The Pale King

By David Foster Wallace
Publisher:Little, Brown and Company, (4/15/2011)

Average Rating:
Mildly Unleashable
2.25 out of 5 (4 Clubie's ratings)

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The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace. But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that new employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling. And he has arrived at a moment when forces within the IRS are plotting to eliminate even what little humanity and dignity the work still has.

The Pale King remained unfinished at the time of David Foster Wallace's death, but it is a deeply compelling and satisfying novel, hilarious and fearless and as original as anything Wallace ever undertook. It grapples directly with ultimate questions--questions of life's meaning and of the value of work and society--through characters imagined with the interior force and generosity that were Wallace's unique gifts. Along the way it suggests a new idea of heroism and commands infinite respect for one of the most daring writers of our time.
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Steph's thoughts on "The Pale King"
updated on:6/10/2011

My "mildly unleashable" rating  may be more indicative of the type of reader that I am than how this book should be rated.  One thing I can state with certainty is that this is one of the most challenging things I have ever read and had I not been reading this for the book club, I likely would have abandoned it early on.  That said, I am glad that I didn't bail because even in my sometimes bewildered and sometimes weary (this is the only book where I think I have actually skipped whole pages) state David Foster Wallace's brilliance is glaringly apparent.  When I was able to approach the book as a collection of stories rather than a novel, it allowed me to start to absorb it and even enjoy it.  I’m not sure enjoy is the ideal word; appreciate might be better.  I was particularly moved by how Wallace’s descriptions of sometimes mundane, sometimes excruciatingly personal and painful experiences are gently treated, but not in a way that induces pity, but real, heartfelt sympathy.  A sympathy that, for me, started to extend beyond the book to people that I overlook or even avoid every day.  My husband says, that if everyone wrote or told their story it would be worthy of hearing or reading.  And he’s not the only one to embrace this idea.  NPR’s This American Life and the segment on CBS Sunday Morning where the reporter picks a random place on the globe and then a random name in the phone book and interviews them, are just a few.  And it was hard for me not to think about the author’s own life and death while he was in the midst of writing this book as you’re reading some of the passages.  I did find myself thinking about the book quite a bit.  Not in a way that I think about other books –wondering what’s going to happen next, but actually thinking about life and the things and people and moments I have overlooked for whatever reason.  This is a book that I could see myself coming back to and reading again.  Maybe not in the way I read it this time, cover to cover, but take my time and savor it.  Just as the book has reminded me that that’s how life itself should be approached. 

Mildly Unleashable

Nick's thoughts on "The Pale King"
updated on:6/6/2011

This book really spun me for a loop and it's hard to know what to make of it. I can't say I really loved the novel as a whole, but I am intrigued by Wallace's writing style. The preface to all this is, of course, that the book is unfinished. And parts of it feel extremely unfinished. Long swaths of the novel are punishingly dull and undisciplined, but then other the college flashback...were excellent. But to mine those parts out while navigating the rest of the book (including the seemingly endless and odd author's notes that are more footnote than narrative) is going to be far too much for the average reader to deal with...including this one. The concept of the novel is interesting and there is a good story at its heart, but it's just way too much. This was an extremely rough draft that still needed quite a lot of work. One wonders what it would have been like if David Foster Wallace could have finished it.

Mildly Unleashable

Ceci's thoughts on "The Pale King"
updated on:5/31/2011

The Editor’s introduction identifies two thoughts that perfectly capture my reading experience. First, that David Foster Wallace "set out to write a novel about some of the hardest subjects in the world - sadness and boredom - and to make that exploration nothing less than dramatic, funny, and deeply moving." Second, that "there is no question that The Pale King would be vastly different had [DFW] survived to finish it." My whole time reading, I could not stop thinking about that second point as I made my way through this engaging, but often challenging book - is this the book that DFW intended me to see, and how different is it from what might he have "finished"? But maybe that's more of a philosophical question or a readers' ethics debate, as there is much to appreciate and enjoy in this book. The spot on portrayal of today’s desk jockey ("True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space." "Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemerally, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui - these are the true hero's enemies, and make no mistake they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.") The many and varied ways in which utter tedium and mind-numbing repetition is brought to life, fought, vanquished, and sometimes not vanquished (One character tries to focus his concentration by imagining a beach scene, which evolves into "solid cement instead of sand and the water was gray and barely moved, just quivered a little, like Jell-O that's almost set . . . . Unbidden came ways to kill himself with Jell-O.") The slow reveal of each of the characters, and their painful, particular problems (e.g., "Fear of spiral notebooks, the kind with the spiral or wire down the spine; fear of fountain pens - though not felt-tip or ballpoint pens, unless the ballpoint is one of those expensive ones with an aspect of permanence - Cross or Montblanc, the kind that look gold - but not plastic or disposable ballpoints"). And the funny. Sometimes laugh out loud funny (one character's life changing epiphany comes while watching the intro to the soap opera, As the World Turns, hearing the voiceover intone, "you are watching, As the World Turns," and realizing "that the announcer was actually saying over and over what I was literally doing."). Reading David Foster Wallace has been on my to-do list for a very long time. Although the "Unfinished Novel" may not have been the best place to have started, I will most definitely be reading more. 

