Unfinished Business

Resurrecting David Foster Wallace's last novel

  • Share
  • Read Later
Marion Ettlinger/Corbis Outline

(2 of 3)

Some of his decisions necessarily bordered on the arbitrary, and he has no illusions about his version of The Pale King being definitive. "Ultimately there were chapters that could have gone anywhere," he says. "Like the first chapter — that was not the first chapter. It was just a beautiful love letter to an Illinois cornfield in fallow time. I don't know if he intended it as an opening, but it just felt like a beautiful way into this novel." The Pale King is a chaotic book, and under the circumstances it's hard to tell how much of the chaos is deliberate. "He talks about a 'tornadic' structure in some of the notebooks," Pietsch says. "I took it as part of his intention — that this novel come at you like a tornado, with shards flying at you."

It will be — it already has been — argued that The Pale King shouldn't have been published at all. Wallace was a perfectionist, and the prospect of his work appearing in print in a less-than-finished state would certainly not have pleased him. But the presumed desires of the author are not the only things to be weighed in the decision to publish a posthumous work. All of Kafka's novels were unpublished when he died, and he left instructions that they should be burned. They were also unfinished; the order of the chapters in The Trial is still just guesswork. But I for one would not be prepared to give The Trial back. I wouldn't give The Pale King back either.

The first thing you notice about The Pale King is that it takes place in the past. Wallace's first two novels, The Broom of the System and Infinite Jest, are set in the future, where Wallace felt free to adjust reality to suit his needs, making it more lurid and extreme, forcing it to satirize itself. In Infinite Jest, the years are named for corporate sponsors (the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and so on), and the U.S., Canada and Mexico have merged to form a single country called the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN), with a former Vegas crooner named Johnny Gentle as its President. It's funny — but the humor is a loss leader. It makes the world feel strained and weightless.

The Pale King is set in 1985 in a world that immediately feels rich and substantial and alive. We're back on our home planet. The chapter Pietsch chose to put first contains this radiant catalog of the contents of a field by a highway:

An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak's thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite.

This isn't satire; this is the thing itself. This is Wallace looking at the world calmly, without pointing and shouting. And as it turns out, looking at the world calmly is what The Pale King is all about.

Most of the characters are "wigglers," the IRS examiners who take the first look at tax returns as they come in. They check the math and make sure the returns are signed and flag a few for possible auditing. (Never one for half measures, Wallace took accounting classes by way of research.) Sitting in rows at worktables, with rubber thimbles on their pinkie fingers to make turning pages easier, they are engaged in a silent war against the raging, soul-flattening boredom of their job:

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.

It's the opposite of the film in Infinite Jest: the tax returns don't command attention; they repel it. It's also a vision of a hell only a few doors down from clinical depression.

Most writers would be content to be repelled. Novels have a blind spot where the unpleasant particulars of white collar work are concerned: you try to point the authorial camera at them and the camera just doesn't want to go there. It wanders away in search of a dog with a heart of gold who belongs to a Swedish serial killer. But Wallace made a career out of rushing in where other writers feared to tread or wouldn't bother treading. He had an outsize, hypertrophied talent, and he knew it, and he liked to take on problem cases:

Howard Cardwell turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page. "Groovy" Bruce Channing attaches a form to a file. Ann Williams 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. Sandra Pounder turns a page. Robert Atkins turns two separate pages of two separate files at the same time.

The Pale King is an attempt to stare directly into the blind spot and face what's there. It's an account of accounting.

There is very little resembling an overarching narrative in the 580 pages of The Pale King. Wallace seems to have found a better way of honoring his squeamishness about plot: not having one. We meet people, and we tour their childhoods to find out how they became who they are. (We don't learn the meaning of the title — a character refers offhandedly to one of his bosses as "the Pale King," but we never learn why.) Wallace sketches in the first bare strokes of something here and there — characters wrestle with their boredom and think about how they might get promoted. We hear about a bomb exploding outside a different IRS office, and we learn that one of the higher-ups is assembling a team of eccentric wigglers, but we never find out why. It's all just shards in the tornado.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3