The Pale King was published posthumously in 2011. The book was an unfinished novel written by David Foster Wallace and found by his wife after his death. The book is haphazard, as is Wallace’s style. He worked on it for over a decade.
Most of the stories follow the employees of the Internal Revenue Service in Peoria, Illinois in the year 1985. The “author” is one of the fictional characters. The characters are very different from each other, but they all have basically the same job. They work for the IRS. They consider themselves “servicemen” and women with an important calling. They are all detailed oriented with varying degrees of obsessive compulsive disorder.
Most of their childhood stories are of being bullied and/or abused in other ways. As Wallace delves into their thoughts, which seem to ramble, he reveals them as sad, lonely and frightened. None of his characters are happy or fulfilled. They see themselves as either being bullied or as the bully. The book ends without a resolution, but it seems the current administration at the Peoria branch of the IRS is going to be replaced.
The greatest subject matter in the book is boredom. Wallace writes that “If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot do.” He says that he only met two men in his life that were “unborable.” “The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom.”
Wallace believed, and made the point throughout the book, that ennui leads to depression. He shows the life of the office workers at the IRS as torturous hours spent behind a desk, with short breaks spent in conversation with people that are uninspired and uninspiring. Then they are back to their desks. Every minute lasts an hour, every hour lasts a day. After work, they go to a bar and drink too much, with the same people they spent their breaks with at work.
The Pale King begins with an Editor’s note in which the editor. Michael Pietsch, points out that the books are haphazardly written. Apparently, he found an unfinished manuscript that was mostly noted with bits of stories written, but he plans on putting all of it together and publishing it. “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.” Then Pietsch goes on to say that although if David were still alive he would not like this novel being published, they decided to do it anyway. “David, alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.”
Then Pietsch goes on to say that although if David were still alive he would not like this novel being published, they decided to do it anyway. “David, alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.”The first subsection gives a poetic description of a field in a mid-American farm. There is a man walking through the alfalfa till he comes to a fence with a “No Hunting” sign.
Subsection two covers the flight of Claude Syvanshine who is traveling in a small commuter plane on his way to Peoria. The pilot is young. The cockpit and seating area is divided with a dingy curtain. Since Claude has an inner ear problem and can’t read on the plane, he alternates his time between studying the pictures on the safety pamphlet and running facts through his mind for his upcoming CPA exam. He is very worried, especially about the word problems. His roommate, Reynolds aced it easily.
Claude works for the Internal Revenue Service. While on the plane, Claude thinks about the debacle in Rome, New York at the Service’s Northeast Regional Examination Center. Two departments fell behind and instead of using set procedures with some receipts and forms, they tried to hide them. Claude feels forever grateful for the Systems Director Lehrl who pulled him out of that and found another position for him.
Having a low opinion of himself, Claude sees himself as “weak or defective in the area of will.” His roommate enforces that opinion with little jabs at his inability to study. Claude has been trying to pass his CPA exam for three years. If he can pass the test he will move the pay grade of GS 9 to GS 11. His mind moves from subject to subject. He thinks about having children, handling stress, his sinuses, and the “fifth” effect. This involves asking someone, “what’s wrong?” When the person replies, “What do you mean?” you say, “Something’s wrong, I can tell. What is it?” Whether the other person admits it and tells their problems, or denies it, they will think you are exceptionally perceptive.
This involves asking someone, “what’s wrong?” When the person replies, “What do you mean?” you say, “Something’s wrong, I can tell. What is it?” Whether the other person admits it and tells their problems, or denies it, they will think you are exceptionally perceptive.
Claude’s thoughts are invaded with musings about his fellow passengers. Especially after the plane lands and they disembark. There is the old lady that remains in her seat, and the well-traveled business men that stand in line waiting for the doors to open. As Claude is waiting to disembark, his mind continues to wander as he worries about the apartment the Systems found for him and the taxi he will have to take. His anxieties take such a control over him, that he must apply his method of “Thought Stopping.” It involves turning a three hundred and sixty-degree circle while “trying to merge his own awareness with the panoramic vista.” But, still,Claude assumes he will fail.
As Claude is waiting to disembark, he mind continues to wander as he worries about the apartment the Systems found for him, and the taxi he will have to take. His anxieties take such a control over him, that he must apply his method of “Thought Stopping.” It involves turning a three hundred and sixty degree circle while “trying to merge his own awareness with the panoramic vista.” But, still Claude assumes he will fail.
