“But an unfinished novel is what we have, and how can we not look? David, alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.“
Paradox: We respect the man enough to treat his work with great reverence and it is a common reaction to feel connected to the author in a rare and unique way. Yet we don’t respect his obvious desire to not let us read unfinished work. It gets sort of extra questionable w/r/t publishing and capitalism and marketing (the paperback promises four unpublished scenes not in the hardcover!), but I can hardly act righteous or judgemental. I guess The Pale King is here and DFW is not.
A host of characters converge on the IRS Regional Examination Center of Peoria, Illinois, a drab and generic former factory town carved from the surrounding farmland. For reasons that never become clear (but are explained in DFW’s notes composed at the end of the book), there is a massive amount of transfers all arriving around this time in the mid eighties. All the main characters have various tragic or comic or incredibly self-absorbed backstories. There is a thematic bent to be explored through each of their situations (the character who is so incredibly nice and generous as to infuriate everyone around him, the character obsessed with finding people to “save” her, etc). The novel ends as you really start to know and establish attachments with the cast.
The IRS was undergoing massive changes in the mid-eighties. Another major theme is IRS as civics and as a noble, moral duty vs. IRS as profit generating entity run like a corporation to maximize profits by intelligently hiring and auditing and process-running. Thus the time period’s importance to the mid 2000’s era it was written in is exposed. Most of the cast are rote examiners, which involves examining IRS returns to determine which are worth auditing — a mind numbingly boring task. Boredom is the major question of the novel. Why is dullness so painful? Can it be overcome with some sort zen-type ultimate mindfulness? The content of the novel itself was supposed to embody this entire notion — instead of the normal building-tension-to-conclusion narrative arc, DFW’s notes explain the plot as:
“Realism, monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.”
The novel also runs a Princess Bride-esque gambit; William Goldman’s novel posits that it is not an original work at all, but an abridged version of the classic and impossible to find original written by one S. Morgenstern, which also happens to be a true account of real kingdoms. Likewise, Wallace, appearing in first person (“Author here.”), proclaims that The Pale King is not a novel. It’s is a memoir, detailing the year he worked at the IRS for a year when he was 20, with requisite backstory to explain getting kicked out of college and so on. While I knew most of the personal history was fictional, I had absolutely zero idea how much of the IRS minutia was — so the preceding paragraph’s IRS summary is probably false, at least in the real world. The Daily Beast has a fact checker on the issue.
The situation and real-life context here is impossible to escape. Every time a character contemplates suicide or knows someone who succeeded, there is a deeper pang than its mention in all of DFW’s other books and essays*. Worse though, is the finality, and contingent sadness. This is it. For the work and for the man even though he’s been dead a few years. Reading The Pale King means being sad for reasons that have nothing to do with the content itself**.
It is impossible to say how unfinished to the novel is. There’s occasional clunkiness or pacing weirdness that would likely have been smoothed out. The ghost, and I mean ghost, of a plot begins to materialize by the end — something considerably less solid than the plot of Infinite Jest, a novel notoriously low on cohesive and easy-to-ascertain plot. Its study of boredom and how to deal with it is not fully formed. The notes at the end reveal a major plot piece that is not even present in the existing text. In my imagination, The Pale King is at least as long as Infinite Jest.
*where suicide is seemingly omnipresent. Which sort of begs the question DFW poses in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again essay: Is it them or is it me? Is suicide — its ideation, contemplation, and fulfillment — a common but rarely intelligently addressed topic in general narratives (aside from maybe like tragic backstory or that one cousin or w/e) or is it specific to certain writers like DFW or is this all just a bunch of crap that I’m focusing too hard on because I know the writer eliminated his own personal map?
**I’ve rewritten this paragraph a few times because it sounds incredibly banal and rote. Of course it’s sad. A person died before their time. But it happens all the time. Maybe I’m just an uncaring monster, but I am feeling sadder than I do when most people I don’t know but know of dies. Like, I think, most people, death outside of my limited sphere of awareness is typically abstract.This is a cloudy sadness, a feeling of unfairness, and a deep feeling of unsettlement that something is wrong that will never be made right about the whole thing. The recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has provoked a similar reaction in people. Like a hammer-blow. The world is not as it ought to be.