The Pale King

The Pale King



The Pequod Review:

David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008 and left behind a partially-completed manuscript for The Pale King, a novel exploring the same themes as his famous 2005 graduation-speech-turned-gift-book This Is Water — namely, how do we find meaning and transcendence in our distracted, consumerist, and often boring lives? Naturally, Wallace chooses to set his narrative inside one of the most (stereotypically) boring environments imaginable, the Internal Revenue Service.

The thesis of the book is perhaps best articulated by one of its characters, a tax accounting professor who gives his students a deeper philosophical lesson in the profession:

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.

While The Pale King is fragmentary and unfinished, and barely coheres into a novel, it is nonetheless a deeply moving but yet innovative work of fiction — another impressive achievement in a literary career that ended far too early.