The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews The
Pale King
 by David Foster
The Pale King
by David Foster Wallace

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

When I reach for phrases to describe David Foster Wallace,
I find myself, with some embarrassment, falling into
terminology that has little to do with literary criticism.  The
descriptors that come to mind—"deep-souled" or "wounded
prophet" or "tribal sage"—seem to apply to some arcane
realm of spirituality or alternative psychology, and not to a
scribe and literary star.  Reading his work, I am constantly
reminded of Kierkegaard's
strange insistence on talking
to that "single individual" who
was his reader—sensing that
Wallace was reaching for a
similar type of compassionate
intervention, on an intimate
scale that sits uneasily with
the dictates of the modern-day
blockbuster novel or even
well-honed highbrow fiction.

But even stranger—and less
compatible with commercial
success—is the extravagantly
unconventional style in which
his stories are told.  He is a
daring writer, very daring.  I
would use the term "experimental," except that it implies
trying things that might fail, whereas Wallace rarely falls
short.   This combination of avant-garde techniques and the
deeply moving, human quality of Wallace’s writing is what
most impresses me about his body of work.   Somehow he
avoids the coldness and narcissism that inhabit so many
"experimental" works of fiction, even has he tries out the
most flamboyant ways of telling his stories.  Similarly, he
never runs aground on the sentimentality and clichés that
undermine so many other authors who try to tell tales with
the compassion and sensitivity that Wallace brings to his
enterprise.   He has somehow found a place betwixt and
between, where the avant-garde can coexist with the warm
and fuzzy, a place that other authors didn't even suspect

These qualities come to the fore in Wallace’s posthumous
The Pale King.  Certainly the track record of
manuscripts left behind by deceased authors is not a
promising one.  Few have championed the centrality of
works such as Vladimir Nabokov's
The Original of Laura,  
Ralph Ellison's
Juneteenth or Ernest Hemingway's The
Garden of Eden
.  And for every You Can't Go Home Again
2666, readers receive far more negligible bequests along
the lines of
Lost Laysen, The Salmon of Doubt or The
.  Yet The Pale King renews our confidence in
the often dicey partnership between a living editor and a
dead author.  Let me make no bones about it:  this book is a
masterpiece even in its fragmentary, incomplete state.

Few can doubt that  Wallace himself intended this work for
publication.   Before committing suicide on September 12,
2008, the author collected various completed chapters and
notes for the novel he had been laboring over for more than
a decade, and left them in a meticulous stack on the desk in
the garage where he did his writing.  As if to underscore his
intentions, he left the lamps turned on, shining on the pile of
pages.  "It was in as organized a state as David ever left
anything," his widow Karen Green later commented.  
Michael Pietsch, the novelist’s editor at Little, Brown would
take this final literary testimony, as well as supplementary
material found in notebooks, floppy disks, files and other
bits and pieces, and transform them into
The Pale King.  

Let’s state the obvious.  
The Pale King bears little
resemblance to a novel, or even an unfinished novel.  As it
stands, the "chapters" can be read in any order, and the
book could have been marketed as a collection of short
stories.   The plot does not evolve.  There is no build-up or
grand resolution.

Then again, Wallace’s two other novels are unapologetically
fragmented too.  
The Broom of the System (1987) ends on
an unfinished sentence.   ("You can trust me," a character
announces, "I’m a man of my…")  And his kaleidoscopic
Infinite Jest (1996) leaves more plots hanging
than a week’s worth of soap operas.  If Wallace had
The Pale King it would no doubt have looked
very different, but the looseness of the story line would
probably not have changed—that looseness, that sense that
the "center cannot hold," was a core part of what Wallace
envisioned for this book.

Wallace was never an author to shy away from challenging
subjects—check out his short stories "The Suffering
Channel" or "Incarnations of Burned Children" from his
Oblivion if you need proof of that proposition.  
But his aim in
The Pale King of writing a grand, massive,
heartfelt novel about the Internal Revenue Service is truly
aiming for the fences even by his own lofty standards.   Yet
far more daunting than the subject matter was Wallace’s
thematic concern with the subject of boredom.   Let other
American authors send their characters off in search of a
great white whale or down the Mississippi River on a raft,
Mr. Wallace puts them down in front of a desk with endless
piles of paperwork.  His goal is, in short, the most
transcendent of all:  the celebration and redemption of the
postindustrial working life.  If this isn't
Everyman for our
modern times,
The Pale King comes as close as possible,
perhaps too close for comfort.

