, somehow, this particular book (540 pages I might add) didn’t let me go.

In a nutshell, The Pale King talks about a myriad of characters that are all employed by the IRS in a Regional Examination Center (or REC) in Peoria, IL back in 1985. There is no plot or storyline, just a jumble of 1st person and 3rd person narratives and several chapters with only dialog. The style varies widely and keeps the reader on his/her toes all the time. At one point the book’s author jumps in on page 69 in §9 in an AUTHOR’s FOREWARD that is doubly or triply ironic. He claims that it is a fictionalized autobiography. I believed this text until I did a little wikipedia/googling and determined in fact that it was purely fiction. So the author was pretending to be the author pretending to write about himself. Kind of that peeling-an-onion effect in fact. There are fascinating pieces of this Foreward, particularly the story that he got the IRS job because he was completing various term papers for cash at university and got caught. He says that he was able to nearly perfectly imitate the style of the fellow student in order to cover the cheating. I found this particularly fascinating because as you read each chapter about the various characters, the voice completely changes and it could almost be written by an entirely different person. This all added an extra realism to this Foreward that was nearly creepy. The triple irony in my mind stems from the additional fact that despite this realism I felt, there are supernatural phenomena in the book (ghosts and levitation) that are fascinatingly uncomfortable to the reader.

Some of the writing is incredibly hilarious. I laughed out loud in particular in §24 as he describes bureaucratic ineptness in excruciatingly funny detail – whether it be the ridiculous traffic problems to get into the employee parking lot of 047 (the IRS building), the lack of sidewalks, the utterly inefficient intake process…each of these reminding me of the infinite times I have thought many of the exact same thoughts sitting in traffic jams, driving through strip malls and parking lots, and having worked for four different companies of which two ginormous IT ones. His view is incredibly sarcastic and yet right on. As a writer, he dives into a depth of detail that adds to the pseudo-realism of the scene but especially heightens the comic effect by being so dead-pan.

Some of the writing is excruciatingly painful. The description of the child in §36 that destroys his own spine in order to kiss every square inch of his body was particularly hard to read. Perhaps I missed it, but I am not even sure which of the employees at the IRS this disturbed childhood refers to. I even rescanned the chapter while I was writing this paragraph but couldn’t find any clues. In any case, the amount of detail of various contortionists through history and the medical detail on the impact of contortion on the spine and on human physical development made me very queasy as I read it. It was extremely well-written and one of the most original texts in the book. The stories of Toni Ware’s childhood and in particular the car accident which took her mother’s life were excellent as well.

Sometimes the writing is pure bureaucratic observation of how folks work together and how managers thing. I thought that the description of Glendenning in §43 was incredibly perceptive. If I may quote a little of DFW here, “Mr. Glendenning could listen to you because he did not suffer from the insecure belief that listening to you and taking you seriously obligated you to him in any way”. If only a few more of managers that I know (and no, David, Bruno, and Adrian, I am not speaking of you if you are reading this) actually understood this. The book has many observations like this, but this one in particular stuck out for me as particularly true.

Perhaps the most enigmatic chapter of The Pale King which captures almost all of the elements above (funny, painful, deep, complex in narrative, intimate) was the Drinion / Rand dialog in chapter §46. Here the gorgeous Meredith Rand divulges her personal story to the seemingly implacable Shane Drinion as he starts to levitate off his barstool. The dialog is very hard to describe (I erased about four sentences before writing this one) as it moves between the immediate situation of the two individuals talking, the subtext of their conversation, and the attention that each one is giving to the other and the perception of that attention. It is as if the dialog happens on about three or four planes simultaneously. At one point the subject of the conversation is the subject of the conversation and leads to this interesting observation: “‘Is liking paying attention the same thing as being interested in somebody?”Well, I would say almost anything you pay close, direct attention to becomes interesting'”. Much of this was like a snake eating his tail or perhaps how the contortionist from §36 would have written. And even more interesting, after about 70 pages, it ends as suddenly as it began. It was a strange, exhilarating read.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Pale King. It is clearly one of the best, most readable works of DFW and I can only imagine what a mess must have been up in his head to have come up with so much twisted detail and have so many original ideas and yet boil it all down to 540 pages of well-researched text. I would bet that the posthumously published version of The Pale King is not all that different from what DFW would have edited together had he not committed suicide in 2007. What a loss for American 21c writing the loss of DFW was.

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About mfinocchiaro

IT Architecture Guru for large PLM software company but dabbling in Web 2.0 and other stuff.
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