The Pale King
David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown, $27.99 (560p) ISBN 978-0-316-07423-0
A pile of sketches, minor developments, preludes to events that never happen (or only happen in passing, off the page), and get-to-know-your-characters background info that would have been condensed or chopped had Wallace lived to finish it, this isn't the era-defining monumental work we've all been waiting for since Infinite Jest altered the landscape of American fiction. (To be fair, how many of those sorts of books can one person be expected to write?) It is, however, one hell of a document and a valiant tribute to the late Wallace, being, as it is, a transfixing and hyper-literate descent into relentless, inescapable despair and soul-negating boredom.
The story ostensibly follows several recruits as they arrive at an IRS processing center in Peoria, Ill., in May 1985. Among them is David Foster Wallace, 20 years old and suffering "severe/disfiguring" acne. Everyone he encounters at the Peoria REC (Regional Examination Center; Wallace elevates acronyms and bureaucratic triple-speak to an art) is a grotesque: socially maladjusted, fantasizing of death (a training officer keeps a gun in her purse and "has promised herself a bullet in the roof of her mouth after her 1,500th training presentation"), and possessors of traumatic backstories. One recruit watches his father's death by subway car; another survives an adolescence of sustained and varied sexual abuse only to witness her mother's murder; another sweats constantly and so heavily that he dampens those unfortunate enough to be near him. These are the recruits training to become "wigglers," low-level IRS drones who crank out rote tax return reviews at Tingle tables (no etymology given) in the regional IRS office, calculating return-on-investment for potential audits and resigning themselves to a lifetime of tedium in an office where time is ticked off in fiscal quarters. They are only slightly aware of one another and exist as cameos outside of their own chapters. Meanwhile, a nebulous and menacing bureaucratic intrigue is afoot with the arrival of "fact psychic" Claude Sylvanshine, who is in Peoria to do advance work and intelligence gathering for his boss, Merle Lehrl, "an administrator of administrators" and dark puppet-master figure.
That's the structure. Wedged in are snapshots, character sketches, and anecdotes. There's a bombing at another IRS office, a mass poisoning, the specter of culture shift in the form of the "Spackman Initiative," a messy bureaucratic hangover spurred by a backlog-induced meltdown at another IRS office.
Stretches of this are nothing short of sublime-the first two chapters are a real put-the-reader-on-notice charging bull blitz, and the David Foster Wallace sections (you'll not be surprised to hear that these are footnoted) are tiny masterpieces of that whole self-aware po-mo thing of his that's so heavily imitated. Then there are the one-offs—a deadening 50-page excursion to a wiggler happy hour, a former stoner's lengthy and tedious recollection of his stony past—but this is a novel of boredom we're talking about, and, so, yes, some of it is quite boring. And while it's hard not to wince at each of the many mentions of suicide, Wallace is often achingly funny; a passage that begins "I have only one real story about shit. But it's a doozy" and ends with a "prison-type gang-type sexual assault gone wrong" is pants-pissingly hilarious.
Of course, this is an unfinished novel. It's sloppy at times, inconsistent in others, baggy here, too-lean there, and you rarely feel that the narrative is taking you somewhere. Instead, it's like you're circling something vague, essential, and frustratingly elusive. Yet, even in its incomplete state—Michael Pietsch, who assembled this from the reams of material Wallace left behind, deserves a medal and a bottomless martini—the book is unmistakably a David Foster Wallace affair. You get the sense early on that he's trying to cram the whole world between two covers. As it turns out, that would actually be easier to do than what he was up to here, because then you could gloss over the flyover country that this novel fully inhabits, finding, among the wigglers, the essence of our fundamental human struggles.