By Willem Weinstein
Can boredom be interesting? Why are taxes so complicated? Is the GS-9 assessment test passable?
Questions like these are posited in the latest novel of David Wallace: The Pale King. The book follows several IRS tax auditors who become self-aware of the mundane nature of work and their struggle to escape boredom.
However, before I talk about the book, you should know the back story of its conception.
Wallace started work in 2007, but died before he finished, leaving behind a series of random notes and unfinished chapters (on the title page it says “an unfinished novel” to explain this). His editor, Michael Pietsch, decided in 2010 that he needed to find and combine Wallace’s notes and publish his last work.
As a result of this, The Pale King reads exactly as what it is: a jumble of ambiguously-placed sentences and chapters, sometimes explicitly out of order, or even just plain nonsensical. This is actually very similar to Wallace’s real style of writing as a chaotic, out of order story.
That is not to say that the book isn’t just as smartly written, though quite dense, as I’ve come to expect from him. But you can clearly tell where some parts were missing form Wallace’s notes and had to be written by someone else (maybe Pietsch).
This contrast between what had to be added and what was already made for the story makes The Pale King a lesser shell of what it could have been and distracts from the message Wallace was trying to convey.
Bottom line: Is it good? Yes. Is it as good, or better than Wallace’s true works? No.
Ultimately, the story is just missing something that could have made it great. It just saddens me that I can never know what the novel could have been.
Like I said, if you are familiar with Wallace’s previous works, you should go into The Pale King with a bucket of salt and low expectations.
If you are not, I would recommend trying to read one of his earlier infinitely better works of genius.