Very Unleashable

Book Junky's thoughts on "The Pale King"
updated on:5/27/2011

Life is too short. That is my conclusion. I did not come to this conclusion from the content in this book, rather… from fighting to stay awake after a couple pages of reading. BORING!!!! So 7% (Kindle reading) into this book, I decided "life was too short" and that there were a lot of other things I would rather read. Perhaps even the back of the Lysol can… So, I know this is suppose to be some "brilliant novel" according to all the "real" reviewers out there…. well, call me stupid, 'cause this was just boring. So yeah, 7% into a 560 page book put me at 39.2 pages in. Normally I give a book at least 50. I stopped reading it… then I started to feel bad about not upholding my commitment here (and perhaps a little stupid for not liking it when it is suppose to be brilliant), so I got a copy of the audio book from Which is cool, cause I can listen to it on my Kindle. This was much better in the fact that the reader was prepared enough to put good inflections into his reading. Which definitely made it easier to digest. For this book, DEFINITELY get the audio…. but here again, as of now I am only about 3 hours into it, from the little line at the bottom of the page it looks like there are about 24 hours in total… and I am not going to get there. Moments of humor, for sure. But just moments. Worth the time? NO! But at least with the audio version I can get other things done at the same time. Like wash the dishes, or put myself to sleep. Big SNOOZE. Life is too short. DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME! … can we sell Kindle books and audio downloads we don't want? Anyone know? Or can we give them away? If you know how, let me know and I'll give them to you for free!

Do not Unleash

"The Pale King"
By David Foster Wallace

Average Rating:
Mildly Unleashable
2.25 out of 5 (4 Clubie's ratings)

The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.

1. Why do you think that most of the people in The Pale King who enter the Internal Revenue Service had troubled childhoods? Why are they drawn to the IRS and the work it entails?

2. On page 127, IRS workers are described as heroes, "The kind that seemed even more heroic because nobody applauded or even thought about them, or if they did it was usually as some enemy….The quiet kind who cleans up and does the dirty job." Do you agree with this definition of heroism? Why or why not?

3. Before he decides to become an accountant like his father, Chris Fogle says, "Like many men of his generation, [my father] may well have been one of those people who can just proceed on autopilot. His attitude toward life was that there are certain things that have to be done and you simply have to do them—such as, for instance, going to work every day." How does this passage relate to the narrator’s decision to become a CPA? Do you think previous generations had a different attitude toward work and commitment than we do today? In what ways?

4. Do you think that The Pale King addresses contemporary culture even though it is set in the 1980s? How so? What themes were the most relevant to you? Why?

5. In The Pale King, the unique stories of individual employees are the core of the novel, and it is through them that we learn about the bureaucratic machine of the IRS. Why do you think the author chose to write about multiple characters rather than to follow just one worker? How does each one react to the job’s tedium? Have you ever felt as if you were merely a small piece of a larger organization? Did you do anything to declare your individuality? Do the characters?

6. In §19, about civics, and throughout the rest of the book, the role of individual choice and of regulations and rules is debated. Do you think that individuals have a moral responsibility to the group? In your opinion, what should be the role of government? Are there differences between an individual’s responsibility and that of a larger organization? What are they?

7. David Foster Wallace extensively researched accounting and US tax law while writing The Pale King. Have your feelings about paying yearly taxes changed after reading the novel? Do you feel differently about IRS agents and the job they perform? Why or why not?

8. One character says, "One thing you learn in Rote Exams is how disorganized and inattentive most people are and how little they pay attention to what’s going on outside of their sphere" (158). What does this say about human nature? Do you agree or disagree? How do you think this relates to your own life?

9. Instances of boredom, tedium, and repetition occur throughout the novel, and on page 438, the narrator says, "[To be unborable] is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish." What do you think this means? Is it fair to say, as John Berryman does, "Life, friends, is boring"? Is boredom an essential quality of life? Is navigating boredom essential for love, joy, meaning, success? Why or why not?