Subsection three is about two men on a road trip discussing masturbation. Subsection four is an obituary in the Peoria paper. An IRS examiner was found dead of a coronary at his desk on Saturday. He had been dead for four days. Ironically, he was examining the taxes of some medical partnerships in the area.
Subsection five is about a little boy named Leonard Stecyk. He is the perfect child, and therefore extremely irritating. His mother has an “accident” while cleaning the oven, and is in a coma, his principal has dreams of killing him, his teacher ends up in an asylum after an encounter involving blunt scissors and the threat to use them on the boy, then herself. Three times a week he sends her notes, but the doctors had to stop that, for her mental health.
Subsection six opens with two young people sitting on a picnic table in a park. Lane Dean, Jr. and Sheri Fisher are trying to make a decision. They are both very religious and question their faith. Even though he wants her to terminate her pregnancy, she will have the baby, but doesn’t want him to feel like he must be involved. He knows she is lying and wants him to admit his love for her and their child. “What would even Jesus do?”
Subsection seven is back on Sylvanshine. He is on a bus/van with other government workers. He carries on a conversation with a CID representative. All the while his mind is traveling between the upcoming tests, his new posting, and his fellow passengers. Sylvanshine keeps hearing low sounds of music. He discovers that the truck they are in used to be an ice cream truck.
He also spends time looking out the window at the country. He has to answer questions about his thoughts he would rather not, because his “job here involved cultivating good relations and uncluttered lines of communication for Merrill Lehrl to exploit when he arrived to mediate for Merrill Lehrl and to at once gather information on as many aspects and issues involved in the examination of returns as possible, since there were some difficult, delicate decisions to make, decisions whose import extended far beyond this provincial post and anyway it went it was going to be painful.”
Subsection eight is about the trailer park down a road Sylvanshine rides past and the poor people that live there. A girl lives with her mother, and their stories are unhappy, as are the stories of all the other residents. The girl takes care of her mentally ill mother, while she educates herself. When someone is cruel or dangerous, she takes deadly revenge. After a visit from the government, mother and daughter move on. They catch a ride with a truck driver. After he makes a play for the daughter, the mother steals the truck, then they lunch at a truck stop.
Subsections nine, ten and eleven are messages from the author about whether The Pale King is fiction or nonfiction. And he tells about his prior writings and a lot of information on the “new” IRS.
Subsection twelve brings the most perfectly irritating young man in the world, Stecyk is back. He is twenty-six years old and has moved into a new apartment. So, he goes door to door, introducing himself and handing out “the US Post Office’s 1979 National Zip Code Directory.” Then he points out the advantages of the book and what would be of most interest to that person.
Subsection thirteen is about a seventeen-year-old boy who sweats an unusually large amount. He never knows when it will happen. But, it seems to happen mostly in stressful situations and in large groups. He becomes more and more paranoid about his attacks of sweating.
Subsection fourteen is about IRS examiners who are involved in a project to humanize the new IRS. Stecyk is doing all the work on organizing and filming the many subjects and situations.
Subsection fifteen is about RFI or Random Fact Intuition. Someone who’s mind travels off into random facts that are spurred by random conversations. Claude Sylvanshine has this ability. He will intuitively know an obscure fact about someone he passes on the street or random useless minutiae that no one knows or would want to.
Subsection sixteen is about another examiner, Lane Dean, Jr. He is new to the office and is trying to find a good place to take a break. Two other men come out, and he tries to connect with them. Subsection seventeen likens an IRS agent to a policeman or fireman. “The kind that seemed even more heroic because nobody applauded or even thought about them.”
Subsection eighteen is about how The Pale King have made the use of desk name plates on desks. The desks are named instead of using the names of agents. Subsection nineteen is about three men talking about the average American and their relationship with the government, and how education has changed that relationship.
It also talks about democracy, the American experiment, the power of the government, and why people don’t want to pay taxes. Also, how movies and not voting remove feelings of responsibility from citizens. Then it moves on to politics and who should be elected to a presidential figurehead.
Subsection twenty is about a woman who has moved into the suburbs. She has dogs that bark a lot. Subsection twenty-one is about a man trying to cheat the IRS with his taxes. He gets caught and must pay back taxes.
Subsection twenty-two is an interview with an IRS agent and why he became an agent. He was too unmotivated for anything else.
Subsection twenty-three is about a man having dreams and being bored. His dreams are sometimes about his childhood and not fitting in. Subsection twenty-four is another cut in by the Author. He tells about his time with the Peoria office of the IRS. This subsection covers his travel time.
