Published posthumously, David Foster Wallace’s last – and unfinished – novel takes place at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria and questions the meaning of life and the value of work and society.
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.