10. Discuss this passage: "What renders a truth meaningful, worthwhile, & c. is its relevance, which in turn requires extraordinary discernment and sensitivity to context, questions of value, and overall point—otherwise we might as well all just be computers downloading raw data to one another" (259). In light of this, how do you interpret Shane Drinion and Meredith Rand’s conversation in §46 and Sylvanshine’s Fact Psychic abilities? What do you think this says about communication and our interaction with others?

11. Several characters are intensely focused on themselves, and Chris Fogle says about his argument with his roommate’s Christian girlfriend in §22, "I was only pretending to ask her a question — I was actually giving the girlfriend a condescending little lecture on people’s narcissism and illusion of uniqueness, like the fat industrialist in Dickens or Ragged Dick who leans back from a giant dinner with his fingers laced over his huge stomach and cannot imagine how anyone in that moment could be hungry anywhere in the whole world" (213). What are other examples of narcissism in the book? Do you think they are related to ideas about responsibility, boredom, and happiness? Why and in what ways?

12. In the same chapter, Chris Fogle likens his discovery of accounting to his roommate’s Christian girlfriend’s religious experience, and says on page 214, "Enormous, sudden, dramatic, unexpected, life-changing experiences are not translatable or explainable to anyone else." Do you agree? Have you ever tried to describe a transformative experience to someone else? Do you think it’s possible?

13. Discuss the different ways that the characters in The Pale King search for, and perhaps find, happiness.

Discussion Questions provided by Hachette Book Group

Clubie Submitted Discussion Questions
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Editorial Reviews


"One hell of a document and a valiant tribute to the late Wallace.....Stretches of this are nothing short of sublime--the first two chapters are a real put-the-reader-on-notice charging bull blitz, and the David Foster Wallace sections...are tiny masterpieces of that whole self-aware po-mo thing of his that's so heavily imitated.... often achingly funny...pants-pissingly hilarious....Yet, even in its incomplete state...the book is unmistakably a David Foster Wallace affair. You get the sense early on that he's trying to cram the whole world between two covers. As it turns out, that would actually be easier to than what he was up to here, because then you could gloss over the flyover country that this novel fully inhabits, finding, among the wigglers, the essence of our fundamental human struggles." (Publishers Weekly )

"The final, beautiful act of an unwilling of the saddest, most lovely books I've ever read...Let's state this clearly: You should read THE PALE KING.... You'll be [kept up at night] because D.F.W. writes sentences and sometimes whole pages that make you feel like you can't breathe...because again and again he invites you to consider some very heavy things....Through some function of his genius, he causes us to ask these questions of ourselves." (Benjamin Alsup, Esquire )

"Deeply sad, deeply philosophical...breathtakingly brilliant...funny, maddening and elegiac...[David Foster Wallace's] most emotionally immediate work...It was in trying to capture the hectic, chaotic reality--and the nuanced, conflicted, ever-mutating thoughts of his characters--that Wallace's synesthetic prose waxed so prolix, his sentences unspooling into tangled skeins of words, replete with qualifying phrases and garrulous footnotes...because in almost everything Wallace wrote, including THE PALE KING, he aimed to use words to lasso and somehow subdue the staggering, multifarious, cacophonous predicament that is modern American life." (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times )

"The overture to Wallace's unfinished last novel is a rhapsodic evocation of the subtle vibrancy of the midwestern landscape, a flat, wind-scoured place of potentially numbing sameness that is, instead, rife with complex drama....feverishly encompassing, sharply comedic, and haunting...this is not a novel of defeat but, rather, of oddly heroic persistence.... electrifying in its portrayal of individuals seeking unlikely refuge in a vast, absurd bureaucracy. In the spirit of Borges, Gaddis, and Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), Wallace conducts a commanding and ingenious inquiry into monumental boredom, sorrow, the deception of appearances, and the redeeming if elusive truth that any endeavor, however tedious, however impossible, can become a conduit to enlightenment, or at least a way station in a world where 'everything is on fire, slow fire.'" (Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review) )

"THE PALE KING represents Wallace's finest work as a novelist...Wallace made a career out of rushing in where other writers feared to tread or wouldn't bother treading. He had an outsize, hypertrophied talent...THE PALE KING is an attempt to stare directly into the blind spot and face what's there...His ability to render the fine finials and fractals and flourishes of a mind acting upon itself, from moment to moment, using only the blunt, numb instruments of language, has few if any equals in American literature..this we see him do at full extension." (Lev Grossman, TIME )

"To read THE PALE KING is in part to feel how much Wallace had changed as a writer, compressed and deepened himself...It's easy to make the book sound heavy, but it's often very funny, and not politely funny, either...Contains what's sure to be some of the finest fiction of the year." (John Jeremiah Sullivan, GQ )

