Publication date: April 15, 2011
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Literary
I didn’t finish The Pale King. I tried. I really tried, but it is like a 400-level college English class—for majors only. And it’s almost 600 pages. The fact that it’s ostensibly about the IRS doesn’t help because if nothing else David Foster Wallace was a stickler for accuracy and cites copious amounts of tax code at a level that seems designed to make your eyes bleed. Add to that no central character or plot and you’re left with no hook for your attention. As the book stumbles from scene to scene I was reduced to skimming, in the hopes of finding something or someone I recognized.
As per a review on Goodreads there is a protagonist (also named David Foster Wallace) but I’m on page 230 and I can’t vouch for having met him on the way. Instead I’ve been introduced to an astonishing array of other characters all of whom are as sharply etched and clearly defined as he is vague and illusory. If you have always believed that only a deeply flawed, borderline mental case would work at the IRS then The Pale King is a text proving you correct. There is a man whose anxiety results in sweat so profuse it makes Albert Brooks’ performance in Broadcast News look dry; a woman with a childhood of abuse and neglect so profound she can only mask it for work while still perpetrating bizarre indignities and lies on innocent people; a man whose childhood was spent trying to kiss every part of his body; and a fact psychic (don’t ask). The level of detail in each of these characters’ psyches takes you past compassion and into a state of simply wanting them to go away.
In the same way that people call David Lynch an auteur, Wallace seems determined to push our patience as to what fiction, reading, and enjoyment should mean. Like the IRS itself this book is packed with unintelligible code, acronyms with no explanations, tax examiner jargon, chapters with no ostensible attachment to any others (some merely repeating the same sentence over and over), and footnotes within footnotes that cover a page. And like David Lynch movies there are those who will say you are too simpleminded to understand DFW’s genius. You’re right—I am and I don’t. I don’t deny the man could write—I just can’t follow it. His structure is non-linear and while I have appreciated that in numerous other authors in his case it goes too far. I have moments where I can’t even remember what I’m reading or what the book is supposed to be about which, as I deal with this in my reality, is too disconcerting in my fiction.
However, I DID finish The Pale King despite the beginning of this post and I am still not certain what it was about (except for the IRS). The subject is dubious, the plot disjointed, the characters unbelievably freakish but DFW has a way with words that cannot be denied. He sees very deeply and often with a sense of humor (which always works for me). While there were pages of tedium when I wanted to throw the book across the room there were also sentences that I re-read because they were so lovely or descriptive.
I imagine if you’re a fan you will continue to be, but the appeal of Wallace’s writing eludes me. As I read the last page I was left with ‘huh?’ as opposed to ‘wow!’. There was more satisfaction in reading the closing notes (Wallace committed suicide in 2008 and the book is an unfinished manuscript). Perhaps if he had lived and completed/edited the book himself I might have liked it more but I’m not even certain of that. I’ll chalk it up to experience but this ends my Wallace reading.