Book of the week: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Large swaths of The Pale King contain some of Wallace's finest work, on par with his landmark novel, Infinite Jest.

(Little, Brown, $28)

The IRS’s faceless bureaucrats have found their James Joyce, said Lev Grossman in Time. David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008 before finishing this novel, had wished to confront “those parts of life that are massively, spectacularly dull.” In the routines of the tax-return examiners he depicts here, he certainly hit his mark. Wallace doesn’t satirize his paper pushers: He’s made them into heroic figures “engaged in a silent war” against “soul-flattening boredom.” As in his landmark 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, there’s “very little resembling an overarching narrative” in the 580 pages Wallace’s editor has pieced together from the chapters and fragments that the author left behind. Yet despite this book’s “shattered state,” it “represents Wallace’s finest work as a novelist.”

The Pale King is actually “impossible to review,” said Sam Anderson in The New York Times. Because you’re aware at all times that Wallace never finished it, “you adore what’s good” and “forgive what’s less good.” That said, large swaths of the book are “full-on Infinite Jest–level great.” The first 150 pages “contain an amazing range of tones, voices, subject matter, and forms,” taking us from the internal monologue of an IRS agent named Claude Sylvanshine to an “empathetic portrait of a Christian couple considering an abortion.” As it delves into the personal history of each employee in its regional IRS office, the book is often very much about accounting—about “how the primal urge of taking stock insinuates itself into everything.” Somehow, Wallace even found a way to turn IRS jargon into “a sneaky kind of data poetry.”

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It’s what he does with boredom, though, that establishes him, posthumously, as the author who “speaks most directly” to our contemporary condition, said Garth Risk Hallberg in New York. Wallace seems to have recognized that boredom represents “the leading edge of truths we’re trying to avoid”—the thing we’re left with when our various attempts to escape, “via drugs or TV or idol worship,” run dry. The Pale King can be seen as the author’s attempt to demonstrate that if each of us could somehow push beyond boredom to a heightened attentiveness, “we might find ourselves in the presence of what connects us: longings, loneliness, mortality,” maybe even “gratitude for the gift of being alive.” That effort didn’t save Wallace, but it graced the rest of us with a big, baggy novel that very nearly does for boredom “what Moby-Dick did for the whale.”

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