Contest: DFW & The Pale King

David Foster Wallace began working on The Pale King as early as 1997, possibly even 1996. Some of the early research he did for the novel now resides in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. I’ve looked at some of it. (I must say I’ve never felt luckier to live in Austin) and I can confirm that Wallace was auditing a class on tax at Illinois State University in 1997. He also corresponded with tax professors and attorneys. (You can view the archive’s finding aid here: The Pale King stuff is mostly in boxes 25.5-7 and 26.1-8.)

In 1997, a year after the publication of his mammoth novel “Infinite Jest,” Wallace enrolled in accounting classes at Illinois State University and began plowing through shelves of technical literature, transcribing notes on tax scams, criteria for audit and the problem of “agent terrorism” into a series of notebooks.

A couple of other sources state that Wallace was working on The Pale King as early as 1996.

Around this time, Wallace was extremely busy and productive. He was in the middle of completing his first volume of nonfiction essays (not counting Signifying Rappers), A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Earlier in that year (1996), Wallace spent five days talking to Rolling Stone‘s David Lipsky. The transcripts of their conversations were published last year as Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.

Late in the book, Lipsky and Wallace are talking about the themes at the heart of Infinite Jest (pp. 157-161). Wallace says that the country seems to be setting itself up for “repression and fascism” since we “hunger to have someone else tell us what to do,” and that some of that hunger might be related to a generation raised on irony. Wallace wonders what comes after this Letterman-like ability to poke holes in everything. Lipsky asks “What do you think it will be?” Wallace replies:

My guess is that what it will be is, it’s going to be the function of some people who are heroes. Who evince a real type of passion that’s going to look very banal and very retrograde and very . . . You know, for instance, people who will get on television, and earnestly say, “It’s extraordinarily important, that we, the most undertaxed nation on earth, be willing to pay higher taxes, so that we don’t allow the lower strata of our society to starve to death and freeze to death.” That it’s vitally important that we do that. Not for them, but for us. You know? That our survival depends on an ability to look past ourselves and our own self-interest. And these people are going to look–in the climate, in the particular climate of our generation and MTV and Letterman, they’re going to look absurd.

Here I can see Wallace thinking not only about taxation and tax brackets and shifting perceptions of equitable tax distribution, but about what sort of characters need to be in place to take on these ideas. And I’m reminded of section 22 of The Pale King with the Jesuit substitute and his speech about how accountants are heroes and how accounting might appear to be banal and boring, but that it’s vitally important to society.

At one point in Infinite Jest, we get to read an essay Hal Incandenza writes about the hero of action and the hero of reaction. He compares Chief Steve McGarrett of “Hawaii Five-0” and Captain Frank Furillo of “Hill Street Blues.” McGarrett is a classically modern hero of action.

In contrast, Captain Frank Furillo is what used to be designated a ‘post’-modern hero. Viz., a hero whose virtues are suited to a more complex and corporate American era. I.e., a hero of reaction. Captain Frank Furillo does not investigate cases or single-mindedly home in. He commands a precinct. He is a bureaucrat, and his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields.

Again, this concept of heroism sounds exactly like what the Jesuit substitute lectures about in Section 22 of The Pale King.

Yesterday’s hero pushed back at bounds and frontiers–he penetrated, tamed, hewed, shaped, made, brought things into being. . . . In today’s world, boundaries are fixed, and most significant facts have been generated. Gentleman, the heroic frontier now lies in the ordering and deployment of those facts. Classification, organization, presentation. To put it another way, the pie has been made–the contest is now in the slicing.

We don’t yet know exactly when Wallace wrote those words, but the idea of the modern hero was clearly on his mind as he wrote about Hal Incandenza and Don Gately. Even his first novel, The Broom of the System, deals with this idea of the frontier being pushed back, the Great Ohio Desert being hewed out of civilization.

Governor: Gentlemen, we need a desert.
Mr. Lungberg and Mr. Obstat: A desert?
Governor: Gentleman, a desert. A point of savage reference for the good people of Ohio.  A place to fear and love. A blasted region.  Something to remind us of what we are hewed out of.  A place without malls.  An Other for Ohio’s Self. Cacti and scorpions and the sun beating down. Desolation. A place for people to wander alone. To reflect. Away from everything. Gentlemen, a desert.

So here’s the contest: Did a theme or an idea in The Pale King remind you of something from one of Wallace’s earlier books? Submit your find.

Ground rules:
1. This assumes you’ve read The Pale King.
2. Your finds can come from any of Wallace’s other books. (Make sure to cite the page number.)
3. I’m the sole judge.
4. The deadline is May 25.

