Book Review

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

hide the dfw; notes on craft & posthumous novels

Written May 30th

Lockdown has reached the point where it is causing me to make poor decisions, i.e. reading a 600-page tiny print, very long paragraphed collection of prose by David Foster Wallace. Embarrassing.

The title page – and introduction – inform the reader of The Pale King that what they are about to consume is “An Unfinished Novel”, edited together by Michael Pietsch from extensive notes, drafts and manuscripts in various levels of completion. As with similar “unfinished novels” published in the latter half of the twentieth century (Dark As The Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, Islands In The Stream, numerous Roberto Bolaño books), there is far more work/craft happening post-mortem than there was beforehand. At least, that is how these books often feel.

Writers write. It is what they do.

It is easy to spew hundreds of thousands of words over the course of several years, but what is hard is to create the 80,000 – 120,000 cohesive, engaging words that are required to comprise the standard novel.

A writer’s craft doesn’t come from writing words, it comes from writing “the right words in the right order“. It comes from selection and rejection, from knowing strength and recognising weakness; it comes from attention paid to the material one has to work with, and a deeper pool of deletable, removable, scenes and characters and sentences and descriptions, whatever, is valuable to the writer because from this, they are able to hone what is good.

For me, as an example, when I write my “widely-published and critically-acclaimed” poems, I write more words than I know I need and then I find the words that matter within those. An idea expressed as closely, as crisply, as possible is what I aim for – and sometimes (to be arrogant/have pride in my work) achieve – with my poetry. Not here, of course, this is just a place to veg out, man, to exude prose and emotion so I feel like I’m still able to do so once I feel able to work on work again.

The Pale King is not, really, a novel.

For it to have become a novel, it would have had to have contained far more internal cohesion than it does.

This is not a novel: it is a collection of linked short stories, sharing a setting and/or characters who are linked by a setting. The setting is an IRS office in a small town in rural Illinois in 1985 and though, yes, maybe what is provided here is an accurate reproduction of what working at an IRS office in rural Illinois in 1985 might have been like, why would I care about that? Why would anyone care about that? To learn about taxation in detail? But this is fiction, and it was being written two decades after it was set, meaning the tax laws and the tax policies that it describes were laws and policies from numerous governments ago.

As a statement on the intricacies of tax filing and tax administration, The Pale King was always out of date, but not so out of date that it’s interesting.

Pre-digital filing (both “filing a tax return” and filing as in admin, as in data storage) surely wouldn’t have lasted much longer than this, and surely the implementation, the shift from analogue to electronic data management would have been the interesting event justifying an exploration of the IRS in the late 1980s?

The shift from the pre-digital, pre-internet world to the digital, connected, world is interesting and important and relevant to now (and 2005), but pointing out the fact that obsolete technologies and business practices were inefficient seems a bit redundant. The ways in which Wallace explores attitudes towards taxation (though always from the perspective of IRS workers, sometimes imagining tax payer (TP)’s attitudes) is interesting, for example the idea of taxation as central to a society, taxation being part of the responsibility a member of a community undertakes in return for the [supposed] assurances and safeties of living in a “society”. Those safeties and assurances have been, all over the planet, proven to be oh-so-flimsy by responses to the current pandemic and – at time of writing – in the developing mass protests in the USA about systemic racial inequality.

So, no, The Pale King isn’t a novel. Some characters appear more than once, but there is only ever narrative progress or procession within individual chapters, like an old-fashioned sitcom.

There is a fictionalised undergraduate David Foster Wallace working at the IRS for a term due to a suspension from university (the chapters in this perspective feature Wallace’s “zany” footnoting asides), and the other perspectives are other, broadly similar but slightly different, white, middle class, university-educated men.

There is, alas, such a hefty amount of casual racism and casual sexism that I honestly feel astounded Michael Pietsch didn’t think it responsible to tone it down: The Pale King was published in 2011. Every woman described in the text is either hideously ugly or stunningly beautiful, and either stupid or boring, or not engaged with as a character at all. The sexism here – particularly in the context of further recent revelations about Wallace’s personal conduct towards women – is especially jarring, because 2011 – and even 2008, when DFW died – feel so much more culturally recent than 1996, when Infinite Jest was published.

What it shows – both in Wallace as a writer and Pietsch as an editor – is a crippling, ignorant and grossly Gen X attitude towards sociocultural engagement.

Wallace was a depressed, self-absorbed narcissist who wrote reams and reams and reams; it is telling and despicable that there is no care from his posthumous editor to avoid the unnecessary reputational damage of publishing a book in 2011 that exhibits a small town teenager’s concept of gender, race and sexuality.

The words “woman” and “female” are used interchangeably as nouns, which is pretty gross. I’m sure die-hard DFW fans would argue that his characterisation of his fictionalised self as hideous and disfigured by a facial skin disease means his depiction of almost every woman as also hideous isn’t sexism, but one of his literary tropes. But this is bullshit: whenever a man is introduced the reader is not told how sexy or ugly they are, but always when a woman is introduced, he (the reader, let’s be honest, it’s probably a “male“) is.

Often, too, there is material here that should have been cut or cut down. The Pale King is, frequently, boring.

The states of “boredom” and “attention” are thematic focuses in the text, yes, but exploring what boredom is by boring a reader doesn’t feel very… err… good.


When The Pale King is good, though, it is great. There were several portions that had me howling with laughter and also, sometimes (more rarely) feeling a little sad; when The Pale King is good, it is very very very good indeed, but packaging it as “an unfinished novel” feels dishonest.

This is not a coherent piece, not a novel; as a book it is patently unfinished, but published as if it isn’t.

A crueler, perhaps, editor, could have made this into a much better, much shorter book marketed as “unpublished short fiction”, and then kept the bad, mediocre and offensive material to use in a collection of “first drafts” and “works-in-progress”. Financially, I think, it would have been a better idea, as it would have been TWO books, one of which would have been a truly great book and POPULAR BECAUSE IT WAS SHORT, and another one that likely would have sold in similar quantities to how this one did, though it would have likely remained unread on most of the shelves it was on. Maybe this one should have remained unread on mine.


I picked up The Pale King (which I’ve had a copy of for several years) because last week I read the HILARIOUS LRB hatchet review of Infinite Jest from 1996 and I enjoyed remembering the novel so much I wanted to give this one a go. Yes, I was disappointed, but I was also, I must admit, frequently entertained.


I will close with a poem of mine (from Bad Boy Poet) that mentions Wallace in its first line, and refers, directly, to the time I moved this very copy of The Pale King from the top, to the bottom, of a box of books I had in my room, in anticipation of a hot date later joining me in the room. is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

1 comment on “The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

  1. Pingback: the mirror and the light by hilary mantel – Triumph Of The Now

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