Even before I’d read the book, I anticipated critical praise for David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published fragmentary novel The Pale King. His previous books won him ardent admirers, and rumors about The Pale King suggested it would be exactly the kind of thing that would please his fans. I was not wrong in anticipating excitement over Wallace doing again what he’d done before.
Some reviewers did find much to like in the book and its accountant characters and invoke its unfinished status to explain away any weaknesses. Here’s how Richard Rayner concludes his review for The Los Angeles Times: “Much of the The Pale King is … hard work, but it’s welcome rather than the reverse, a shadow of the now lost ‘something long’ that Wallace might or might not have completed but still brilliant, a Spruce Goose of a book that barely achieves takeoff but glimmers and sparkles with sufficient suggestions of the grandeur that might have been.”
The job of a reviewer is to assess actually existing books, not books that might have been. (My review for The Oregonian appears in section O, p. 10, of the April 17, print edition.) If Wallace had lived to finish The Pale King, then it might have been very different. Perhaps it would have been better. Perhaps it would have been worse. I can’t say. Nor can anyone else. If, years in the future, an alternate version appears, with chapters rearranged and additional material added, I would not be surprised. However, as of April 2011, what there is to evaluate is what editor Michael Pietsch assembled.
And that book, in my opinion, is aggravating and tiresome. In a prefatory note, Pietsch recalls thinking that if anyone could make the IRS interesting, Wallace could. But I don’t think Wallace actually tried to be interesting in The Pale King, and, in any case, his isn’t. He repeatedly draws attention to the boringness of the text, as if doing that were clever. Some readers apparently think it is. Judith Shulevitz, for instance, insists that it’s “almost never boring” in an overwhelmingly effusive Slate review. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys listening to people go on and on and on about their drug use in college, then you might dig The Pale King. (Rayner at least notices that there’s plenty of “dead ink” in addition to what he considers “great writing.”)
I suspect Wallace enthusiasts congratulate themselves on their own perceived cleverness for “getting” what he’s up to in his highly self-conscious, digressive, long-winded, inconclusive, footnote-laden fiction. (Unlike Emily Cooke, of The Millions, I never grew to “love” Wallace’s footnotes.) In The Pale King characters praise the fortitude necessary to endure boredom, and a certain brand of reader inevitably stepped forward to announce his heroism for braving Wallace’s wearisome book.
The Pale King has no clothes. Reading it made me remember the anecdote about Kingsley Amis throwing Martin Amis’s Money across the room when he saw that his son put a character named Martin Amis in the novel. Wallace having a David Wallace character alone doesn’t bother me. (And I actually like Money.) But The Pale King reads like an elaborate but painfully unfunny joke. Deliberately tangled prose about boring subjects doesn’t stop being boring because of self-referential commentary about boringness. I imagine the author of Lucky Jim would be annoyed, as I was.