1st prize wins a copy of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky (courtesy of Random House), plus some commemorative Pale King bookmarks, plus some limited-edition DFW trading cards & bookmarks (courtesy of SSMG Press), plus some other treats. Four other winners will receive a copy of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.

I am also looking for the best word in The Pale King. There are a lot of candidates, but you should submit what you believe to be the best word used in The Pale King (cite the page number, please). 1st prize wins a copy of Consider David Foster Wallace edited by David Hering (courtesy of SSMG Press) and some bookmarks and some other goodies.

You can submit entries for either or both contests.

Enter by emailing your entry to

The Pale King – Section Guide

[Page numbers refer to the US edition hardcover, for page references in the US edition paperback, add two pages]

§1 – p. 3 – “Peoria” prose poem thing

§2 – p. 5 – Sylvanshine on the plane

§3 – p. 25 – short dialogue about masturbation and tits

§4 – p. 27 – newspaper article about dead guy found at his desk

§5 – p. 29 – perfect boy (Steyck)

§6 – p. 36 – Lane Dean contemplates abortion (“Good People”)

§7 – p. 44 – Sylvanshine in an ice cream truck

§8 – p. 53 – Toni Ware is poor

§9 – p. 66 – Author here; DFW character’s intro & background

§10 – p. 86 – Bureaucracy is not a closed system

§11 – p. 87 – internal memo re: examiners’ syndromes

§12 – p. 89 – Steyck as an adult being overly friendly

§13 – p. 91 – David Cusk sweating as a boy

§14 – p. 100 – IRS documentary video, 14 interviews

§15 – p. 118 – Sylvanshine, fact psychic

§16 – p. 122 – Lane Dean smoke break (“A New Examiner”)

§17 – p. 127 – IRS men as heroes monologue

§18 – p. 128 – desk names are back (on camera)

§19 – p. 130 – 1980s politics/civics lesson

§20 – p. 150 – Toni Ware’s dogs; “I’ll kill you”

§21 – p. 152 – Audit/fraud investigation

§22 – p. 154 – Chris Fogle, wastoid novella

§23 – p. 253 – dream: rows of faces & boredom

§24 – p. 256 – Author here, arrival in Peoria, Self-Storage Parkway, the mixup

§25 – p. 310 – everyone turns pages

§26 – p. 314 – examiners phantoms & ghosts

§27 – p. 317 – Rotes orientation; Cusk sweating it

§28 – p. 346 – 10 Laws of IRS Personnel

§29 – p. 347 – dog shit stories; Fat Marcus sits

§30 – p. 356 – internal espionage dialogue

§31 – p. 371 – Shinn on surveillance

§32 – p. 373 – The Exorcist on the speakerphone

§33 – p. 376 – Lane Dean, bored at work (“Wiggle Room”)

§34 – p. 386 – jargon about the Alternative Minimum Tax

§35 – p. 387 – Manshardt’s fierce infant (“The Compliance Branch”)

§36 – p. 394 – The boy kissing his own body (“Backbone”)

§37 – p. 408 – awkward conversation at restaurant (Rand?)

§38 – p. 410 – Author here; technical explanation of identity mixup

§39 – p. 415 – Band-saw accident

§40 – p. 423 – Cusk’s fears, at the psychiatrist

§41 – p. 425 – Cardwell is demented, a loon

§42 – p. 426 – Rescue Rangers meth binge in college

§43 – p. 431 – possible terrorist event; Glendenning’s management style

§44 – p. 437 – The key to bureaucracy is dealing with boredom

§45 – p. 439 – Toni Ware’s mom; catatonia

§46 – p. 444 – Meredith Rand’s story (with Drinion the levitator)

§47 – p. 510 – Toni Ware incident at the convenience store

§48 – p. 517 – Someone dosed the iced tea (or knives?) at the picnic

§49 – p. 527 – Fogle is debriefed by Sylvanshine and Reynolds

§50 – p. 537 – You become aware of the body; it is nothing like sleeping


11 Apr 2011, 7:35am


Ulrich Blumenbach on The Pale King

[Ulrich Blumenbach translated Infinite Jest into German (Unendlicher Spass). Here are his first impressions of Wallace’s new novel.]

