Maybe the most surprising thing about David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is how easy a read it is. At 538 pages, it’s anyone’s definition of long. Wallace’s last full-length fiction, 1996’s 1,088-page Infinite Jest, despite a meteor shower’s worth of flashing brilliance, was famously unfinishable.
So the news that Wallace’s next novel would be set in an IRS tax-processing office and take tedium as its subject suggested its own sort of cosmic joke. Then Wallace killed himself with the book unfinished, whiting out the reader’s confidence that even Wallace knew what he was getting at, or whether he got there.
It’s not easy to review an ambitious fiction whose author apparently despaired of finishing it. Perhaps it’s best just to note that The Pale King reads like what it is, an unfinished novel. Even that judgment is complicated by Wallace’s penchant for nontraditional narratives and kaleidoscopic digressions. It’s hard to tell what’s finished and what’s not. Among myriad hints at autobiography, apparently extraneous repetitions and tantalizing set-piece cul-de-sacs, Wallace wrestles more profundity from these truncated pages than many novelists generate in an oeuvre.
Between the lines, one mystery is insistent: What is fiction for? Wallace, like many TV-raised, Internet-age writers, struggled with that question. There’s no definitive answer here, but one conclusion is clear. There are more important things than fiction.
Within The Pale King’s frame is another book, also titled The Pale King, “basically a nonfiction memoir, with additional elements of reconstructive journalism, organizational psychology, elementary civics and tax theory,” written by one David Foster Wallace, an IRS examiner easily confused with the “real” David Foster Wallace. These two not to be confused with a third David Wallace at the labyrinthine agency.
(In a footnote to the “Author’s Foreword,” which begins, metafictively enough, on page 67, IRS memoirist Wallace confides: “Please know that I find these sorts of cute, self-referential paradoxes irksome, too—at least now that I’m over thirty I do—and that the very last thing this book is is some kind of clever metafictional titty-pincher.”)
True enough. The Pale King (the one you’re actually hefting in your hand) is not purely, or even mostly, a metafictional house of mirrors. It’s a disarmingly earnest meditation on democracy and—not to reduce 538 pages to a CPA pun—accountability.
Memoirist David Foster Wallace recalls an aimless “wastoid” youth filled with literary leanings and a collegiate business counterfeiting term papers for his peers. This David Wallace turns the corner into responsible adulthood at a transformative epiphany. It comes to him in a mistakenly attended accounting class: “Gentlemen,” a substitute instructor tells his pupils, “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.”
The lecture sends David Wallace down a career path that lands him in an IRS regional examination center in Peoria, Ill., where he’s almost literally reborn. “If I wanted to matter,” he concludes, “even just to myself—I would have to be less free, by deciding to choose in some kind of definite way.”
It’s as if David Foster Wallace, a generation’s leading literary light, has reinvented himself in a parallel world. Not the feckless wastoid fiddling with fiction, but an anonymous David Wallace knuckled down to the genuinely heroic work of number-crunching. As one character tells another in one of The Pale King’s many veiled summations, “Sometimes what’s important is dull. Sometimes it’s work. Sometimes the important things aren’t works of art for your entertainment…” Preparing taxes, on the other hand, matters, “one of the places where a man’s civic sense gets revealed in the starkest sorts of terms …” America’s civic sense is “… adolescent—that is, ambivalent in its twin desire for both authoritarian structure and the end of parental hegemony.” We want all the entitlements of citizenship, but we don’t want to pay our taxes.
The IRS is no longer interested in making us pay. The crux of The Pale King’s plot is the Spackman Initiative, a Reagan-era about-face when the service starts acting like a business, abandoning enforcement and redirecting resources to the most profitable audits. Auditors, previously self-regarded as “guardians of civic virtue,” become profit centers, divorced from the “complex psychodynamics involved in taxation and the public’s willingness to comply with tax law.”
Years before Tea Party rhetoric, Wallace seems to be getting at the dissolution of the social contract in America.
To say that The Pale King is about any single thing would be reductivist. The book is also about boredom; sadness; the nature of awareness, concentration and memory; stimulation and distraction; and the isolating impossibility of meaningful communication. Wallace burrows into these subjects obliquely and virtuosically through, say, a 19-page description of a traffic jam, or a portrait of a self-trained contortionist whose only goal is putting his lips on every square inch of his body, or the backstory of a man whose greatest fear is his own uncontrolled eruptions of public sweating.
Wallace is off-the-charts precise in unpacking such interior states of being, obsessively cataloging twists and turns of self-awareness. His characters are almost invariably two-dimensional avatars to each other, but alone and inside their heads, they’re endlessly articulate and emotionally relatable. He’s equally good at mimicking the cadence of technical manuals and interoffice memos. He’s got a soft spot for Pynchonian slapstick and nomenclature: A Persian agency functionary is named Chahla “The Iranian Crisis” Neti-Neti. Wallace is supervised by Merrill Errol (Mel) Lehrl. A feminist literary outpost does business as Speculum Books. An auditor dies unnoticed at his desk, ghosts and phantoms (not the same thing) roam the office, and a “fact psychic” named Sylvanshine mines neighboring brains for factoids. Children are referred to as “little Line 40s.”
Gruesome death scenes (notably of auditor David Wallace’s father) and revenge fantasies (hamburgers studded with ground glass) share the page with hauntingly repetitive motifs: rain, hats, “Think Farm Safety” signage. Long passages of fine-grained bureaucratese compete with descriptions of uncanny and comic lucidity: a face “leathery and tremorous … like a shucked pecan fully cowled in black and two isolate teeth like a spare at the Show Me Lanes…”
Despite Wallace’s felicity, The Pale King finally feels incomplete. There are shaggy sections you like to think he would have cut, and not all of his jewel-like facets are as polished as the best of his published prose. It’s striking how often Wallace seems to anticipate this, embedding tic-like apologies in his characters’ speech, some variation of, “I’m not putting this very well” or a self-deprecating “if you’re interested …” in nearly every dialogue. He almost begs readers to stay with him as he works it out, as if the most interesting fiction writer in recent American history had no confidence in his readers’ attention.
The tic raises uncomfortably autobiographical questions. For instance: Is it too much a stretch to see in the construct of a Pale King a sort of see-through emperor? Might the Pale King—democracy, as I read it, worshipped but undernourished by an anemic citizenry—mirror the image of David Foster Wallace himself, praised but drowning in barely contained doubt like so many of his maladjusted characters, including the one he’s named after himself?
Auditor David Wallace pulls himself out of such uncertainty with the tough love of an accidental accounting instructor: “To experience commitment as the loss of options, a type of death, the death of childhood’s limitless possibility, of the flattery of choice without duress—this will happen, mark me. Childhood’s end.”
That speech is a pretty clear stand-in for what author David Foster Wallace wanted to say about America’s extended and arguably arrested adolescence. The unanswerable question is how deeply, and how despairingly, the wunderkind may have taken those words to his own heart.
Former Observer managing editor Brad Tyer (www.bradtyer.com) writes from Missoula, Mont.