Infinite Jest changes lives. After reading it, I cut back my time spent on the internet and started pursuing guitar, singing, tennis, and swing dancing. My dad quit his nightly habit of drinking a beer or two. David Foster Wallace's epic of diligent practice and crippling addiction packs a punch. At about five times the length of a normal novel, it is vast. It sprawls. Yet the writing--paragraph after paragraph, page after page--is tight and polished. And behind the words I constantly sensed a personality that is profoundly clever and sincere. It is hilarious, disturbing, and deeply sad; at its best, it is all three at once. David Foster Wallace successfully wrote a big book about everything. What next?
First, Wallace released two collections of short stories: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, "classic Wallace", and Oblivion, meticulous and unfathomable. He began work on a novel, but committed suicide before finishing. A stack of writing and manuscripts was left behind and pieced together by his editor, Michael Friesch. The Pale King is unfinished and it shows. The book is flawed yet, maddeningly, often brilliant. The masterpiece is still stumbling through its baby steps.
The Pale King is set in an IRS station in Peoria, Illinois. Wallace uses this setting to adress interesting and important issues. The tax examiners are used as an example of a job that is necessary for society, yet unbearably, heroically tedious. Questions: Why does everyone expect service from the government, yet hate paying the taxes that make these services possible? Is anything vital lost when humans are replaced by computers? Should the IRS's goal be to punish wrongdoers who are cheating on their taxes, or should it exist to raise money for the government? How does one maintain sanity when confronted with hard work and boredom for eight hours a day, five days a week, fifty weeks a year? These subjects combined with the politics and power struggles that exist in every organization, giving The Pale King the potential to be immensely poignant and relevant.
Unfortunately, the novel rarely says anything interesting. It skirts around the issues it raises, never making any astute or penetrating observations. Or, worse, it addresses the subject in an explicit, heavy-handed way that is closer to preaching than to storytelling. One chapter (19) abandons fiction in favour of being something like a modern day Platonic dialogue. And the points Wallace wants to make are not thrilling: I was unmoved by the portrayal of the hippie/counterculture movement as lazy college kids floating on their parents' wealth, and I was still unmoved when it was repeated a half dozen times. Wallace sets himself up with a situation where he can offer all sorts of profundity and insight--and profound insight is what he does best--but, this time, he cannot follow through on his promise.
The Pale King's other problem is that it lacks the polish of Wallace's other writing. Even when Infinite Jest tested my patience, the difficult passages felt necessary. The convoluted structures of Oblivion's short stories made me ask "Why?" But even though I could not think of answer, the complexity felt logical. Lengthy, dull passages of The Pale King do not add anything to the book; they do not ring with necessity or seem otherwise justifiable. Wallace writes himself (as well as another "David Wallace") into the novel, and spends a long time assuring us that it is not a post-modern game, but rather a way of avoiding lawsuits; I did not particularly care either way. The "narrator here" chapters and the passages about the double David Wallaces are the novel's most tedious. (From the notes included at the end of the book, it seems like Wallace was still figuring out what to do with the David Foster Wallace character.) Fifty pages are spent on a dull description of the drive to the Peoria IRS station. The book's longest chapter, written from Chris "Irrelevant" Fogle's POV is satisfying, but flabby; it could have been four times as good if it were half as long. Claude Sylvanshine has the ability to divine random facts in some parts of the novel, but not in others. Wallace's writing is normally precise, anal retentive. The Pale King is fatty, sloppy. Its sprawl lacks intention and purpose.
Despite these two problems, I enjoyed the novel. There are moments of brilliance. The book juxtaposes childhood events with the current day lives of the various tax examiners, and the emergence of this structure made me tingle with glee. Claude Sylvanshine's chapter at the beginning is lovely; it captures the fragmented multitasking of consciousness--past experiences, present ailments, and future worries all rolled into one--while being easily readable and crystal clear. A young couple's unwanted pregnancy is rendered tenderly and thoughtfully, showing Wallace's newfound ability to harness the emotional power of simple struggles. A hilarious later chapter reverts to Wallace's earlier style of writing ("The station's flagpole's flag's rope's pulleys and joists"), showing he has evolved and simplified as an author. Bloody mucous is involved. Published posthumously, The Pale King comes heartbreakingly close to being a masterpiece.