Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Review: "The Pale King" by David Foster Wallace

I have never read any novel that was unfinished, and despite The Pale King, the final novel of David Foster Wallace being less than stellar, it is still a fascinating experience to read something whose meaning and themes will always remain at least a little bit ambiguous. About two years ago, I undertook Wallace’s most famous novel, Infinite Jest over one Christmas break. While its length and difficulty are more memorable to me now than certain scenes, it is still a feat of the imagination that has something for everyone. We’ll never know what Wallace wanted to do ultimately with The Pale King, but as it stands now, published with as best a polish as possible for what there was to work with, it can be a bit of a mess sometimes, and has passages that rival some of the jargon lists in Infinite Jest, just replace pharmaceuticals with tax codes. The plot is loose, as to be expected, even more so now since the novel is unfinished, but there are two story lines that I could decipher: one dealt with a man named Sylvanshine who works for the IRS who is a fact psychic, a person who knows intimate, unimportant details of a persons life, what they ate for breakfast five years ago, what they were thinking when they tripped over a decade ago, etc. The other concerns a fictionalized version of the author himself, David foster Wallace, who is hired by the IRS to gather personal information about the workers at a tax office in Peoria, Illinois. A lot of the clear meaning remains a mystery here, although, like Infinite Jest, Wallace is using modern technology to show the lengths we go to avoid unhappiness and loneliness. There are some funny bits, such as a chapter about a crossing guard whose kindness is destined to remain unrewarded, and the trials of a pathological academic who found himself working at the tax office out of fear and hatred for his dad. But it is quite directionless, and many chapters go on for such a long time that the reader just feels exhausted and wants it to end. Wallace could have made this something really cool if he was still alive, but as it is, it is little more than a curiosity.

Rating: 3/5

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