"A thrilling read, replete with the author's humor, which is oftentimes bawdy and always bitingly smart.... The notion that this book is 'unfinished' should not be given too much weight. The Pale King is, in many ways, quite complete: its core characters are fully drawn, each with a defining tic, trait, or backstory... Moreover, the book is far from incomplete in its handling of a host of themes, most of them the same major issues, applicable to all of us, with which Wallace also grappled in Infinite Jest: unconquerable boredom, the quest for satisfaction in work, the challenge of really knowing other people and the weight of sadness.... The experience to be had from reading The Pale King feels far more weighty and affecting than a nicely wrapped story. Its reach is broad, and its characters stay with you." (Daniel Roberts, National Public Radio )

"The four-word takeaway: You should read it!" (New York Magazine )

"An astonishment, unfinished not in the way of splintery furniture but in the way of Kafka's Castle or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine ... What's remarkable about The Pale King is its congruity with Wallace's earlier ambitions ... The Pale King treats its central subject--boredom itself--not as a texture (as in Fernando Pessoa), or a symptom (as in Thomas Mann), or an attitude (as in Bret Easton Ellis), but as the leading edge of truths we're desperate to avoid. It is the mirror beneath entertainment's smiley mask, and The Pale King aims to do for it what Moby-Dick did for the whale ... Watching [Foster Wallace] loosed one last time upon the fields of language, we're apt to feel the way he felt at the end of his celebrated essay on Federer at Wimbledon: called to attention, called out of ourselves." (Garth Risk Hallberg, New York Magazine )

"Wallace's gift for language, especially argot of all sorts, his magical handling of masses of detail...[these] talents are on display again in The Pale King." (Jeffrey Burke, Bloomberg )

"An incomplete, complex, confounding, brilliant novel...Reading THE PALE KING is strangely also comes with a note of grace." (Sam Anderson, New York Times Magazine )

"The most anticipated posthumous American novel of the last century...[Wallace was] America's most-gifted writer...American literature will rarely, if ever, give us another mind like Wallace's...ferociously written...richly imagined...a deep panoply of lives and the post-modern awareness of how this all was constructed, both the work and the vortex of current life." (John Freeman, Boston Globe )

"THE PALE KING represents Wallace's effort, through humor, digression and old-fashioned character study, to represent IRS not merely souled, but complexly so. He succeeds, profoundly, and the rest of the book's intellectual content is gravy. Yes, parts are difficult, but 'boring' never comes into it. And it's very, very funny." (Sam Thielman, Newsday )

"It may be unfinished, but the reviews-cum-retrospectives all soundly agree: It's still a book to be read." (The Miami Herald )

"A fully imagined, often exquisitely fleshed-out novel about a dreary Midwestern tax-return processing center that he has caused to swarm with life.... a series of bravura literary performances--soliloquies; dialogues; video interview fragments; short stories with the sweep and feel of novellas...This is what 360-degree storytelling looks like, and if it doesn't come to a climax or end, exactly, that may not be a defect." (Judith Shulevitz, Slate )

"It could hardly be more engaging. The Pale King is by turns funny, shrewd, suspenseful, piercing, smart, terrifying and rousing." (Laura Miller, Salon )

"Strange, entertaining, not-at-all boring...Wallace transforms this driest of settings into a vivid alternate IRS universe, full of jargon and lore and elaborately behatted characters, many of them with weird afflictions and/or puzzling supernatural abilities.... hilarious...brilliant and bizarre, another dispatch from Wallace's...endlessly fascinating brain." (Rob Brunner, Entertainment Weekly )

"Exhilarating." (Hillel Italie, Associated Press )

"Heroic and humbling...sad, breathtakingly rigorous and searching, ultimately hysterically funny." (Matt Feeney, Slate )

"Brilliant...[it] glimmers and sparkles." (Richard Rayner, The Los Angeles Times )

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David Foster Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, in 1962 and raised in Illinois, where he was a regionally ranked junior tennis player. He received bachelor of arts degrees in philosophy and English from Amherst College and wrote what would become his first novel, The Broom of the System, as his senior English thesis. He received a masters of fine arts from University of Arizona in 1987 and briefly pursued graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University. His second novel, Infinite Jest, was published in 1996. Wallace taught creative writing at Emerson College, Illinois State University, and Pomona College, and published the story collections Girl with Curious HairBrief Interviews with Hideous MenOblivion, the essay collections A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and Consider the Lobster. He was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and a Whiting Writers' Award, and was appointed to the Usage Panel for The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. He died in 2008. His last novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011.

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