David Foster Wallace, The Pale King
The Final Jest
“Sometimes what’s important is dull. Sometimes it’s work. Sometimes the important things aren’t works of art for your entertainment.”
Where Infinite Jest probed a near-future society obsessed with self-destructive entertainment, The Pale King sets up shop in the not-so-distant past to ruminate on industrial strength boredom. One could just as easily call the two David Foster Wallace epics “of a piece” as they could “polar opposites.” Both novels are wild balls of yarn – frayed, patternless, shaped only by their own circular tangles. And both are, at times, uniquely unconfined and pleasurable reading experiences.
The big difference, of course, is that Wallace never completed The Pale King, having committed suicide in 2008, about a decade into writing it. That wasn’t enough time, and the novel as we now have it was pieced together from piles of notes, disks and files by the author’s longtime friend and editor Michael Pietsch. The book is set in the oppressively unimpressive confines of an IRS office in Peoria, Illinois, in 1985 where young accountants – including new hire Dave Wallace, in what could be called a Breakfast of Champions-ish conceit if only this guy resembled the author in any meaningful way – learn their roles within the massive bureaucracy.
It’s a tall order, pulling moments of beauty, humor and revelation from the mouth of such a monster, but Wallace often does so marvelously. And even the most labyrinthine passages, the ones so long that you’ve lost track of who’s lecturing you (and being so excruciatingly detailed about it), are inarguably on-topic for a novel about tax codes and protocol and banality. As the accounting instructor tells his class, “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.” The Pale King rarely requires that same sort of strength of character, but when it does, it’s worth it.