In the early 1980s, American writer David Foster Wallace suffered a nervous breakdown while away at college and retreated to his parents’ home to recover. He drove a school bus for a while. He was diagnosed with depression and started taking medication. Eventually, he returned to Amherst, where he took courses in creative writing. He went on to pen Infinite Jest, one of the most critically lauded novels of the last quarter-century. His short stories garnered wide acclaim; several pieces of his long-form journalism are rightfully celebrated as classics of the genre. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the “genius” grant. In 2008, after discovering that his antidepressant no longer kept the symptoms of his illness at bay, he killed himself.
In his eagerly (if sorrowfully) awaited posthumous novel The Pale King, the character David Wallace also misses out on his junior year in college. This time, though, the problem is legal. Having honed his skills as a writer by channelling the voices of his classmates in papers that he plagiarized for them (while pocketing a tidy sum), Wallace is duly caught, punished and sent into exile. Desperate, he joins the Internal Revenue Service as a junior functionary. Mistaken for yet another David Wallace, a higher-ranking IRS official, the author’s fictional doppelgänger is released into an absurd labyrinth of bureaucratic procedure and institutional paradox.
The Pale King is styled as a “vocational memoir” as well as “a portrait of a bureaucracy.” The David Wallace who appears in these pages emphasizes that what you’re reading is autobiographical, and that the fictional flourishes (shifting point of view, fragmented narrative, “willed incongruities”) are solely meant to provide him with legal cover should certain parties dispute his account (for instance, the IRS).
Of course, given that this entire episode is invented, his insistence on factual veracity requires closer examination. By recasting his interrupted year as a fictional misadventure in the tax bureaucracy rather than the beginning of a lifelong acquaintance with the medical establishment, Wallace is able to explore the dynamic of institutionalization while maintaining some distance from his ongoing struggle with mental illness.
When Wallace’s widow and literary agent began organizing his papers not long after his death, they discovered a massive work in progress. Michael Pietsch, the editor who worked with Wallace on Infinite Jest, was retained to shape this project into novel form. Pietsch had his work cut out for him; the partial manuscript amounted to hundreds of pages and dozens of distinct sections, ranging from the finely polished to the roughly sketched. What’s more, Wallace didn’t leave an overview of the novel or instructions regarding how the various sections were to be assembled. Pietsch’s accomplishment in bringing all of these elements together is substantial, but the fact remains that The Pale King we have tantalizes more than it satisfies.
Characters are introduced only to disappear, dramatic situations are hinted at but left undeveloped, the plot goes nowhere in particular – more accurately, it goes to Peoria, Ill. – and Wallace’s formal dexterity occasionally verges on “titty-pinching,” his term for an obligatory and thus brittle sense of playfulness. The author himself describes the text “as a series of set-ups for things to happen, but nothing ever happens.”
All of this may seem like a significant barrier to this book finding a readership, but the funny thing is that much the same could also be said of Infinite Jest, which features an elaborate non-linear narrative structure that simply stops rather than ends, denying the reader any sense of closure.
Like its predecessor, The Pale King is an electric novel of ideas. Wallace uses the tax system as a means to explore our obligations to one another, what it means to be bored and the problem of information, which is to say, what happens when there’s too much of it, overwhelming our ability to make meaningful choices.
Aside from the character David Wallace, some of the more memorable figures include Toni Ware, a disturbed woman haunted by an abusive past, and Claude Sylvanshine, a “data mystic” who has access to random bits of information that he can’t possibly know (“The middle name of the childhood friend of a stranger they pass in a hallway”). These characters don’t have much in common beyond the fact they all find themselves at an IRS Regional Examination Centre in Peoria, Ill., on the same day in 1985.
Their interactions take place against an uncertain backdrop of vast change as the IRS comes to grips with Reagan-era free-market initiatives. This has wide-reaching effects on the culture of the place, leading to factions, conspiracies and the usual sort of manoeuvring when a large organization is forced to revise its “institutional sense of self.” Along with the characters, we are plunged into the murk of office politics and administrative rivalry in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy so vast no one has any meaningful perspective on the whole. This confusion, as much as the incomplete status of the manuscript, makes reading The Pale King a disorienting experience.
However, what it lacks in terms of a clearly elaborated plot, it makes up for in other ways. The drone of bureaucratese on one page is followed by moments of shocking lyricism on the next; the story of Toni Ware’s hardscrabble childhood (“Begat in one car, born in another”) is among the most harrowing and beautiful passages in Wallace’s work. More than anything, though, The Pale King reminds us what literary ambition looks like, and at what cost.
Matt Kavanagh is doing his taxes and hoping there’s a write-off for all those David Foster Wallace books on his shelf. He teaches English at Okanagan College.