The Pale King and the Absence of Finality

DFW's Unfinished Novel

“He felt in a position to say he knew now that hell had nothing to do with fires or frozen troops. Lock a fellow in a windowless room to perform rote tasks just tricky enough to make him have to think, but still rote, tasks involving numbers that connected to nothing he’d ever see or care about, a stack of tasks that never went down, and nail a clock to the wall where he can see it, and just leave the man there to his mind’s own devices.”

“The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all—all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience[…]Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

After David Foster Wallace’s death in 2008, his former literary agent, along with his widow and his editor, ventured into his office to find a 250-page manuscript left on the center of his desk, as if Wallace were offering one last gift to the literary world. As Bonnie Nadell, the agent, told The New York Times, “If there had been a spotlight on those pages, it could not have been more obvious.”

The Pale King is being greeted as a kind of swan song for Wallace, one of the greatest writers in American history. In that respect, it is doomed to fail for a few basic reasons. First, I would be very surprised if The Pale King is indeed the last work that is published under Wallace’s name. Since Wallace’s death in 2008, publishers have managed to find very creative ways to release his older works* and even the inside flap of The Pale King seems to imply that there is more to come (“He died in 2008, leaving behind unpublished work of which The Pale King is a part.”).

* These have ranged from good-faith attempts to expose an unpublished work, to rushed efforts to feed the growing demand for his voice, to downright exploitive attempts to turn his work into a mass-market self-help book.

The other main reason that The Pale King can’t really grant “closure” to his fans is that the work itself lacks closure—the novel remains unfinished. Despite the ordered manner in which the work was found, it was not near completion, and the novel has really been pieced together from the 250-page manuscript as well as various notes and passages that were found among Wallace’s writings. Although Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, stresses in his Editor’s Note that only minimal changes were made to Wallace’s prose, he admits that the published structure is at best an approximation of what Wallace would have done. In some respects, this published version is as much Pietsch’s work as it is Wallace’s.

There are certainly moments in the new novel where the incompleteness is palpable: It is unclear how certain characters relate to others, or who knows whom, or who is responsible for what. It even appears as if crucial elements of the plot remained undecided up until Wallace’s death. Nevertheless, The Pale King, while unfinished, is certainly a substantial work. Wallace paints a panorama of the world he has chosen—the IRS Midwest Regional Exam Center in the mid-1980s—that is full of characters and themes that are brilliantly thought-out.

The story centers on a group of “wigglers”—IRS agents who scour tax returns for any details that might lead to an audit—during a particular moment of upheaval in the IRS. On this subject, the novel is anything but incomplete—on the contrary, it is overloaded with details: about tax forms, auditing procedures, IRS jargon, and the various medical issues, personal histories, and sexual predilections of the wigglers themselves. Including so much detail about taxes and the IRS may seem like an odd way to write a novel, but it is actually the perfect way for Wallace to tackle his most intimidating theme: boredom.

Boredom oppresses these characters in a way that, as one character imagines in a passage quoted above, is literally hellacious. Wallace’s ability to make this type of boredom palpable, and even visceral, is amazing. Some of it is done through actually narrating the boredom, such as an entire three-page chapter in which people just turn pages in a quiet office:

“Howard Cardwell turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page. Matt Redgrave turns a page. Anand Singh turns two pages at once by mistake and turns one back which makes a slightly different sound. David Cusk turns a page.”

It goes on like that for three pages.

At other times, Wallace describes the impact that boredom can have on people observing it. This can be even more haunting, such as a moment when a new employee accidentally stumbles into an “Immersives Room”:

“The most striking thing about it was the quiet. There were at least 150 men and/or women in that room, all intently occupied and busy, and yet the room was so silent that you could hear an imperfection in the door’s hinge as Ms. Neti-Neti pushed it closed against the force of its pneumatic strut. This silence I remember best of all, because it was both sensuous and incongruous: For obvious reasons, we tend to associate total quiet with emptiness, not with large groups of people.”

Despite its unavoidable place in life, there are not many novels about boredom. The most obvious explanation for this fact is that it is a difficult subject to make interesting. Wallace’s gift for enlivening minutiae, for making the mundane, prosaic details of life seem fresh, funny, and exciting, helps him overcome this obstacle: His gift for capturing natural language is what makes long stretches that should be tedious, like when a secondary character explains the background and nuance behind an industry-specific piece of arcana called the Spackman Memo,* not only bearable but actually exciting.

*The Spackman Memo and “the Initiative” it begets are either totally fictional or so industry-specific that not even Google knows about them.

Just as importantly, though, Wallace recognizes and addresses another, less obvious, challenge presented by boredom: It is scary. The idea of walking into a room filled with 150 people being completely silent is kind of horrifying, like walking through a ghost town. We tend to think of boredom as dehumanizing, even to the point of describing it as “soul-crushing,” and as a result we try to avoid it however we can.

