David Foster Wallace’s incomplete novel The Pale King is the last remnant of his incredible writing. His editor, Michael Pietsch, pieced together the fragments of the novel that Wallace left behind, giving literary audiences one final glimpse into Wallace’s complex mind. Despite being incomplete, Pale King accomplishes what Wallace wanted (at least according to the notes he left behind, which are included at the end of the novel).
The story focuses on agents at an IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois and the tedium that arises from working there. If that sounds like a boring premise, you would be correct; but boredom is exactly what Wallace was going for. He uses Pale King to challenge readers’ attention to detail and their ability to pay attention during extremely boring passages (a challenge that isn’t nearly as Herculean as reading Infinite Jest).
Fortunately, for readers who persevere, there is plenty of Wallace’s iconic humor sprinkled throughout the novel. He perfectly captures the minutiae of daily life, but still injects it with enough amusement for the reader to keep them from losing their mind. His mastery of the stream-of-consciousness storytelling device further exemplifies his exploration of the techniques of storytelling in the novel. As one character notes, “in that respect even the repetitive or redundant elements compel interest and require little conscious effort to pay attention to.” Although in this novel, it sometimes requires an extremely conscious effort to pay attention, especially as concerns the large ensemble of characters that pop up (including a fake autobiographical character named David Foster Wallace).
Thus, despite the tedium involved in reading this novel, there is much in The Pale King to recommend it to readers. Its inclusion in the Pulitzer Prize Shortlist is not unwarranted, and fans of contemporary literature will revel in Wallace’s writing style. And therein lies Wallace’s true theme and “key to modern life[:] If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”