The Pale King
David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, focused on the IRS, offers us the chance “to look once more inside that beautiful mind.”
In David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, in a mock documentary, a tax examiner identified only by his ID number tells the viewer about his idea for a play, in which a “wiggler” is poring over 1040s: “The setting is very bare and minimalistic – there’s nothing to look at except this wiggler, who doesn’t move except every so often turning a page or making a note on his pad.” The audience, he says, will grow restless and bored. “Then, once the audience have all left, the real action of the play can start.... Except I could never decide on the action, if there was any.”
A wiggler is a rote examiner who studies tax returns to determine which are worthy of an audit, Wallace tells us in his posthumous novel scheduled for release on tax day.
At the Regional Examination Center (REC) in Peoria, Illinois, in May 1985, a fictional Wallace joins his fellow GS-9 IRS recruits for an intake training session, where he learns from the veterans that the work will require periodic flexing, visualizing, and a necessary bearing down.
Reading “The Pale King” requires precisely this kind of close examination – a sort of literary audit, but a worthy one at that.
Wallace worked on this novel the last 11 years of his life, until his untimely death in 2008, when he took his life. Author of the novels “Infinite Jest,” “Broom of the System,” and short story and essay collections, Wallace left behind hundreds of pages and notes for “The Pale King,” which editors spent two years piecing together. Without an outline, “Infinite Jest” editor Michael Pietsch crafted the storyline, such as it is, based on his experience working with Wallace, drawing together fully revised and rough-draft chapters, handwritten in Wallace’s tiny writing.
Is this the book Wallace would have written if he’d lived to finish it? Of course, we will never know. But it does allow us, as Pietsch hoped, “to look once more inside that beautiful mind.”
Most writers try to disguise their research, or blend it in so it doesn’t stick out. But Wallace’s research is the book, and not simply because it is unfinished. He doesn’t hide it, nor would we want him to because the world he creates with it is so colossally fascinating.
The book has been called “mock memoir”; Wallace called it “vocational memoir.” But I’d call it “fictional ethnography,” a recounting of the work, lives, and lore of the men and women of “the Service,” as they struggle to make the unbearable bearable.
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.
But then again David Foster Wallace could write a book about doorknobs and make it interesting.
“To be, in a word, unborable.... It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish,” writes Wallace, in this book that’s every bit as brilliant and daring as “Infinite Jest,” with a deftness and maturity of writing that exceed it.
In “Infinite Jest” we see the addictive nature of entertainment; here we see the effects of lack of entertainment or distraction. But in this cast of intricately drawn characters Wallace offers up the rare administrator, Glendenning – dubbed by his co-workers “the pale king” – whom everyone likes and who seems “not so much to subvert the stereotypes as to transcend them.”
In turns satiric and sad, thought-provoking and funny, “The Pale King” is ultimately a compassionate view of the individuals who make up the IRS, the institution we have all grown to hate. It’s awe-inspiring that David Foster Wallace, one of the greatest writers and social critics of our time, should make the IRS the subject of his final novel, and that a man for whom no institution was sacred, in essence found the sacred in human beings struggling to survive that institution: the machinations, the promotions, the fear of demotion, the craziness, and paleness that it breeds, along with the humor. Pages turned endlessly, workers taught to clinch their bottoms to avoid discomfort, tedium tolerated to support a child, and yes, in the face of all this, contemplation of suicide.
There is every reason to believe that Wallace struggled with his own boredom – (show me a writer who doesn’t) – but in his infinite generosity, he also shows us how to lift ourselves above it.