This, however, is exactly the kind of attitude that The Pale King tries to undercut. Indeed, the “heroes” of the novel are the people that realize that the minutiae we commonly call “boring” are not distractions from the more important things in life—they are the more important things in life.

This aversion to grand gestures and moments of high drama* makes the novel’s loose plotting, which is at least partially due its unfinished state, seem intentional. Although the published novel feels like all set-up and no punchline, it’s not clear that Wallace would have altered that feeling had he survived to finish the work. In the “Notes and Asides” that the editors have helpfully appended to the novel, we get a closer look at Wallace’s thoughts, including one that declares: “plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.”

*Underscoring this aversion is an early chapter on the doomed and noble childhood of Leonard Stecyk—a chapter I won’t quote from for fear of spoiling, but which deserves mention as a particularly brilliant piece of writing, both hilarious and sad.

The absence of finality—or even “stuff happening”—actually helps emphasize the ideas Wallace is dealing with. Indeed, the most interesting parts of the novel are parts that cut off without any explanation. Characters tell stories, either to other characters or to the audience (the novel, as explained in the “Author’s Foreword” that inexplicably begins on page 66, presents itself as a memoir, written by someone named “David Foster Wallace,” and marketed as a novel only for legal reasons), that build toward something without ever actually reaching it.

At one point, for example, a character describes how she fell in love with her husband at a mental health clinic, only to fear that she would never see him again when she checked out. Though she builds toward their dramatic parting for almost 50 pages, by the time she gets to the ostensible climax of the story, she glosses over it:

“I was seventeen, for Christ’s sake. I was a drama queen. They take me home, I look in the phone book, and he’s right there in the phone book. His apartment building was like ten minutes from my house…Anyway, that’s how I met him.”

Another crucial section of the novel, where the “Wallace” narrator* describes his first day, is similarly all set-up with little payoff. Although the section is supposedly building toward the resolution of a mix-up that led to an entry-level “wiggler” getting assigned to a much more high-level position, we get only a brief explanation of the snafu and its consequences. Instead, the passage dwells largely on his Sisyphean quest to simply get to the office.

*Overall, Wallace naming his narrator “David Foster Wallace” is probably too self-referential for the novel’s purposes, and something I am guessing would have been changed on future edits. It does, though, allow for this semi-autobiographical line from a writer who’s known for a middle name he almost never used: “…once you’ve fixed on a certain nom de plume, you’re more or less stuck with it, no matter how alien or pretentious it sounds to you in your everyday life.”

As a result, the narration dwells for pages on the layout and history of Peoria, Illinois, and how such things conspired to create a nearly stagnant traffic jam on the day in question. The section is long and the prose meanders through a myriad of subjects, drops details in haphazardly, and occasionally goes on inexplicable tangents. In short, it perfectly mirrors the way a mind wanders in a traffic jam.

All of this seems to reinforce the notion that life itself is not really a series of “stuff happening,” but rather a sequence of unconnected data that must be sorted out. Indeed, there is even a character who is actually something called a “fact psychic,” meaning he receives flashes of obscure, arcane, and useless trivia, like the middle name of a strangers childhood best friend, or the percentage of Egyptian deities that have animal faces instead of human faces. This kind of ability—which is only slightly less directed and slightly less knowledgeable than Wikipedia—is actually a huge nuisance: Having all that information only makes it harder to discern the important stuff.

This act, of sorting through the distractions and figuring out what is important, is tedious, time-consuming, and, at times, painfully boring. Nevertheless, it is also a fundamental modern task. The Pale King attempts to reconcile those two facts.

Of course, The Pale King is unfinished and, as a result, only partially successful. The novel never completely ties together. A civics conversation on the nature of taxes, had while trapped in a stuck elevator is interesting in the same way that the debates between Marathe and Steeply in Infinite Jest were interesting. Unlike the earlier novel, though, it is unclear how the civics debate fits into the novel’s narrative, largely because the theme of the IRS as a “calling” is not as developed as the theme of boredom. We get glimpses of how the lives of the characters intersect, but only glimpses, and certain characters (like Toni Ware and a young contortionist) seem entirely disconnected from the story. Several plot elements, like the appearance of characters with unexplained and seemingly useless supernatural abilities, are undeveloped to the point of being experiments. Many of the puzzle pieces are wonderfully constructed, but it is unclear how they all fit together.

But all of these quibbles are minor: The Pale King is thrilling to read. It is funny, sad, and intellectually compelling. Most importantly, it is clear what Wallace’s intent was with The Pale King, and if there is a “final thought” about his life and career that the novel leaves us with, that ought to be it. Despite the tragic end to Wallace’s life, the goal of The Pale King, his last work, was to find heroism not in fictional, dramatic climaxes, but in the smaller, more realistic moments that we often consider mundane and pointless—to find meaning in the apparently meaningless. This is the opposite of depressing.  

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