In Wallace's hands…this tale of nervous bureaucrats becomes a potent extended metaphor for how we're able to withstand the crushing tedium of modern life and still derive meaning from it…[Foster] who will surely be remembered as one of our era's most distinct literary voices knew that all the noise of modern life, including its literature, is really just our collective attempt to stave off "this terror of silence," as he puts itthe same terror that tormented Beckett's tramps, waiting there by the tree.
The Washington Post
…conscientiously and intelligently whittled down by Wallace's editor Michael Pietsch…[The Pale King] is…a coherent, if incomplete, portrayal of our age unfolding on an epic scale: a grand parable of postindustrial culture or "late capitalism," and an anguished examination of the lot of the poor (that is, white-collar) individual who finds himself caught in this system's mesh…Wallace could be called an "adolescent" writer: one whose characters, like the worlds they inhabit, find themselves in states of transition, prone to all the awkwardness this entails…I don't use the term pejoratively herefar from it: adolescence is about being trapped in bodies, in between, half-formed. It's Gregor Samsa's state.
The New York Times Book Review
"The four-word takeaway: You should read it!"
"It may be unfinished, but the reviews-cum-retrospectives all soundly agree: It's still a book to be read."
"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."
"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.'"
"The final, beautiful act of an unwilling icon...one 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."
"Heroic and humbling...sad, breathtakingly rigorous and searching, ultimately hysterically funny."
"Brilliant...[it] glimmers and sparkles."
"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."
"THE PALE KING represents Wallace's effort, through humor, digression and old-fashioned character study, to represent IRS agents...as 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."
"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."
"An incomplete, complex, confounding, brilliant novel...Reading THE PALE KING is strangely intimate...it also comes with a note of grace."
"It could hardly be more engaging. The Pale King is by turns funny, shrewd, suspenseful, piercing, smart, terrifying and rousing."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"Wallace's finest work as a novelist...when Wallace steers the tanker back to its themethe struggle to extract meaning from each second that passes, no matter how empty or lonely or indistinguishable from the second that came before itThe Pale King achieves power levels that Wallace never reached in his first two novels....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."Lev Grossman, TIME
"Deeply sad, deeply philosophical...By turns breathtakingly brilliant and stupefying dullfunny, maddening and elegiac...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
"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, 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.'"Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
"Nothing short of sublimethe first two chapters are a real put-the-reader-on-notice charging bull blitz, and the David Foster Wallace sections...are tiny masterpieces....achingly funny...pants-pissingly hilarious."Publishers Weekly
"One of the saddest and 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."Benjamin Alsup, Esquire
Rollicking postmodern romp, by the late cult-favorite novelist and essayist Wallace (with help from an editor), through the bowels of the IRS.
Leave it to Wallace (Infinite Jest, 1996, etc.) to find fascination in the workings of a tax audit. Yet, with its mock-Arthurian title, his novel explores the minds and mores of the little men in the gray flannel suits, or at least their modern gray-souled counterparts. The story of the making of the novel is at least as interesting as the book itself: It was assembled, writes editor Michael Pietsch, from "a green duffel bag and two Trader Joe's bags heavy with manuscripts,"working from multiple drafts and notes and various other clues, but with no certainty that Wallace intended the book to have its current, somewhat lumpy shape. Neither would Wallace, obsessive perfectionist, allowed some of the sloppinesses and redundancies in the present version to stand. Thus it deserves its title-page rubric "An Unfinished Novel," and thus it should be thought of less as the last word by the late writer—and certainly more manuscripts will be extracted from the vaults and published—than as a glimpse into his mind at work. And what a mind: Wallace was nothing if not thorough, and his tale of accountant Claude Sylvanshine, heroic traveler on bad commuter airlines and dogged reader of spreadsheets, is full of details, facts and factoids assembled over years of study and rumination. There's something of the author, perhaps, in Claude, but then there's something of him in the other characters, too, and it would be a mistake to read this as roman à clef. All of Wallace's intellectual interests come through: the notes and asides, the linguistic brilliance, the fact piled atop fact, the excurses into entropy and, yes, autobiography ("Like many Americans," reads one note, "I've been sued...Litigation is no fun, and it's worth one's time and trouble to try to head it off in advance whenever possible.") Does it add up to a story? Not always. But there are many moments of great beauty, as with this small passage: "Drinion looks at her steadily for a moment. His face, which is a bit oily, tends to shine in the fluorescence of the Examination areas, though less so in the windows' indirect light, the shade of which indicates that clouds have piled up overhead, though this is just Meredith Rand's impression, and one not wholly conscious."
Unfinished or no, it's worth reading this long, partly shaped novel just to get at its best moments, and to ponder what Wallace, that excellent writer, would have done with the book had he had time to finish it himself.