Subsection twenty-five is a list of people turning pages and doing other quiet busy office work. Subsection twenty-six cover exam “Phantoms.” These are hallucinations that show up during boring times for examiners during examinations. The phantoms differ by the personality type of examiners. But there are two ghosts, Garrity and Blomquist, who visit Sylvanshine sometimes.
Subsection twenty-seven is about the orientation for the new arrivals at the new office. This is when they are given the new badges and fill out the paperwork for the new position. David Cusk and David Wallace (the author) are both amid the group.
Subsection twenty-eight is about the “10 Laws of IRS Personal.” Everyone wants a different position than they have, either with more or with less responsibility. Subsection twenty-nine is about a group of men and women on surveillance with the CID. They have inane conversations about excrement, and their childhoods, including a bully or two.
Subsection thirty is about Reynolds and Sylvanshine discussing Glendenning and how many friends he has in the section. They do a lot of gossiping about people. They are investigating the feel of the people before Merrill Lehrl arrives. Sylvanshine is the data gatherer and Reynolds transmits it.
Subsection thirty-one is about Shinn on his first day at the Post waiting for the bus. Subsection thirty-two an auditor Nugent has his sister, Julie on speaker phone while everyone near his cubicles listens to her do an impression of the demon voice from The Exorcist.
Subsection thirty-three is about Lane Dean, Jr. auditing tax returns. His days are long and tortuous. Rote tasks that never end. Subsection thirty-four is a list of tax forms. Subsection thirty-five is from the author. He begins to describe his Audit Group Manager’s infant that he would bring in sometimes. He doesn’t like it and thinks it is fierce.
Subsection thirty-six is about a little boy whose life goal is to put his lips on every part of his body. He started at age six and hurt his back. He had to see a chiropractor. She gives him some exercises telling him to practice them every day. From this he learns he must work diligently to achieve his goal. By eleven he has managed most of it contortionist stretching.
Subsection thirty-seven is about a man and woman on a blind date. Subsection thirty-eight is the author and covers problems with the forms used by the IRS. The file of David Wallace is mixed up with another David Wallace. The author was accused of impersonation. The mix up becomes a real problem when both men try to begin working at the IRS.
Subsection thirty-nine is about the data acquired by Claude Sylvanshine on DeWitt Glendenning, not realizing that Stecyk does most of Glendenning’s work, so some of the information is about Stecyk. Subsection forty is about Cusk who is at an appointment with a psychiatrist. He gives her the list of his many fears.
Subsection forty-one is the car that is sent to retrieve Lehrl’s aide. The driver is evangelistic. Subsection forty-two is some people talking about pop references from their teen years that the younger generation doesn’t understand.
Subsection forty-three is about the author trying to catch on to the gossip that is in action when he walks into work. There was an accident in Michigan that involved agents. Everyone is talking about it, but not including the author. They wonder if it was terrorism. But, the author uses, this time, to reiterate what a good leader Glendenning is, and what a great guy he is.
Subsection forty-four is about learning life lessons while working at IRS. “It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”
Subsection forty-five brings us back to Toni and her mom who have stolen a truck. The man catches up with them and yells at them. Her mother tries to run for it, and crashes the truck, her mother is hurt. The man comes to the wreck, sees the mother is hurt and kills her. But, Toni plays dead and he leaves her. It is years after the accident and Toni is telling the story to the author.
Subsection forty-six is about an after work bar everyone from the IRS Service goes to after work, Meibeyer’s. Meredith Rand, an examiner, is very beautiful. She makes the men nervous. The men don’t notice the other women there. This subsection gives a description of many of the other people there.
Subsection forty-seven is about Toni Ware. She is investigating a convenience store for the IRS. Toni can use different voices and personas when investigating. It allows her to go undercover. Subsection forty-eight is about a company picnic. The tea is spiked and everyone is heavily drugged. The man that is being interviewed is fixated on the mosquitoes.
Subsection forty-nine is the new director. Merrill Errol Lehrl has moved into Mr. Glendenning’s office. The agents notice that Reynolds and Sylvanshine are “pre-briefing” them before they go in to see him. They position themselves on each side of the agents and speak to each other over his head.