The Pale King is a sad novel. And it is a novel about boredom. Everybody knows that by now. But it is funny, too, and I liked the way Wallace connects the two. What surprised me and what I didn’t like was his use of metafiction. Let’s start with the first observation: Take the passage from §22, for instance, where Chris Fogle describes some skull-crunching intricacies of American tax law:

The easiest way to define a tax is to say that the amount of the tax, symbolized as T, is equal to the product of the tax base and tax rate. This is usually symbolized as T = B— R, so you can then get R = T/B, which is the formula for determining whether a tax rate is progressive, regressive, or proportional. This is very basic tax accounting. It is so familiar to most IRS personnel that we don’t even have to think about it. But anyhow, the critical variable is T’s relationship to B. If the ratio of T to B stays the same regardless of whether B, the tax base, goes up or down, then the tax is proportional. This is also known as a flat-rate tax. A progressive tax is where the ratio T/B increases as B increases and decreases as B decreases. (p. 193)

Fogle goes on to illustrate the consequences of a progressive sales tax with a pseudo-historical example from Illinois in 1977, using as an aid “a fundamental rule of effective tax enforcement“ which I’d rather call a psychological law of nature “that the average taxpayer is always going to act out of his own monetary self-interest” (p. 195):

The result was retail chaos. At, for instance, the supermarket, shoppers would no longer purchase three large bags of groceries for $78 total and submit to paying 6, 6.8, and 8.5 percent on those parts of their purchases over $5.00, $20.00, and $42.01, respectively—they were now motivated to structure their grocery purchase as numerous separate small purchases of $4.99 or less in order to take advantage of the much more attractive 3.75 percent sales tax on purchases under $5.00. […] So, at the store, you suddenly had everyone buying under $5.00 worth of groceries and running out to their car and putting the little bag in the car and running back in and buying another amount under $5.00 and running out to their car, and so on and so forth. Supermarkets’ checkout lines started going all the way to the back of the store. […] I know gas stations were even worse,  […] fights broke out at gas stations from drivers being forced to wait as people ahead of them at the pump tried putting $4.99 worth in and running in and paying and running back out and resetting the pump and putting in another $4.99, and so on. (p. 195f.)

Wallace being Wallace, he doesn’t stop here but starts to really turn up the heat and triggers off some comic pyrotechnics which with good reason can be called post-Pynchonesque slapstick:

From the perspective of administrative costs, the worst part came when enterprising businesses saw a new opportunity and started using “Subdividable” as a sales inducement. Including, for instance, used-car dealers that were willing to sell you a car as an agglomeration of separate little transactions for front bumper, right rear wheel well, alternator coil, spark plug, and so on, the purchase structured as thousands of different $4.99 transactions. (p. 196)

Another example of Wallace’s genius is §24 when the IRS-workers sit in the car and get stuck in a traffic jam. The prose slows down and the text goes nowhere for ten or twenty pages: a brilliant example of the fusion of form and content.

As I said, what I either don’t like or don’t understand in The Pale King so far is the author’s intrusion into the text in §9. I side with those people who think metafiction spoils a story even if it’s meant to criticize or parody metafiction. When I came across these twenty pages of the “Author’s Foreword” I thought “Why this?” For me, Wallace is the author who definitively laid metafiction to rest in “Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way.” Now twenty years later he of all people exhumes the corpse with just the same kind of “really blatant and intrusive interruption” (Girl with Curious Hair, p. 264)?

The Pale King – Section 1: Will it Play in Peoria?

The Pale King opens with a prose poem-y thing originally published in Triquarterly in 2002 under the title “Peoria (4)”. (I’m not sure why this previous publication is not credited on the copyright page of TPK. I guess TriQ is just not on the same level as the New Yorker.) Supposedly, one of the alternate titles of The Pale King was “What is Peoria For?” Maybe that “(4)” is Wallace’s sly way of getting us to ask What is Peoria (4)? Well, what is this thing? Has Wallace ever written anything like this before? It’s a curious opening to a novel about the IRS. It seemed like a weird thing for DFW to publish way back in 2002 (frankly, it was a bit of a disappointment. When one is expecting a new DFW story in a literary magazine and is confronted with a short, but plentiful description of a field in Peoria, IL, a natural response might be What is this?). Really, though, the opening was Pietsch’s call:

“Ultimately there were chapters that could have gone anywhere,” he says. “Like the first chapter — that was not the first chapter. It was just a beautiful love letter to an Illinois cornfield in fallow time. I don’t know if he intended it as an opening, but it just felt like a beautiful way into this novel.”

Wallace mentions Peoria a lot in his writing. He mentions it in one of the first stories he ever wrote: “The Enema Bandit and the Cosmic Buzzer.” The story has never been published anywhere (yet) {he wrote it as an undergrad at Amherst}, but it resides in the Wallace archive at the Ransom Center (container 27.9). The enema bandit (probably a reference to Frank Zappa’s song “The Illinois Enema Bandit“) is called “The Purging Scourge of Peoria.” [Zappa’s bandit is supposedly from Bloomington, IL. Peoria and Bloomington (where Wallace lived for a long time) are only 60 miles apart.]

