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Review: ‘The Pale King’ by David Foster Wallace

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By David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown, 547 pages, $27.99

Updated: April 17, 2011 2:22AM

T he Audacity of Mope. That could be the alternate title of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

One of the themes of this novel is boredom — the crushing boredom that rides along with certain kinds of work. In this case, it’s the grinding stuff done at the fictional IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria. Wallace’s audacious task is to make that unlikely subject worthy of our attention and continued interest. It’s an amazing performance.

The Pale King is a haunted book. Wallace had worked on it for years by the time he committed suicide in 2008 at age 46. The one-of-a-kind author, who made his mark with the 1,000-page Infinite Jest and a series of exceptionally intelligent and kinetic essays, left unfulfilled the promise of more brilliant decades to come.

He also left behind The Pale King , which his widow found in his garage office. She enlisted his editor Michael Pietsch to assemble the material, which consisted of 250 manuscript pages, hard drives, three-ring binders, spiral notebooks, handwritten pages and notes. There was no overall outline, but it was obvious that Wallace had written deep into the project. With little to go on other than his own intuition, Pietsch shaped the novel into its current form. He makes no promises or excuses about what he’s done. No one can be sure what Wallace intended, but the editor took solace in knowing the author felt the book should be “tornadic,” suggesting chunks of sometimes disconnected writing coming at the reader in a high-speed, unpredictable swirl.

Foster’s style had always been discursive, playful and meta-fictional, making it easier for the reader to forgive the unfinished feel and jumpy cuts in The Pale King . Who knows what was intentional or polished by a writer who played incessantly with the form?

The story, which is set in 1985, certainly takes awhile to cohere. After a gorgeous two-page ode to a rural Illinois cornfield, Wallace begins introducing seemingly unconnected scenes and characters. We get to know one of them — an IRS agent on his way to a new assignment — by eavesdropping on his mind as it makes countless observations, connections and leaps from one topic to another. It’s not so much a stream of consciousness as a babbling brook of synapses that lays bare the muddy way we all think.

Suddenly, Chapter 9 begins with the words “Author here.” Wallace introduces himself and plants himself (or is it a character based on himself?) into the story. He refers the reader all the way back to the copyright page where the book has a disclaimer saying, “The characters and events in this book are fictitious.” Wallace demurs, saying that The Pale King is fact and more like a memoir than a made-up story.

Who knows? But, again, who cares when the writing is this compelling, turning the mundane into something positively thrilling?

Often studded with lengthy and arcane footnotes, “Wallace” recounts his semi-wayward youth, peripatetic college career (which was interrupted by a plagiarism scandal) and the by-chance road that lead him to a job at the IRS. He turned up in the wrong classroom at DePaul University (erroneously depicted as a Jesuit school) and stumbles upon a class in accounting.

Something clicks.

He follows his calling and enlists in the IRS, rendered here as a quasi-military priesthood for an elite cadre of those possessed with peculiar numerical interests, extreme concentration and an infinite capacity for boredom.

Though funny, gripping and quite entertaining (and also daunting in parts), The Pale King — like most of Wallace’s work — is philosophical at its heart. It ponders questions of work, the role work plays in our lives, how our lives adapt to work, our small roles in the larger machinery, the nature of reality and how the mind processes reality. Whew.

The book also is an extended meditation on how we focus on what catches our attention and why. It explores the meaning and value of that focus ... and wonders whether it is unavoidable.

In our ADD culture, those are questions worth the focus of these 547 pages — especially since they emerge from the exacting tornado of David Foster Wallace’s imagination.

John Barron is the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times.

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