“When the addressed Chris Fogle directly, they tended to wax a bit didactic, but at the same time, it was not totally uninteresting. Both Reynolds and Sylvanshine were knowledgeable about various powerful administrators’ career trajectories and resumes.” “The rhythms of Reynolds and Sylvanshine’s back and forth were quite precise. There was no wasted time.” Subsection fifty is about a man practicing relaxation techniques with a trained facilitator.
Claude Sylvanshine – Sylvanshine is a word that is an optical phenomenon. The dew on leaves of trees and shrub reflect light. The wax on leaves causes water to form into droplets, that then become lenses. The lenses cause the rays of light to deflect in the opposite direction. This what the character does. He is unobtrusive. He is sent to the Peoria branch to scout out the agents and report back to his boss who will be taking over. Merrill Lehrl has sent him because Sylvanshine is detail oriented. He can be ingratiated himself into the group, without being seen as a spy. He relays all the information he gathers to his roommate, Reynolds, who also reports to Lehrl. He is good at getting information because he reflects the light back onto the speaker.
Lane Dean, Jr. – Lane Dean. Jr. is an average desk drone. He is very religious and marries his college girlfriend when she becomes pregnant. The rest of his life is then torturous. He is unhappy at home. His wife wants nothing to do with him, and neither does his baby. At work, the minutes go by like hours, the hours like days and the days like years. He is slowly going mad.
Leornard Stecyk – Leonard was the perfect child. He was too perfect. Everyone wanted to kill him or themselves after a few minutes with him. His mother tried to kill herself and ended up in a coma, his father developed a tic, his teachers needed psychiatric help after dealing with him, as did the principal. As an adult, he does all the work for his boss, who keeps getting promotions, but Leonard is not jealous.
When he was bullied as a kid, he sent letters to the boys forgiving them. At his eleventh birthday party, he donated the cake and ice cream to the homeless, before the children were even allowed to taste it. Anything he could do to be ingratiatingly helpful, he overdid.
Toni Ware – Toni came from an abusive childhood. Her mother was emotionally and mentally unhinged. Raised dirt poor, she learned how to take care of herself and her mother while very young. Her vengeance on wrongs done to her was complete and swift. While a child she caused deaths of people who were cruel to her.
Her mother stole the truck of a man who had made moves on Toni at thirteen years of age. While he was asleep after having sex with Toni’s mother, she took his truck, then wrecked it during the pursuit. The man murdered Toni’s mother but presumed Toni was dead. As an agent, her job is field work. She investigates tax fraud and the people who commit it. She can take on the persona of various women and can use a variety of voices.
David Wallace – A fictional character set up as an avatar of the author who is another office drone, but is a keen observer of his fellow workers. His character pushes the story and adds authenticity.
David Foster Wallace Biography
David Foster Wallace was born on February 21 st, 1962 in Ithaca, New York. The child of two professors, his family moved around often. Wallace was a regionally ranked junior tennis player and majored in English and philosophy while attending Amherst College. It was his honors thesis that he wrote while attending the college that later became his first novel “The Broom of the System” (1987).
Wallace graduated summa cum laude in 1985 and became committed to writing as a career. He obtained a Masters of Fine Arts and a degree in creative writing in 1987 shortly after his first novel was published. “Broom” received national attention and critical praise and launched Wallace’s career as a satirist and a postmodernist.
After finishing college, Wallace began attending graduate school at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. While working there he began writing his most well-known and well-received novel, “Infinite Jest” which was published in 1996.
Wallace continued writing while working as a professor and later moved to Claremont, California to teach at Pomona College. In 1997, Wallace was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction for one of the stories in his short story collection “Brief Interviews”.
Wallace also wrote many non-fiction works, including a series of essays titled, “A supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” in 1997 and “Everything and More” focusing on the work of 19th-century German mathematician Georg Cantor. Wallace reported on the September 11th attacks and John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign for the magazine Rolling Stone.
In 2004, Wallace married the painter Karen L. Green. Throughout his life, Wallace struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, depression, institutionalization and outbursts of inappropriate sexual behavior.
To cope with these issues, Wallace took anti-depressant medication which caused him to suffer terrible side effects. Wallace also underwent many different types of therapy including electroconvulsive therapy. On September 12th, 2008, Wallace hanged himself in his garage after suffering a resurgence of his depression that his medication didn’t seem to be affecting.
After his death, his wife posthumously published his unfinished manuscript, ‘The Pale King’ after compiling the manuscript and notes from his computer.
In March 2010 Wallace’s personal papers and archives were purchased by the University of Texas at Austin and now reside at the Harry Ransom Center at the college.