The Pale King ~ David Foster Wallace

The subtitle of the late DFW’s “novel” is “an unfinished novel”, and it is. Unfinished, that is. But it may not be a novel at all. Part memoir, part short stories (they are wonderful, by the way), we are never fully sure what DFW meant to do. Probably even he hadn’t decided. The Editor makes a good case for releasing it anyway, and I was good with that. But after reading it, I began to wonder. Was it fair to the author?

Well, it’s done. What we have is a deep dive into the IRS. Surely much more than you ever wanted to know. It has its moments. But of course, a novel that focuses on boredom is always in danger of being boring itself. What keeps it from that – for the most part is DFW’s intellect. As well as some truly outstanding sketches of people. We learn, by the way (is this true??) that the reason he uses his middle name is to distinguish himself from the other David Wallace’s out there. There are two David Wallace’s  assigned to the IRS branch in Illinois, and this fact is the subject of a major mix-up. That’s a long story…

One such sketch (Ch 6) is of two young teens, and the female of the couple (Sheri) is pregnant. The decision of whether to have (or have not) the baby is really a very compassionate portrait of the dilemma these two people are in.

Don’t miss some of his descriptions of the human form or face. Here he describes a gypsy fortune teller, Mother Tia:

“…and her face like a shucked pecan fully cowled in black and two isolate teeth like a spare at the Show Me Lanes.”

Chapter 9 is the “Authors Foreward”, one of two times (again in Ch 24) that DFW steps out of the pages to address the reader directly:

Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a proforma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation, it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person.

“All of this is true. This book is really true.” he says. He points out various standard disclaimers (as all such novels have) but then goes on to say that this novel is “in point of fact more like a memoir than any kind of made-up story” And much of it reads like that. But much of it also reads like fiction. The sections where DFW steps in have the signature footnotes. Man did love his ibids.

Let me make mention of one thing that became a bit irritating. I wonder here too, if this would have been toned down with editing (by the author). There is a constant use of phrases like “I’m not putting it very well”, “it’s hard to explain”, “I’m not sure I can explain it”, or “I don’t know how to describe it”. It’s possible that these were sections that he would have gotten back to and explained it better, thus obviating the necessity to throw those caveats in.

But it’s on the subject of boredom that Wallace seems to have a real affinity. He dissects is like a surgeon. Here one of the IRS examiners is waiting for his shift to end.

He imagined that the clock’s second hand possessed awareness and knew that it was a second hand and that its job was to go around and around inside a circle of numbers forever at the same slow unvarying machine like rate, going no place it hadn’t already been a million times before, and imagining the second hand was so awful it made his breath catch in his throat…

Then he gets into the difference between bored of and bored with. This is a class marker, even making a connection between the industrial revolution and, the drill bit and…bore.

I have to leave this here, not having done it justice, but I am suddenly called out of town and will be off-line for several days. An incomplete review to mirror DFW’s incomplete novel. Seems fair enough?


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