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VINE VOICEon 5 June 2011
How do you review a book that was never meant to be read in its current form? Where do you start? How do you know? "The Pale King" was left as a neat pile of papers as a final gift by DFW to his wife Karen; a kind legacy, a bitter suicide `gift'. The manuscript was by no means a coherent, complete piece of work and as we learn from the introduction to "The Pale King", Michael Pietsch, DFW's editor, had to sift through the debris in an attempt to join the dots. So this is what we have: "The Pale King: A Book that DFW, Maybe".

Revolving around the world of the IRS - the US tax office - "The Pale King" is fundamentally a book about boredom. For over 500 pages, this novel deals with the endless tedium of the modern worker; the alienation, the total absence of meaning. Even the luckiest among us will have, at some point, have experienced the soul-crushing effects of being trapped into the time-reversing vortex of boring work. For some of you, it might now only be the distant memory of a summer job; for others, and I sadly belong to the latter category, the above is a description of pretty much our entire working life.

If the thought of reading about Tax Assessors is already filling you with terror, I would call it a justified reaction. There are parts of this novel that are undeniably boring - making "The Pale King" a sort of `meta-novel' that bores the reader into understanding boredom. Characters describe long and abstruse administrative procedures; a handful of pages are devoted to explaining the intricate, arcane mechanisms of taxation.

Other parts - starting with the opening Section 1- are of pure, undiluted lyrical beauty. Others, still, are seemingly self-contained stories about characters who, had Wallace lived to complete the novel, might have played a big role within the narrative. Even in their embryonic state, characters like Leonard Stecyk, `Irrelevant' Chris Fogle and Shane `Mr X.' Drinion, the levitating Utility Examiner, will probably be etched in my memory forever.

It must be relatively easy, for any half-decent writer, to entertain a reader with stories of wizards, lost symbols, love triangles and unsolved mysteries. Instead, Wallace chose the tax examiner as his unsung hero; the dragon-slaying weapon of choice is a mindful state, the sense of being present in the moment to pay close attention to the `now'.

Mindfulness, as it gradually emerges as one progresses through the book, is the antithesis to boredom; a state of awareness, we are shown, is the only way to transcend the tedium of modern working life. This is clearly the `big' message that TPK would have carried, had it been completed. In one of the notes left with the manuscript - published as the "Notes and Asides" of the book, Wallace wrote:

"Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you've never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it's like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom".

So this is it; there is no resolution, no plot line that really develops. The `tornadic' nature of the novel was only beginning to take shape by the time I turned page 538 - "Section 50", the final chapter; as a result, I felt as if the story was only just beginning. If "Infinite Jest" was 1079 pages long, who knows how many pages would have been filled to contain a full, completed (albeit in relative, DFW terms for `completed') "Pale King"?

Giving this novel a `star' rating feels inappropriate, somehow; it was at the same time a great read, a dull read, a sad read, a funny read. At times, it had me want to shout `that's it! that's it!'. At others, I struggled to keep my attention focused on the page, all the time knowing that Wallace was testing me, putting me in the shoes of the IRS Examiners. When I got to the end, as if struck by momentary amnesia about the fact that I had been reading an unfinished piece of work, I felt the disappointment of realising that nothing was going to even remotely be given the chance evolve, let alone be resolved.

And yet, nothing I have ever read has ever felt so hard-hitting and relevant to my life. Am I, too, one of the modern life's unsung heros? Will I, too, be able to `step from black and white into color'? Can a mindful state save me, will I, too, metaphorically levitate above the humdrum of 9-to-5 living and find bliss?

Maybe. Despite the inevitable sadness associated to its posthumous form, this is a book of hope. For this, I thank you, and rest in peace, David Foster Wallace.
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on 4 July 2012
This is the most boring and also the funniest book I've read in ages. If that sounds an unlikely combination - well it's an unlikely book. The fact that it's unfinished explains the lack of plot, structure and narrative. I guess the fact that Wallace is a great writer must be the explanation for many of the fragments collected here being fascinating, thought-provoking and very funny.

The book is concerned with the US tax authority (IRS), and takes the form of a series of stories and anecdotes told by or about various characters who work there. The work of examining tax returns is described as the most boring job on earth - boredom and how to handle it is a major theme in the book. I have a personal interest here as I work for the UK tax authority and I could see parallels between some of the situations described and my own experience.

