David Foster Wallace novel captures mood of imagined IRS site

Ao Meng

Bureaucracy, as a concept, could be described as otherworldly. In its grip, a bureaucracy has undeniable power, akin to weaponized tediousness, to make you understand both its terrible largeness and your insignificant smallness. To reason with a bureaucracy is to fight dragons. To write a novel about one, specifically the great-granddaddy of them all, the Internal Revenue Service, probably merits the author to be immortalized in verse and song.

“The Pale King” is mostly plotless. Instead, author David Foster Wallace’s goal is to capture a mood or maybe a place. The place is explicitly stated — IRS Regional Examination Center 047 in Peoria, Ill. The mood is “crushing, crushing boredom.” Boredom so mind-numbing and powerful as to cause existential dread, hallucinations and paralyzing physical pain. Wallace slowly introduces an unforgettable cast of characters that work in this hellish environment, slowly developing intense narrative weight as the novel, unflinchingly paced, gets weirder and weirder.

There seems to be an unknowable force driving all of the characters’ interactions and growth, the progress of which is shown to the reader from their childhoods. All of the main characters, while painfully human, are extraordinary individuals. It feels like someone is gathering them for a bloody battle which will ensue. Eventually, a couple of characters hint at something shady going on in 047, something nebulously apocalyptic.

“The Pale King” is unquestionably a David Foster Wallace joint. It’s got his signature sense of observational prowess, his rare ability to see and plumb the unfathomable depths of everyday existence and experience. He can find the weird and the extraordinary in being stuck in traffic, in a field of Midwestern wildflowers and in a corporate sales tax formula. The tone, while sad and somewhat melancholy, is ultimately hopeful and comic.

Wallace has an idiosyncratic energy to his prose that makes it effortlessly readable and accessible. Here, he uses his creative prowess to craft an entire world. There was considerable research behind the complex accounting jargon some characters speak in; according to the editor’s foreword, Wallace took extensive night classes in accounting and tax theory.

Wallace’s style in “The Pale King” is, to say the least, rather unconventional. His style, as described by him to his editor, is tornado-like. The novel is a whirlwind of pieces of greatly variable lengths, points-of-view, subjectivity, factuality and typographical layout. For the majority of “The Pale King,” Wallace doesn’t deploy his signature footnotes, instead saving them for chapters written in first-person narration from the perspective of a fictionalized David Foster Wallace within the novel. Nine chapters in, “The Pale King” is revealed to be a memoir from this fictionalized Wallace who decided to write a memoir rather than a novel because he felt that they sold better. Nevertheless, it says “novel” on the cover.

If these metafictional gymnastics seem confusing, annoying, dumb or forced, Wallace apparently agrees — he wanted his fiction to be accountable. Wallace was an unapologetic moralist. He didn’t believe in postmodern irony, and he sought to communicate meaning and humble value in everything he wrote. Wallace’s characters in “The Pale King” don’t just merely discourse, they sprout philosophical musings on the deteriorating state of American civic sensibilities, corporate America and late ’60s counterculture like they wandered out of a Dostoevsky novel.

“The Pale King” is billed as an unfinished novel; Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch stitched the published version together out of thousands of pages of manuscripts. Some were typed, rewritten drafts polished to a silver shine. Others were transiently scrawled in Wallace’s minuscule, wispy handwriting. Before he died by suicide, Wallace had completed approximately one-third of the novel and was still conceptualizing material to double the already 400-plus page count. Notes included with the novel describe miscellaneous loose ideas that he wasn’t able to realize. The pages from which Pietsch extracted the published book are going to be opened to public research next semester at UT’s own Harry Ransom Center.


Genre: Heroic Fantasy
Pages: 560
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Grade: B