Peoria is somewhat well-known for being the standard-bearer of Midwestern values or at least middle-American demographics. The famous phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” refers to the idea that for something to be mainstream in the U.S., it needs to succeed in somewhere as “average” or “common” as Peoria. So, in reality, Peoria is not home to an IRS Regional Examination Center—it is America’s Test Market. And I feel like that Harry Potter and Twilight and Dean Koonz play well in Peoria, but that The Pale King is not the sort of novel or book or entertainment that would  likely appeal to mainstream America. And yet. And yet… The Pale King is a bestseller. It reached up to #4 on Amazon’s list of the top 100 books and will likely debut high on the New York Times hardcover fiction list. It does appeal to many, many people who take reading seriously and that mysterious “general reader” who still, in fact, reads for pleasure. But the scale is way different and far fewer people will buy The Pale King than will see The Hangover 2 or watch American Idol or buy whatever Stephanie Meyer writes next, so therefore it is a little easier to get on the NY Times Bestseller Hardcover Fiction list than it is to win the weekend box office or set Nielsen ratings records (and it helps when the publisher keeps the ebook release date 4/15, driving folks to cancel their kindle orders and buy the hardcover two weeks early instead).

The local press in Peoria has acknowledged the book at least once: this blog entry by Dave Haney on

I actually did not know the book or name until I ended up in one of Wallace’s classes in 1998 or 1999 at Illinois State University. It was a grammar for writers class. You kind of suspect something is different about a professor who on the first day (and many after) arrives in sweatpants cut into shorts; who wears a well-fitted white T-shirt on a not-so-well fit torso; who wore a bandana and rarely seemed to shave; and who spit chewing tobacco into a styrofoam cup he brought along.

He gave the class grammar handouts he said were the same his mother used for English classes she taught to prisoners.

31 Jan 2011, 10:00pm


The Pale King Approaches

I really wish The Pale King had a different subtitle. Instead of “An Unfinished Novel” it should say “A Novel” or “An Entertainment” or “Volume 1” or anything but unfinished, half-finished, never completed, no. We can’t edit time, though. The ravages of time. What we face is a future without new writing by David Foster Wallace. There will be many, many future books examining exactly how he accomplished what he did and who he influenced and why, but no more novels by him. This is it.

Without a doubt, April 15, 2011 is one of the most anticipated release dates in literature. I predict that The Pale King will draw many more readers into Wallace’s other works, and surprise many skeptics who don’t believe an unfinished novel is worth reading. There are also a lot of haters out there who think any book by or about David Foster Wallace will now be a pure money grab and they can’t wait to make terrible pronouncements about how something is being trampled. But of course all this is ridiculous baloney; and if you’ve learned anything about the internet by now it’s this: ignore the haters. Look, I don’t pretend to be an objective reviewer. This is my Star Wars, my Harry Potter, my Steve Jobs keynote and Christmas morning all rolled into one. If there were a parking lot where I could set up a tent and a lawn chair months in advance and camp out and be first in line for this, I’d do it.

I’m going to start reading The Pale King the day it is released and I’m going to post about it on this site until I’m finished with it. No set schedule, no forums, but I invite you to share your thoughts with me in the comments here and on twitter under the hashtag #paleking. After all the buildup, I’m especially interested in people’s first impressions of the book, and then how it feels to turn that last page and close the book and set it down and consider what might have been in light of what was.

We know roughly what the book is about and to me, from the excerpts published so far, it appears to be Wallace’s most humanistic novel, one less interested in showing off and more interested in exposing nerve endings. I believe Wallace accomplished a similar thing in Oblivion, but short story collections just don’t have the cachet of novels. (I also think there is a deep, humanistic side to Infinite Jest, but have to concede that not every page of the novel burns with the same concerns.) I’ll be interested to see if the short story “The Soul is Not a Smithy” ends up as part of the unfinished novel—it does seem to fit with the boredom-tax processor theme, and how it fits in with the other characters we’ve seen in the excerpts. But I find myself coming back to worrying about that narrator and his fear of his father’s job, his despair at the prospect of facing that soulless room of white-collared men everyday of his working life. I worry that I don’t have enough of that despair, or that I’ve already conditioned myself out of any instinct to run from such a horrorshow of cubicles. Or that I have no choice. I don’t know, but I think about that a lot.

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