Some sections of the book really are quite dull and boring. At least some of the time this is deliberate - after all, the book is about boredom, and I think Wallace was trying to get the reader into the swing of this. I confess I skipped over some of the worst bits though - maybe he'd have toned this down a little if he'd finished it. Other sections provide some great characterisations and funny stories. The funniest bit for me was a story about the introduction of a progressive sales tax in Illinois in the seventies (reading this back I realise that doesn't sound like it would be funny but believe me it is). I had to Google it to check if it was a real or fictional anecdote (it's fictional).

So - although I skipped through some boring bits I enjoyed it and it made me laugh. The guy obviously had talent and I'd have liked to read the finished version.
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on 11 November 2012
Read David Foster Wallace and you find yourself ushered into the elite of contemporaty fiction. Literary types tend to mention his name in hushed tones. True, any reader who likes a plot, or an ending even, may as well forget it. This book was pulled together from fragments when the manucript was discovered following the author's death. It is indeed a mosaic of detours and diversions and digressions. But let's not come over all reverential. The Pale King is laugh-out-loud funny. Take the old lady on a commuter jet trying to break into the packaging of her complimentary nuts on page 2. And the central story itself about the unique brand of heroism needed to survive the tedium of firstly qualifying for, and then working in, the US tax service is splendidly arch. All done in an oral style, profane and colloquial and not remotely stuffy. If you liked Jonathan Franzen's Freedom you should enjoy the Pale King. Franzen does plot better, but DFW is, in my view, closer to genius.
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on 21 April 2011
If you strip away the veneer of the plot about the ennui that infests the world of IRS tax employees, you get, what I believe, is the real story that Wallace was attempting, the boredom that writers must tolerate when putting one word after another to capture the right tone and rhythm of getting a character to move from a sofa to a door. Only a serious novelist knows how much effort goes into what takes five seconds to read. Wallace deserves a Nobel. He's the 'Norman Vincent Peale' for all fiction writers.
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on 14 May 2011
Subtitled, "An Unfinished Novel," The Pale King startles by being so exceedingly unfinished. This isn't Kafka's The Trial, a largely complete novel; this is a very bare bones sketch of a work still in its infancy.

The Pale King should not be dismissed as worthless, however. Wallace's gift for writing means just about everything he finished is worth the effort required to read it. Loosely connected though many chapters may be there are still some gems here - chapter six, also published in the New Yorker, is extremely tender, almost heartbreakingly so; chapter 22's one hundred sprawl is as interesting as any of the author's previous maximalist prose.

However, there are many other chapters in this book that are a single page long and don't bring anything to the story apart from obvious humour. There are also longer sections that hint at greater details and revelations but, due to the unfinished nature of the novel, are ultimately meaningless. The novel's two longest chapters are a combined 160 pages. In a book that isn't even 550 pages long those two sections account for over a quarter of the novel - that shows how unbalanced this work is.

Michael Pietsch has no doubt done the best job with what the author left behind. This book is a jumble of characters, storylines and random pages with flashes of brilliance. Yet the hagiography that surrounds Wallace should not cloud the fact that this is far from finished and a novel that exhibits the expected shortcomings of any incomplete work. It's a good book that I enjoyed reading, but it's no final masterpiece and anyone looking for insights into the author and his end can find greater illumination in his other works. Only for established fans of the author, it's still a great joy that these pages have been published.
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Writing reviews on the late American author David Foster Wallace is an anxious and parlous process. There is first of all the saint like reverence in which is held in by his fans with Paul Morley on the Review Show proudly proclaiming himself as "Wallacistic" and in an almost Stalinist unthinking manner stating that within this new novel "every sentence and every word is tremendous" Then there is Wallace's brutal suicide in 2008 at the age of 46 which left the Pale King unfinished after 10 years of work. It was eventually compiled by his editor, Michael Pietsch, who has pieced together the finished chapters and undertaken a degree of guess work to bring a kind of conclusion to a work in progress. Then there is the literary figure of Wallace himself coming on the back of 1996's labyrinthine yet uber smart "Infinite Jest" a novel, which takes months to read, but which you can quote for years. This is followed by his tragic death as he stood on the steps of becoming one of the giants of American literature.

