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This review is from: The Pale King (Hardcover)
"The Pale King" is a novel assembled from a large collection of fragments left by the author after his untimely and tragic death in 2008. According to the editor's note at the beginning of the book there was no synopsis or outline of the novel as a whole and months of work were needed to attempt to put together a novel that approached what may have been Foster Wallace's intentions. There can be little doubt that a writer as meticulous as DFW would have been dismayed at the idea of an editor taking his unfinished work and publishing without his intervention; however, in the circumstances I think the decision was the right one. Unlike some posthumous works, this is not some early novel unfit for publication or the work of an author in decline: there is writing of the highest quality here.
My sense is that probably 70-80% of the novel was completed but there is clearly considerable uncertainty about the final structure and for this reason the novel is perhaps best approached initially as a series of short stories with a strong unifying theme: the activities of a group of employees of the US Internal Revenue Service in the mid 1980s when the organisation was undergoing some radical reorganisation.
The novel is at least to some extent autobiographical; Wallace apparently worked for the IRS for a year or so during the period when the novel is set. Chapter 9 is a strange `Authors Forward' in which DFW addresses the reader directly and states that the `characters and events are fictitious' disclaimer at the front of the book is completely misleading and that in fact everything is true. He then goes into a lengthy discourse about discussions with his publisher's lawyers, the obtaining of legal releases from some of his former colleagues featured in the book (plus the refusal of one of his family members to give such a release) and the extent to which autobiography can be truly accurate when filtered through memory and the writer's subjectivity etc. This all has the ring of truth but to what extent this is DFW throwing red herrings to his reader is hard to guess.
The book itself consists of 50 chapters of greatly varying length and no clear narrative structure connecting one chapter with the next; events do unfold through the novel however via the activities of the people in the group but the reader has to be very alert to the allusive character of the work.
DFW chose to set the novel largely at an IRS `Examination Centre' where employees are tasked with sifting through hundreds of tax returns that have been flagged up by a primitive computer system as possibly containing discrepancies indicative of underpayment; the work is unremittingly tedious while at the same time requiring a continuous high level of concentration and alertness in order to do it well - a production line without the option of switching off one's brain.
The main theme of the novel is around the people who have submitted themselves to this work regime, their individual characteristics and the way they approach the work and interact with each other. Many of the players have unusual personalities with several having strange and magical talents: Chris Fogle's ability to track the exact number of words he has spoken at any point during a conversation; Sylvanshine's unconscious acquisition of random facts about people in his vicinity (two colleagues unknowingly related `through a liaison five generations ago in Utrecht') and Drinion, a high-functioning autistic, gradually levitating from his chair during a lengthy and intense conversation with Meredith Rand, the office beauty. All this leavens long passages describing in comprehensive detail the inner workings of the IRS bureaucracy in DFW's meticulous and rather addictive prose (plus footnotes). Many chapters are in the first person where the speaker is not explicitly identified; the reader had to pick up clues and cross-correlate information from other chapters to fully work out what is going on.
This book will undoubtedly be compared with `Infinite Jest'; `Pale King' has a similar convoluted structure but is much more circumscribed in its theme. It is also a darker work with none of the big set comic pieces which intersperse `Infinite Jest' though not without a lot of black humour. Above all, DFW's writing is a huge pleasure to read and the novel has a great degree of empathy with its characters. Not perhaps the best novel for newcomers to DFW but definitely recommended for fans.