Unfinished Form (A Review of “The Pale King” for the “Los Angeles Review of Books”)

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The Los Angeles Review of Books published my review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King alongside a review by Cornel Bonca.

In the three months since the publication of David Foster Wallace’s third, unfinished novel, The Pale King — an eternity in the world of professional reviews — plenty of opinions have been offered, but no consensus has yet formed about how it relates to the author’s career or aesthetic priorities. The novel, which follows a host of troubled characters that work or have recently arrived at the IRS’s Midwest Regional Examination Center in Peoria, IL, in 1985, remains elusive. Everywhere in these fifty busy chapters, there are ominous signs of an ongoing organizational restructuring of the Service known as the “Spackman Initiative” or sometimes just “the Initiative.” One gets only a vague sense of the contours of the Initiative and the high-level plotting that gave rise to it over the course of The Pale King’s five-hundred-and-forty pages. Despite multiple dialogues about civics and shadowy background plots, what Wallace seems to care most about is describing how his characters survive the mind-numbing boredom of their IRS jobs and telling the varied, often brilliantly funny and inventive stories of how they came to work there in the first place. But what exactly was Wallace attempting to do with these characters — and more generally with this “long thing,” as he described the book to his editor, Michael Pietsch? How would The Pale King, had it been finished, have advanced the plot of Wallace’s career?

You can read the rest here.