This reviewer may as well be honest from the start and state that "the Pale King" is far from the greatest novel I have ever read or reading pleasure I have ever experienced. It is a novel whose main subject matter is after all about apathy, bureaucracy, death and taxes. In addition the Pale King is a cloth sewn together with a raw outline workable pattern rather than a finished garment. Set in the Mid West during the Reagan era it is focused on the poor souls who "work" for the Internal Revenue Service Offices at Peoria, Illinois, in 1985. The IRS sits on the brink of huge change and the big question whether it is to be automated, computerised tax returns or human accountants are the future of this service. Some have seen the book as a direct descendent of Herman Melville's , Bartleby the Scrivener where a Wall Street clerk politely refuses to do anything other than copy, others will see it as a critique of late capitalism and the dehumanising impact of work. Nothing about Wallace however fits such easy pigeon holing. This is especially so since the main character in the book is none other than 20 year old David Foster Wallace a trainee whose acne is "disabling" and who comes into this stultifying environment where a training officer "has promised herself a bullet in the roof of her mouth after her 1,500th training presentation". Indeed Wallace prefigures the novel by describing it as seeking to "Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens." This is not true since the novel does have a sort of villain the "fact psychic" Claude Sylvanshine, brought into Peoria at the behest of "an administrator of administrators" to plot the sinister future and numerous other story lines and plots. Similarly the writing is on occasions wonderfully sharp and pointed with the IRS office described as giving "the spectacular impression of being in the centre of some huge and stagnant body of water", while at other times the description of tedium will resonate with those who have intimately watched the office clock on the wall.

In a book whose central theme is soul negating boredom it seems that the debt to one of Wallace's heroes namely Franz Kafka is writ large. Like Kafka his writing can be grotesque and gorgeous, check out the teenage character David Cusk, whose extreme public sweating kept him from having anything like a "normal" childhood. Yet you could never describe the Pale King in terms of sheer enjoyment, its neither a page turner and you put it down and don't break a sweat to rush back to it. On times it suffers from being a very messy novel, which has nothing to do with its "unfinished status" and everything to do Wallace's indulgent detours with the section on an employee "happy hour" taking an age to describe at which point I felt like the training officer subjected to a never ending stupor. Yet it is a strangely compelling read where references to suicide feel particularly raw and are coloured by your own views forged in hindsight and understanding of Wallace's fate. Equally was the Pale King the novel that Wallace really wanted us to see or was it one of the factors that led to his death? We shall never know but there is something tremendously sad about the publication of this intriguing book which even though it often reads as fractured reminds us that the author had many more brilliant literary miles to travel and that undoubtedly his best work was yet to come.
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on 17 August 2012
This incomplete novel consists of discrete episodes in the lives of employees of the Inland Revenue Service in the US in 1985. The second section in particular, the interior monologue of a psychic IRS employee mentally revising for an exam on a worrying plan ride, is particularly hard going - and I nearly gave up. I'm very glad I didn't, but this is probably not for everyone.

What's really impressive about this is the way in which it all comes together to give a real sense of the nature of office life, why people entered the IRS and their back stories, the office after work drinks, the nature of the work and the bureaucracy and competing views of what the IRS is for. I'm not sure I agree with the moral in section 44 that immunity to boredom is the one quality required for success in office life (though the rest of its truths - that life owes you nothing, that suffering takes many forms, that no-one will ever care for you as your mother did, and that the human heart is a chump) do have the ring of truth - and most are well illustrated in the novel.

New readers starting out on this should be aware: that it is very much a patchwork or mosaic, that the pieces don't seem particularly to fit together and that it is isn't going to go anywhere in terms of plot. How much of this is because the novel is unfinished, we will probably never know. But the individual sections I found did (with the possible exception of section 2) all hold the attention as short stories will. And I found the ensemble really did add up to something worthwhile. I will try more of David Foster Wallace's work.
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on 4 October 2012
It has to be acknowledged that this book isn't for everyone. Based on an incomplete manuscript, the book is really a series of beginnings, character backstories and sketches of office life and routines. There are also lengthy digressions about taxation and IRS bureaucracy that some might find tedious. However, what makes this a book of genius is the way that these tedious details illustrate the novel's theme, which is how individuals cope with the boredom which is a part of most office jobs, and how individuals relate to the corporations/bureaucracies that shape their lives.

While there are some flaws that are a result of the novel's incomplete state, the quality of the writing invites comparison with Pynchon and Joyce, and if taken as a series of loosely related short stories, is one of the greatest books I have read.
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on 23 April 2011
"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.
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on 6 January 2014
Quite simply one of the best books I've read in a long while. It's choppy and doesn't flow, keeping track of characters and the chapters' interrelations is nigh on impossible. But the foreword from the editor was incredibly poignant given the background with which this novel was assembled, the loss of Foster Wallace aches with this genius creation. It's not an easy read but I was gripped from the start and there were many parts where I laughed aloud, often on public transport, totally immersed. I would recommend it to any one, particularly people with experience of bureaucracy and repetitive tasks.
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