The Peorian


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The Pale King

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David Foster Wallace Masters Boredom

"You order the data, shepherd it, direct its flow, lead it where it's needed, in the codified form in which it's apposite. You deal in facts, gentlemen, for which there has been a market since man first crept from the primeval slurry. It is you – tell them that. Who ride, man the walls, define the pie, serve...Gentlemen, you are called to account."

- A substitute teacher in an Advanced Tax class to his students from "The Pale King"

A writer like David Foster Wallace can't be taken lightly. Not that anyone who has ever read his work would think of doing that. His attention to detail, supreme command of language, massive back stories and digressions almost overwhelm the reader at times. His previous novel "Infinite Jest" had a massive impact and firmly placed Wallace in the rarified air inhabited by Pynchon and DeLillo.

What became "The Pale King" was in varying stages of completion at the time of Wallace's suicide in September 2008 (for a detailed back story, visit It was hardly complete at the time. The final novel was compiled by his editor at Little Brown, Michael Pietsch, who was also the editor of "Infinite Jest". In his Editor's Note, Pietsch states, "David 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."

"The Pale King" takes on a subject that has been examined in varying degrees in recent years – the movie "Office Space", the British version of "The Office" and, most recently, in the novel "And Then We Came To The End" by Joshua Ferris. But "The Pale King" is above and beyond and almost incomparable to the aforementioned examples. Wallace takes the subject to another level (no surprise, really) by focusing on what might be the most tediously bureaucratic profession – the professional accountant - in the most tediously bureaucratic environment – the IRS. To prepare for the novel, Wallace immersed himself in the world of accounting, even taking courses on the subject and regularly grilling his accountant on various aspects of the tax code. And while the book is about boredom, "The Pale King" itself is never boring.

"The Pale King" is set around the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Ill., in 1985 where certain IRS examiners from around the country have been summoned. There are also new recruits coming onboard to train as "wigglers", a low-level job involving the cranking out tax return reviews. One of these recruits is someone named David Wallace from Philo, Ill., who accidentally gets mistaken for a very special examiner – also named David Wallace, coming in from the Northeast REC. Right off the bat the REAL Wallace's prolific capabilities as a writer are on display: the last sentence of Chapter 2, which involves a character trying to get from the Peoria airport to his apartment, is three pages long – which you don't even realize until you get to the end and think, "Wait, where did that sentence start?", and start reading backwards and realize "Holy shit, that sentence was three pages long!"

Once the reader is taken inside the Regional Examination Center it becomes apparent that certain examiners are there because of what can only be described as their "unique" skills – one is capable, when in deep concentration, of hovering – literally, defying gravity – as he works. Another can subconsciously keep count of how many words are in a certain conversation. Another is capable of knowing obscure, random details and data about people he has just met. The latter character is in town to do intelligence work for a mysterious boss figure – for some reason. Something big must be on the verge of happening. But it's not as if Wallace hints at it constantly throughout the novel. It's just an undercurrent, a sub-sub-text if you will. It's also a defense mechanism of those who are in an incredibly tedious environment. They see people having meetings. They hear about bosses and higher ups coming into town. There just HAS to be something big coming. So they wait. And work.

The city of Peoria, of course, is featured throughout the novel. One character describes the city upon arrival as being "remarkably flat" as if "stamped on with some cosmic boot." Bradley, the Journal Star, Zeller Mental Health Center and Expo Gardens all get mentions. And Wallace even takes on a rather easy target – the Cubs fan:

"As baseball fans, real Peorians tend to be equally divided between the Cubs and the Cardinals, though in this era the Cubs fans tend to keep their partisanship more to themselves."

Just as in "Infinite Jest" we are faced with a myriad of characters. I hesitate to call it "Dickensian" because I could be accused of hyperbole. So I won't write that his range of characters reminds me a bit of Dickens. Each character gets his or her moment to tell his or her story in one form or another. The writer himself (the real REAL Wallace) even steps forward to explain why he's writing this "memoir" and to assure us that even though it's fiction, it's all true. Well played, Mr. Wallace. Well played, indeed.

The end of the book mirrors the reality it chronicles. It keeps going. It keeps going with that never-ending belief that something is about to happen. It HAS to happen. And if we just wait around long enough...

After the conclusion of the novel, a few pages of Wallace's notes on the various characters and storylines are included to give the reader an idea of just how much of a work in progress the novel really was. Reading some of Wallace's comments regarding the book to his friends, one gets the sense he might never have completed it. While he never considered it complete, "The Pale King" certainly comes across as a complete Wallace novel and, like most things Wallace, is not to be missed.

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