The Pale King

Image of The Pale King
Release Date: 
April 15, 2011
Little, Brown & Company
Reviewed by: 

The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous, unfinished novel is a study in ambiguity, anchored in the trivial precision of personal statistical descriptions and the apparent precision of the Internal Revenue Service/accounting/financial analysis particulars.

Fittingly, the April 15 publication date of The Pale King corresponds to the due date for federal individual tax returns.

In The Pale King the tax code is perceived as the essence of life, as one character proclaims, “I don’t believe I have anything to say that isn’t in the Code or Manual.” But in this story, as in life and certainly as with the tax law, imprecision is more accurately descriptive than precision, truth is more flexible than the absolute, and ambiguity more characterizes reality than clarity.

David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King takes readers on a wandering journey, exploring such questions as what is reality? And what is truth? Midway through this Fellini-esque tale, the narrator writes about what colleagues “failed to understand is that there are vastly different kinds of truths, some of which are incompatible with one another. Example: a 100% accurate comprehensive list of the exact size and shape of every blade of grass in my front lawn is ‘true’ but it is not a truth that anyone will have any interest in. What renders a truth meaningful, worthwhile . . . is its relevance.” Relevance, in turn, “requires extraordinary discernment and sensitivity to context, questions of value, and overall point—otherwise we might as well all just be computers downloading raw data to one another.”

At one point, the author offers, “Datum: At least one third of ancient rulers’ seers and magicians were in fact fired or killed early in their tenure because it emerged that the bulk of what they forecast or intuited was irrelevant. Not incorrect, just irrelevant, pointless.” Sobering commentary at a time of proliferating messages, via email, text messaging, blog posts, social network sites—whose relevance is all too often elusive, if not overtly missing.

The Pale King is more an accretive process than a tightly plotted story. The path to the author’s intended destination is murky. Without a table of contents, chapter titles, or any evident organizing scheme, the reader has few wayfinding aids. At various times in this lengthy book, a reader might ask: Why is this at all relevant to the end objective? What is the end? To this end, the reader must trust that what Mr. Wallace writes, the reader needs to read.

In the Author’s Foreword, which strikingly appears at page 66, Mr. Wallace reveals: “Here is the real truth: what follows is substantially true and accurate. At least, it’s a mainly true and accurate, partial record of what I saw and heard and did, of whom I knew and worked alongside and under and of what-all eventuated at IRS Post 047, the Midwest regional examination center, Peoria, IL, in 1985–86 . . . The Pale King is, in other words, a kind of vocational memoir.” The author suggests that his volume functions as a portrait of what he argues is the most important federal bureaucracy in American life.

In the Author’s Foreword, referencing the Legal Disclaimer, Mr. Wallace proclaims “the characters and events in this book are fictional . . . I need this legal protection in order to inform you that what follows is, in reality, not fiction at all, but substantially true and accurate. That The Pale King is, in point of fact, more like a memoir than any kind of made-up story.” The author then acknowledges the paradox: “the book’s legal disclaimer defines everything that follows it as fiction including this Foreword, but now here in this Foreword, I am saying that the whole thing is really nonfiction; so if you believe one, you can’t believe the other . . .”

In a first person narrative, so indicated by the chapter opening with an “author here” note, Mr. Wallace addresses the unspoken contract between author and reader. He asserts that the volume is basically a nonfiction memoir, the verisimilitude of which statement he stamps by asserting that a memoir commands an advance from the publisher more than double than that provided for fiction. But then he writes that he is not motivated by financial gain per se, but rather by the “dream of becoming an artist . . . an immortally great fiction writer.”

Mr. Wallace himself states that this novel/memoir is more autobiographical than some of his earlier writing, inserting himself into the story as both a fictional character and an author commentator. In real life, Mr. Wallace grew up in Illinois, the same state in which the fictional David Foster Wallace attends college and where Peoria’s Internal Revenue Service, in which the fictional David Foster Wallace works, is located.

The Pale King narrator relates how his father died at age 49. Forty-nine years after David Foster Wallace, who died in 2008, was born, The Pale King is published. As the manuscript for this posthumous book was incomplete at the author’s death, The Pale King was organized, polished, and prepared for publication by his long time editor, Michael Pietsch.

One of the inherent challenges that anyone working with the tax code confronts is that the tax law is simultaneously precise and ambiguous, specific and confusing. While the author reveals that his memoir reports on the 1984–85 period that he worked for the Internal Revenue Service, he discusses a 70% progressive tax rate, which applied years earlier, prior to being changed in the 1981 Tax Reform Act. Whether this detail reflects evidence of sloppy editing, the protagonists’ own muddled academic program (perhaps, though highly unlikely, he was still in school), or the collage of contradictory, sequentially perplexing images and ever-shifting contexts, is unclear.

At various points, in the midst of the ambiguity, inconsistency, and confusion masquerading as precision—which anyone who has had any interaction with the tax law and those charged to apply it, knows all too well—the author anchors his story with references to specific tax details, such as Rev-Proc 72–13, the classic partnership status provision, widely referenced and known to all who engage in professional work concerning entrepreneurial investment ventures in limited partnership legal form. Chapter 35 consists solely of the formula for calculating the Alternative Minimum Tax.

Following the last class day summary of the Advanced Taxation course contents, the substitute states, “I will undertake to inform you of certain truths. I will then offer an opinion as to how you might most profitably view and respond to those truths.” The substitute instructor in the horation informs the students among whom the author sits, “You have wondered perhaps why all real accountants wear hats. They are today’s cowboys . . . riding herd on the unending torrent of financial data.” Why the final review lecture of Advanced Tax is presented by a substitute is not explained, which omission reflects the ambiguity of The Pale King.

