The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

The basis for any story has some key ingredients, there’s some sort of struggle, conflict, reflection, message. The Pale King is a little different to that. Written by David Foster Wallace but published posthumously and unfinished this work of fiction tells us about a number of people working for the American Inland Revenue Service although most of them are interlinked each chapter of varying length can pretty much stand on their own.

The Pale King looks at a number of these tax auditors, why they do the job they do and how they combat the monotony of their work. We have the character of Claude Sylvanshine who through looking at other people’s taxes and minor details, knows so much about people but has no context for it. We we have Leonard Steyck who went so far to be nice to people when he was younger that people hated him for it and we see how he reacted to this. David Wallace himself appears as a character and he tells you to read the small print of the book and we have the peculiar character who is harshly nicknamed the Iranian Crisis (this chapter made me chuckle, you’ll be doing a lot of that). My favourite character of the book is Irrelevant Chris Fogle. We get to read about what made him want to do the job that he now does. His story for me felt really personal and real.

The Pale King by Wallace

The Pale King is about getting things done by people who have to do it. Unlike the behemoth that is Infinite Jest with its look at people obsessed with distractions and satisfying their own addictions, this book is more about the people who do not wish to have such distractions, who acknowledge that they have a task to do. There’s a story for example about a worker who passes away on the job but nobody notices because they are too focused on their work. There is a little bit of us in both Infinite Jest and the Pale King and Wallace looks at both of these extremes.

The style of the Pale King will be familiar to fans of David Foster Wallace and you can see the development of his quality of work from his earlier novel Broom of the System and his earlier short stories. I of course love the book, Wallace makes what should be the most boring thing interesting to read. What I will say however, as with Infinite Jest, try and get a physical copy of the book over the digital format. It is easier to navigate as you will be also going through Wallace’s end notes which reappear in this book as well. Try to avoid the audio book as well if you want to know what is said in the end notes.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

A good book for me is always one you think about months after reading it. I loved it.

One of the main stories is about a video cartridge of which when anyone plays it the contents will end up watching it repeatedly until they can’t do anything thing else. We also learn about the man who made it, his family, one of the cast members and everyone else who wants the cartridge for their own ends.

This book is well researched on the themes of addiction. It also looks at the pressures of competition, just trying to survive and mental health issues. We see the horrors of commercialisation and the things people will do to get what they want. There’s one character (Mr Pelumis) I was particularly interested in who plays a significant part of the Tennis Academy we see in the book but the last time we hear of him is in one of the footnotes.

Criticisms of the book (which are many) is that it’s a bit long with more than 1000 pages including footnotes and some of the sections of the book I did struggle to get through. Despite this however, it really does add to the world.

Despite the criticisms I found the book incredibly rewarding. This is probably my favourite of Wallace’s work. I liked some of the stories in The Girl With the Curious Hair and This Is Water but was not a big fan of Broom of the System, some of his other short stories and the Pale King although unfinished I found harder to get through than Infinite Jest despite some individually good chapters.

When reading a book I try to take the Roland Barthes approach of just taking the text as is. With this book however, I ended up obsessing over who this author was and what were his intentions.

A personality who had his moments there is no denying that Wallace was a very complex character with some fascinating stories before his tragic suicide in 2008. We know he had his own problems with mental health and his treatment of the poet Mary Karr is somewhat reprehensible but I found there to be a man who struggled with the world around him.

Overall I recommend this book on its own merits and it is a credit to the English language.

Get the ebook version if you do, easier to carry.