three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
53-July-Aug-2011
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0

missing imageLauded as one of our era's most distinctive literary voices (Infinite Jest, 1996), American novelist, essayist, and short story writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008. The Pale King, the result of 11 years' effort, was posthumously pieced together by personal friend and editor Michael Pietsch from notes, lists of names, plot ideas, and a dozen completed chapters.

The Story: In 1985, the nation is in the midst of a massive cultural shift toward dehumanizing mechanization, reckless consumerism, and corporate hegemony. At the massive IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, old-school employees who view themselves as righteous public servants clash violently with up-and-coming managers pushing for increased automation to maximize profits. When author David Wallace (who insists in the author's foreword that The Pale King is a memoir rather than a novel) is suspended from college, he lands a job with the Internal Revenue Service and joins the other new recruits in Peoria for in-depth training in applying the tax law and coping with the deadly boredom intrinsic to their new jobs.
Little, Brown and Company. 560 pages. $27.99. ISBN: 9780316074230

Christian Science Monitor 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In writing about boredom--about the mind-numbing capacity of numbers and auditing and taxation--might Wallace have inadvertently produced a book that is, in fact, boring? Most definitely not. The miracle is that Wallace created a book of genius proportion out of something proportionally so uninteresting." Alicia J. Rouverol

USA Today 4.5 of 5 Stars
"For the reader, it doesn't matter that the novel is unfinished. Read its chapters in random order and you'll still be amazed by the talent. If you read only half of what's there, it would be one of the best reads you've had in a long time." Don Oldenburg

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"By turns breathtakingly brilliant and stupefying dull--funny, maddening and elegiac --The Pale King will be minutely examined by longtime fans for the reflexive light it sheds on Wallace's oeuvre and his life. But it may also snag the attention of newcomers, giving them a window--albeit a flawed window--into this immensely gifted writer's vision of the human condition as lived out in the middle of the middle of America, toward the end of the 20th century, by worker bees employed as number crunchers for the federal government, worried that they are going to be replaced by computers." Michiko Kakutani

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Pale King features an array of laid-back yet scintillating sentences, bucketloads of anecdotes and comic asides, a number of indelible characters to add to the Wallaceian roster, and more dull tax facts than the average CPA or even the most fanatic Wallace nerd will care to swallow. ... Much of The Pale King is indeed hard work, but it's welcome rather than the reverse, a shadow of the now lost ‘something long' that Wallace might or might not have completed but still brilliant, a Spruce Goose of a book that barely achieves takeoff but glimmers and sparkles with sufficient suggestions of the grandeur that might have been." Richard Rayner

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What we get instead of plot, alongside some often deliberately dull descriptions of the work being performed, are the back stories of a number of IRS ‘wigglers'--the rote examiners who initially review a tax return. ... Befitting the unfinished nature of The Pale King, which includes many undeveloped fragments--some tantalizing and others surely headed for the dustbin, had Wallace lived--not all of these stories work. But the overwhelming majority do." Mike Fischer

Kansas City Star 3 of 5 Stars
"Wallace ... had a well-honed sense of humor about the novelist's place in a country that has stopped reading, and it's hard not to view this big, eccentric, difficult work as an act of literary mischief and defiance. ... For better or worse, The Pale King sets out to remedy contemporary fiction's dullness deficit, or at least forge a sharper understanding of how the mind works when it's confronted with the uninspiring and the mundane." Kevin Canfield

Oregonian 1 of 5 Stars
"It might appear ungracious to call The Pale King annoyingly repetitive and disjointed because Wallace left it unfinished when he committed suicide. Yet those are its most pronounced qualities. ... Wallace aimed not only to chronicle tedium but also to induce it. He succeeds in this, but it's a dubious and dreary achievement." John G. Rodwan Jr.

Critical Summary

"There is no question that The Pale King would be vastly different had [David Foster Wallace] survived to finish it," explains Michael Pietsch in his heartfelt foreword to this uneven but exceptional novel. The critics paid tribute to Wallace's vivid descriptions, humorous observations, and evocative characters, overlooking the novel's disjointed and lifeless plot. In The Pale King, readers will find the postmodern ploys and stylistic quirks that characterized Wallace's previous novels, including one chapter composed entirely of a list of characters that turn pages and another that contains nothing but a complex tax formula. As the critics continue to debate over Wallace's ultimate intentions--namely, are long sections of the novel deliberately dull?--readers can revel in his extraordinary and unforgettable vision once more.