Only a few authors have risen to this glorious task.  
Kierkegaard dealt with boredom in a brilliant and very
funny essay from
Either/Or in which he offer his "rotation
method" for relieving boredom.  He approached the subject
again in his
Repetition, a work that seems to me quite close
in spirit to what Wallace has attempted in
The Pale King.  A
host of artists from outside of the literary realm—whether
minimalist composers or Andy Warhol, whose film
captures five hours and twenty minutes of his friend John
Giorno's slumber—have tried to transform the boring into
something grander.   But no author has matched what
Wallace has achieved here: seizing a wry heroism from the
jaws of boredom. "If you are immune to boredom," he
asserts at one point, "there is literally nothing you cannot

To my mind, the central scene in
The Pale King comes
during the course of a long first-person narrative in which
IRS agent relates the "born again" moment in which he
accepted that a life of bookkeeping and auditing could
provide the central core of meaning in his life.   Our narrator
has led a lost life, marked by drugs, alcohol and a general
tone of irresponsibility, when he stumbles one day, by
mistake, into a class on tax accounting, led by a demanding
Jesuit professor.  The regular professor is absent that day
and a substitute has taken over, who gradually proceeds
from arcane matters of debits and credits to a full-blown
sermon on the deep inner meaning of the accounting
profession.   But the philosophizing here could apply equally
to any number of other jobs in our chained-to-a-desk

"Gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time
in an enclosed space is what real courage is. Such endurance
is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in the world
neither I nor you have made, heroism.  Heroism…I mean
true heroism, not heroism as you might know it from film or
the tales of childhood.  You are now nearly at childhood's
end;  you are ready for the truth’s weight, to bear it.  The
truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments
was not true valor.  It was theater….Gentlemen, welcome to
the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to
applaud, to admire.  No one to see you.  Do you
understand?  Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no
ovation, entertains no one.  No one queues up to see it. No
one is interested."

Anyone who doubts that this interlude forms the key to
The Pale King need merely compare it with David
Foster Wallace's
2005 commencement address at Kenyon
College, where he tried to prepare the graduates for the
"petty, frustrating crap" and "dreary, annoying, seemingly
meaningless routines" that awaited them in their careers.  
The views of our pseudo-Jesuit CPA are, it seems, much
closer to those of our author than anything related by the
two—yes two!—characters in this book who are named
David Wallace.  

Boredom may, at first glance, seem like an unworthy subject
for a great novel.  But a more probing analysis of our
modern-day society, a society built on distraction and
entertainment, reveals what a pervasive issue it is.  
Boredom is our secular equivalent of sin, perhaps even an
original sin, a metaphysical state inseparable from our
evolved human condition.   And just as our forebears in
more religious ages sought to avoid sin and—in the words of
the theologians—the "near occasion of sin," grasping at a
redemption that they always knew was temporary and
susceptible to another inevitable fall, just so does the
modern plugged-in, twitterizing, text-messaging citizen of
today struggle day in and day out to avoid the tedium that
always lays in wait.  

If you doubt this, just look at those two most honest
measurements of any society’s real priorities: time and
money.  It's no coincidence that an earlier generation
showed off its scientific advances by curing polio or going to
the moon.  In contrast, virtually all of the high-profile
technological advance of recent decades have been in
crafting consumer electronics and entertainment. A few
dollars go to Jerry’s Kids, but billions fund the next iPad,
iPhone and Twitter wannabe.

And this too explains why so few authors—or everyday
citizens—broach the topic of boredom.  Just as with sin,
again, a certain shame and embarrassment pervades our
addiction to diversion, our obsessive avoidance of boredom.
We would rather not be reminded of this degraded part of
our lives.

So David Foster Wallace is our prophet of redemption from
our secular sin.  And, as you know, we prefer our prophets
martyred and wounded.  No one can tell us why this deep
thinker and brilliant writer ended his life back on that day in
2008, but we harbor a suspicion and irrational hope that it
might have been for our sins, especially this big one we
shared with him.  That may be sufficient to explain the
spiritual terminology that this novelist seems to evoke.  But
even when judged by purely literary standards—as
inevitably many will feel compelled to do—
The Pale King is
a remarkable work and like to endure in a way its poor
author could not muster.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
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Special Topics in Calamity

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Tim O'Brien:
The Things They Carried

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More to come

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