It seems to me there are two ways of understanding the document assembled from a jumble of boxes, disks and printed or handwritten papers…The first is as a coherent, if incomplete, portrayal of our age unfolding on an epic scale: a grand parable of postindustrial culture or ‘late capitalism,’ and an anguished examination of the lot of the poor (that is, white-collar) individual who finds himself caught in this system’s mesh … the second way of understanding the whole document: as a much rawer and more fragmented reflection on the act of writing itself, the excruciating difficulty of carrying the practice forward — properly and rigorously forward — in an age of data saturation.
It feels less like an incomplete manuscript than a rough-edged digest of the themes, preoccupations and narrative techniques that have distinguished his work from the beginning. After all, Wallace always disdained closure, and this volume showcases his embrace of discontinuity; his fascination with both the meta and the microscopic, postmodern pyrotechnics and old-fashioned storytelling; and his ongoing interest in contemporary America’s obsession with self-gratification and entertainment … In this, his most emotionally immediate work, Wallace is on intimate terms with the difficulty of navigating daily life, and he conjures states of mind with the same sorcery he brings to pictorial description.
… a book that reads a lot like a David Foster Wallace novel, though it’s impossible to guess how closely or distantly it resembles the novel that Wallace was trying to write. The narrative momentum...is painfully absent, yet many of the fragments are so engaging and well done that it’s surprisingly hard to put the book down … Wallace’s basic idea of penetrating the drudgery of the grown-up world and emerging on its far side in possession of transcendent revelation is here so unrealized that the reader can hardly see how it might have been otherwise. The best one can do is to imagine The Pale King as half a book, at most, and believe its author to have been capable of pulling off the miracle in its unwritten pages—which isn’t inconceivable.
Most writers try to disguise their research, or blend it in so it doesn’t stick out. But Wallace’s research is the book, and not simply because it is unfinished. He doesn’t hide it, nor would we want him to because the world he creates with it is so colossally fascinating … The Pale King is ultimately a compassionate view of the individuals who make up the IRS, the institution we have all grown to hate. It’s awe-inspiring that David Foster Wallace, one of the greatest writers and social critics of our time, should make the IRS the subject of his final novel, and that a man for whom no institution was sacred, in essence found the sacred in human beings struggling to survive that institution.
Certainly Wallace had set himself a problem masochistic or quixotic in its difficulty: how to write an interesting novel about that byword for tedium, the IRS? And how to write a religious novel–which is what The Pale King is, in its preoccupation with grace, illumination, and purpose–about the most disenchanted and secular of professions, namely accounting? … Wallace wants us to see what the examiners, at the height of their boredom, can’t, quite: the relation of the human skeleton to the bureaucratic thumb bone turning the page … The book’s inconclusiveness keeps alive his questions, and ours, in a way a completed work wouldn’t.
The Pale King is, for great swaths, an astonishment, unfinished not in the way of splintery furniture but in the way of Kafka’s Castle or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine … The book demands our attention precisely because while we’re reading it, David Foster Wallace is again the most alive prose writer of our time—and the one who speaks most directly to our condition … The Pale King isn’t telling us, I don’t think, to sing hosannas to the fluorescent-lit drudgery of our day-jobs. Rather, it’s showing us, phrase by phrase, an act of long, hard, loving attention.
Chapters that may have been little more than extended character studies vary, unsurprisingly, in their effectiveness. The best of them tend to be self-contained vignettes that are, mostly, untethered to the underdeveloped main plot … Broadly comic chapters are haunted by a poignant refrain, what must surely qualify as the whole point of this whole sadly unfinished business. Each of these characters operates in a workday universe of almost unbearable monotony; they are awash in a never-ending flood of data whose ultimate meaning is never made clear to them. Despair is an occupational hazard.
The Pale King is by turns funny, shrewd, suspenseful, piercing, smart, terrifying and rousing. It feels less intently worked than Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest, and is much better ventilated than his last short story collection, Oblivion … The Pale King is ‘about boredom,’ although that is only where it starts. It’s also about the transformation of America from a stakeholder society in which citizens view themselves as active, responsible participants into a consumer market in which people simply demand value for money. And it’s also about existential dread and loneliness, which ‘David Foster Wallace’ suspects of being at the root of the human aversion to boredom.
You'd be forgiven for suspecting that a book about random people who work for the government sounds insufferably tedious. The reason it's not has to do with the word about—it's the wrong word, the wrong preposition. Wallace doesn't write about his characters; he hadn't in a long time. He writes into them … Wallace's choice of the IRS as a setting makes sense when you consider that he's doing something theological in this novel, and the ‘service,’ as the employees call it, provides him with convenient Jesuitical overtones. He was using the IRS the way Borges used the library and Kafka used the law-courts building: as an analogy for the world.
[Wallace’s] final attempt at writing fiction, The Pale King, appears to have been part of a heroic effort to think about nothing. Or to control the ever-threatening information-flood while continuing to function—the way a graphomaniac might compile endless tables of statistics to ward off the dreadful alternative. Quite a lot of The Pale King is composed of statistics. It is the supreme example of purposeful boredom in literary form … There are almost 550 pages of wispy narrative threads, some of which show signs of what once seemed boundless linguistic and narrative gifts. The kindest way of looking at it is as an attempt at a cure, self-prescribed: For head-exploding brilliance, try boredom, the last-ditch remedy.
How Wallace planned to steer us through these richly imagined lives, if he did at all, shall remain a mystery. It seems possible he would have had it both ways — a deep panoply of lives and the post-modern awareness of how this was all constructed, both the work and the vortex of current life … The Pale King gives us, at its best, a glimpse of a writer wrestling with these questions. How do you imagine the texture of boredom without being boring? Where do you acknowledge your reader without breaking the spell that defines a reader’s existence? At its worst, the book reminds us that Wallace would have given this novel a shape that turned such interrogatives into a system of its own.
Let's state this clearly: You should read The Pale King … The Pale King asks you, for instance, why it is that you haven't spent more time considering the morality of our tax code. It asks what it means to be a citizen of Grand Rapids, Michigan, or Beloit, Wisconsin, or Peoria, Illinois, and whether being an American really means anything at all … Throughout The Pale King Wallace asks these questions of us. Or rather through some function of his genius, he causes us to ask these questions of ourselves.
The time is 1985, selected as a decisive and ill-omened moment when the balance of the culture tilts away from civic responsibility and toward mechanized dehumanization and a corporate menace that will be aided and abetted by changes in the tax law … The Pale King" features an array of laid-back yet scintillating sentences, bucketloads of anecdotes and comic asides, a number of indelible characters to add to the Wallaceian roster, and more dull tax facts than the average CPA or even the most fanatic Wallace nerd will care to swallow.
The dialogue is dead-on, real to the point of occasionally being exhausting...But this is also a David Foster Wallace novel to its core, which means it employs literary devices that will tire many readers. It boasts pages upon pages of IRS jargon and protocol, in which Wallace steeped himself tirelessly for the sake of research … The book is far from incomplete in its handling of a host of themes … The experience to be had from reading The Pale King feels far more weighty and affecting than a nicely wrapped story. Its reach is broad, and its characters stay with you.
After 65 pages of [character sketches], The Pale King arrives at its ‘Author's Foreword.’ There, in a voice that comes closest to Wallace's celebrated nonfiction, a character named ‘David Wallace’ insists that we've really been reading a ‘vocational memoir,’ disguised as fiction for legal reasons. This lets Wallace riff on our age's lack of filters and boundaries … If Infinite Jest diagnosed a problem, The Pale King reaches for a solution. Wallace completed only one of these books, but they both work as well as anything in the past two decades of American literature.