Book review: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace 

Consider the tax return: the absurd inanity of matching numbers from your personal documents to government forms and filing it under threat of incarceration. Consider how boring the process is to you; now put yourself behind the desks of the people who have to review all those numbers. This is exactly what David Foster Wallace wants you to do in The Pale King. Wallace plays himself as a short-lived employee of the IRS, and peeks (rather a long peek, actually) into the world of IRS auditors to demonstrate that boredom is a part of the human condition that has yet to be adequately described. If you think boredom is bad, try writing about it. Most people can’t do it for more than a paragraph, or they write such incredibly dull stuff that the work is abandoned by its reader, thereby making its point by not making its point.

Wallace pulls it off while practically daring you to be bored with him. It takes him 50 pages to get from a bus station to his first IRS orientation. And he complains of another character that employs 25,000 words to explain how his drug use as a teenager prepared him for life with the IRS. It is dull, but in a way that makes you feel the characters’ boredom without losing interest. The book has several moments of shocking insight regarding the human reaction to dullness, delivered almost as throwaway lines. Such lines (often delivered as footnotes) have long been Wallace’s hallmark, and longtime editor Michael Pietsch makes sure they survive intact here.

Given Wallace’s suicide in 2008, it’s almost impossible to read The Pale King without approaching it forensically. Some will read it and speculate that his depression was rooted in ennui; some have already said that he was bored of being “the guy who wrote Infinite Jest.” The work is a hard act to follow.

Wallace never wrote about his depression directly; what clues he left are now being collected by graduate students everywhere. But The Pale King, ultimately, is worth examination for it’s own sake.

The Pale King

David Foster Wallace

Assembled by Michael Pietsch from notes by the author

Little, Brown and Company

$27.99, 538 pages


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