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Courage required for unfinished novel, The Pale King

True courage, according to one of the eccentric wizards of accountancy who populate David Foster Wallace's impossibly ambitious, unfinished but nonetheless just-published new novel, The Pale King, is "enduring tedium over real time in a confined space."

The wizard is preparing initiates for a lifetime spent examining income-tax returns, the quintessence of tedium, which Wallace perversely chose as the dramatic heart of The Pale King. But readers who have penetrated that far into the dense core of this aptly described tornado of a novel - an Internal Revenue Service sub-office on Self-Storage Parkway, Peoria, Ill. - will inevitably read the exhortation as coming direct from the author himself, urging them to buck up as he buries them in a thick mass of financial arcana in a bold attempt to recreate the actual feeling of being bored to death.

Courage is required to endure The Pale King. But whatever rewards it might pay in return will always be clouded by the fact that its author failed in the same task, notoriously hanging himself in the fall of 2008, leaving less than half the novel in a neat pile on his desk and what appeared to be the balance of it in a scattered mass of files, disks, printouts and handwritten notes equivalent to 3,000 pages in manuscript - "a green duffel bag and two Trader Joe's bags" worth, according to Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown, the seasoned New York editor who rescued it from the California garage where Wallace worked, and spent the next two years collating and reducing it into a dense, hyper-articulate and anything-but-linear 539-page novel.

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The fact that Wallace did not survive the effort of writing The Pale King haunts every chapter of the book, especially the jaunty incursions written in the first person, each beginning with the brisk salutation, "Author here," which enliven the early chapters. "It's a book that's being published after his suicide, and it's a book that looks into the fire of some of life's most difficult aspects," Pietsch said. "So of course readers will look at it in that light."

Pietsch surveyed the work at the behest of Wallace's literary executors, his widow Karen Green and agent Bonnie Nadell, who asked him to assess the feasibility of excavating a publishable novel out of the mass. "Did I hesitate?" he asks, repeating a question put to him. "Not once I had read it and saw how he had created this enormous, beautifully populated, enormously philosophical book. I did not hesitate."

"I feel it was an entirely valid decision," Pietsch added. "If he had lived, of course, the book would not have been published in this form. But he did not live."

As the editor who helped Wallace bring Infinite Jest into print, Pietsch was extremely aware of the author's perfectionism. After Wallace's death, he published a now well-known essay on the intense bargaining process of editing his work. But the novel-like text published as The Pale King - its structure a matter of guesswork, crucial pieces clearly missing and others made from unrevised, handwritten drafts - is anything but perfect.

The easiest part was to find the latest versions of chapters Wallace had reworked, according to Pietsch. But their order was a matter of guesswork, he said, and neither beginning, middle nor end were readily apparent. The "Rosetta Stone" of his search for coherence appeared as a handwritten chapter that intimated the semblance of a plot. "It was the 234th piece that I read, and at last I saw he had written a scene where all these characters were in one place at the same time," Pietsch said.

Posthumous publication has occurred "since publication began," according to Pietsch, beginning in English with William Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. But Pietsch enjoys the special distinction - after beginning his career editing Ernest Hemingway's The Dangerous Summer, published posthumously in 1985 - of recovering the literary remains of two notorious suicides.

While Hemingway's physical and mental decline was clear to all before he shot himself, Wallace masked his despair with work, according to Pietsch. "I did not know of his illness," the editor said. "He was a productive writer throughout his life. Even though he often wrote about people with extremely difficult mental conditions - and it was clear he understood mental difficulties - I felt that the humour of his work and his constant output were evidence of someone who was healthy."

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Due for official release on the U.S. tax-return deadline, The Pale King has already been hailed as the finest work of a master whose previous novel, Infinite Jest, stands as a kind of monumental summation of all that 20th-century fiction hoped to achieve. Although only half that book's size in its current form, it is equally, impossibly ambitious: nothing less than an effort to explore human consciousness to its outermost limits while simultaneously attempting to decipher what the author strongly suspects to be the master code of human society - its invisible systems of public finance.

The cover illustration, created by Green, Wallace's widow, is a montage made with shredded pieces of one of the author's own tax returns. Inside, the novel reads as if James Joyce and Kurt Vonnegut had collaborated in a herculean effort to elucidate a truth first expressed by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, but never much considered by world literature, that "fiscal history, stripped of all phrases," reveals all that can be known about a people, its social structure and cultural achievement. "He who knows how to listen to the message here discerns the thunder of world history more clearly than anywhere else," Schumpeter wrote.

Wallace is at his most buoyant in the passages where he pretends to be himself, posing as a young inductee to the Peoria catacomb, and insisting amid a typical flurry of involuted footnotes that " The Pale King is basically a nonfiction memoir, with additional elements of reconstructive journalism, organizational psychology, elementary civics and tax theory, etc." In his "Author's Foreword," which is actually Chapter 9 of the novel, Wallace maintains that the standard disclaimer at the front of The Pale King - that "the characters and events in this book are fictional" - is itself part of the fiction.

As uneven and exhausting as it is exhilarating, The Pale King is unlikely to replace its predecessor as Wallace's acknowledged masterwork. But the "real self" that speaks through its pages - a beautiful mind humming with intellectual energy, glittering with multiple coats of irony and tortured by its own depths - will surely survive as one of the great fictional characters of 21st-century fiction.

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