A few weeks before I purchased The Pale King
, I looked through its reviews here on Goodreads. People were waxing poetic about Occam's Razor and all sorts of other potentially pretentious thematic ideas, and even though I liked David Foster Wallace's writing, I was a little off-put. Could this unfinished novel really have changed so many peoples' lives?
Then I read The Pale King
.The Pale King
is not a 'novel' as Catcher in the Rye
or The Great Gatsby
are novels. I mean this in two senses:
1) It was not completed by David Foster Wallace himself; rather his editor cobbled together a book from thousands of pages of notes, character sketches and partially written chapters.
2) Even if DFW had finished the work, it would still not resemble a traditional novel in any way. It is unfilmable. There will be no Hunger Games
-style movie adaptation in x
-many years. There is no main character. One character is introduced (although not named) within the first few pages, then shows up only once more, 450 pages later, and despite this is an important figure. Even Gravity's Rainbow
has more consistency than this (and GR
is one of the most inpenetrable books I've read). The plot (in the few places it shows up plainly) seems to revolve around crazy/savant IRS employees in Poria, Illinois, and DFW goes out of his way to show the reader just how soul-crushingly boring their job is. So why would anyone want to read The Pale King
There're a few good reasons, actually. David Foster Wallace is one of the funniest non-comedic authors I've read. (I say non-comedic because he's not one of those crass TV comics who write a book as a cash grab.) One of the book's "main" characters, Leonard Steyck, is an anal-retentive guy whose childhood is one of the most disturbingly hilarious things I've come across this year. For instance, Steyck wears a carpentry apron in Home Ec class which features the phrase "LEN'S THE NAME, WOOD'S THE GAME" in Palmer cursive. They say that senses of humour are subjective, but DFW and I must be on the same wavelength because I almost fell out of my chair laughing.
DFW truly is a talented, even gifted, writer. You won't find any cheesy dialogue here. Instead, expect page-long sentences with more subordinate and adverbial clauses than the most hated grammar textbook out there. It may seem like tough going, but once you get used to this writing style, everything else seems like amateurish grade-school writing. (I picked up some horrible YA novel halfway through The Pale King
and was shocked that someone could write so blandly.) DFW's writing is just so vivid and full of surprises that you literally have no idea what he might mention next. For instance, a character named David Wallace (yes, this sounds like pretentious loser-ish writing on DFW's part, but it's not; I promise!) takes a trip to an IRS headquarters for some reason (can't exactly remember why; I've got to reread this passage), where he engages in an unforgettable experience with none other than the so-called 'Iranian Crisis', Mrs. Chahla Neti-Neti. I'm not going to spoil it but the word woodpeckerish
will stay with me until the day I die.The Pale King
isn't all fractured, tortuous reading though. My favourite passage is a 100-page-long chapter detailing a conversation between two IRS employees: drop-dead-gorgeous GS-10 Meredith Rand and robotic straight man GS-9 Shane Drinion. The dialogue is what most authors spend their whole lives trying to achieve. He pulls it off effortlessly. And one character actually levitates partway through for good measure. DFW is at it again.
I haven't even touched on the plot or how DFW forces the reader to experience the 'boredom' of the IRS by purposely writing key passages in as dull an authorial voice as possible. I've skipped over the conflict between man and machine that lurks beneath the characters' interactions. I've glossed over the psychology and the insanity and the troubled childhoods and the genius that make up this novel. It's a testament to DFW's all-encompassing vision that I can't really put to paper how fresh, how surprising these themes are. You really will have to pick up the book for yourself.
Nor have I mentioned the highest praise I can give The Pale King
. As soon as I had finished it, I closed the book, picked up my bookmark and said to myself, "I've got to read this again." And that's exactly what I'm doing now—starting right from the first page of the first chapter, about to rediscover everything that I loved so much about The Pale King