The substitute advises that “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is today, in this world, neither I nor you have made, heroism.” The substitute then explains further truth: “Actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one cues up to see it. No one is interested.” Mr. Wallace suggests that the work of the Internal Revenue Service, a highly stylized, subgenre of the accounting discipline, is the work of heroes.

Beyond heroism, another truth is articulated by one of the protagonists, the Director of Midwest Regional Examination Center: “If you know the position a person takes on taxes you can determine (his) whole philosophy.” This same character later explains that, “attitudes about paying taxes seem like one of the places where a man’s civic sense gets revealed in the starkest sort of terms.”

At one point in the story, Mr. Wallace relates the seizure by the IRS of 14 Mr. Squishee trucks, from which soft-confection delights are dispensed, as part of an enforcement action in response to falsified depreciation schedules. The company’s falsified depreciation schedules is in itself interesting, for in his basic accounting principle class the narrator had encountered great difficulties with depreciation schedules—specifically, the intricacies of accelerated methods—which difficulties led to his undoing and ultimately dropping the course.Evidently, the discipline applied to the marketing of Mr. Squishy—the spelling earlier employed by Mr. Wallace in “Mr. Squishy,” the lead story in his Oblivion volume of short stories, in which Mr. Squishy’s story concerns the detailed dissertation on the machinations of the Focus Group tasked to provide opinions in support of the marketing strategy for the Mr. Squishy soft-connection product—did not transfer to the end product, for between the Focus Group advising on promotion of Mr. Squishy and the seizure of the company’s soft-confection-dispensing trucks in The Pale King, Mr. Squishy morphed to Mr. Squishee. Or, maybe not. Perhaps the Mr. Squishee trucks carrying the soft-confection product carried a different name than the Mr. Squishy product itself.

Some of the author’s sentences are neither short nor simple. One paragraph in The Pale King runs 11 pages. Thus the reader may encounter sentences and paragraphs that careen through characters’ personal attributes, roles, actions, and attitudes; discoursing on the consequences thereof in the past, present, and future; pairing deep insights—such as in discussing parents instinctively loving their children while not actually liking them—with prolonged descriptions of a self-indulgent, non-initiating, wastoid, slacker lifestyle; including mind-wandering, off kilter, delusional reflections—more amorphous than concrete: “It was his truck they were in but he was not in the truck.”

At some points rambling, general, and speculative, then suddenly succinct, specific and emphatic, the author intersperses assessment passing for maxims verging on wisdom: “he was wise enough to be suspicious of his own desire to seem wise—and to refuse to indulge in it;” mixes descriptions of people and places and functions and processes; presents prolonged philosophical speeches in the style of My Dinner with Andre and then he, in the author’s voice, directly, often revealingly, addresses the reader, in the style of Garry Shandling on “The Garry Shandling Show.”

Mr. Wallace ricochets between such diverse, heterogeneous, and apparently unconnected topics as personal hygiene and team functioning and sexuality and values and technical details and big ideas and interpersonal relationships and compliance with rules and the arcane, amplifying his discourse with the wide-ranging—for some, daunting—use of adjectives and adverbs; expanding his descriptions with bizarre, contextless, numeric precision, such as word counts; in so doing blending the micro, macro, and meta: starting on the surface, probing deep, then soaring high, before rocketing off in some other direction, and eventually, perhaps pages later, smoothly landing.

Mr. Wallace challenges the reader to think, to pay attention, and to keep up. At times, identifying the voice of the speaker can be confusing, moving from David Foster Wallace, the fictive character in The Pale King, to David Foster Wallace, the author of The Pale King, to other voices whose identities are sometimes ambiguous. The confusion is exacerbated by the introduction at one point of two fictional David Foster Wallaces, both of whom happen to work for the IRS, but are distinguishable by one being a lowly level GS-9 and the other an esteemed GS-13 civil service rank.

What Mr. Wallace writes is a direct confrontation to that large segment of fiction that is the textual equivalent of a simplistic tract house—quickly erected of cheap, even dubious materials, by marginally skilled workers; necessarily more formulaic than custom and thereby devoid of detail and character; reflecting more cookie cutter production than highly skilled and craft in its execution; produced in volume, more sameness and commonality than differentiated and distinctive; manifesting low entry costs but at the price of little sustainable value and suspect long-term quality.

Instead of the simplistic tact houses, the author thinks, designs, and builds the literary version of an architectural masterpiece: one of a kind, the antithesis of sameness, constructed with quality materials and workmanship, carefully considered and painstakingly crafted the kind of place that charms and delights and even inspires.

His world view has little sympathy for those who would label the extraordinary as standard, classify the complex as garden variety, and assert the unprecedented is familiar, in attempt to mask their inability to think in more than the most simplistic, pedestrian way. The depth of thinking, complex pattern framing, and creativity that Mr. Wallace employs directly challenge, overtly contradict, and functionally “out” the manipulative standard story line of the genericists whose stock and trade are shallowness, simplicity, and the obvious.

In common with other partially finished books, this unfinished novel raises the fundamental question: Who decides when a book is ended? The corollary to this question is, What happens if you do not read the entire book? These questions go to the core of the reader-author connection.

In his venturesome work, Mr. Wallace embraces the idea expressed by the mystic philosopher Saadi of Shiraz, in the 13th century: “Deep in the sea are riches beyond compare. But if you seek safety, it is on the shores.” Mr. Wallace is not one who would endorse the sentiment expressed by John Maynard Keynes, in speaking to the Royal Economic Society, who contrasted risk and safety, by observing “An even chance between heaven and hell is precisely as much to be desired as guaranteed mediocrity.” For a writer such as David Foster Wallace, guaranteed mediocrity is tantamount to hell.