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What-might-have-been's aside, David Foster Wallace's 'The Pale King' is worth a read

This is not a review of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King.

Published on April 15 — apropos given that much of it is set in an IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Ill. — the novel was far from finished when Wallace committed suicide in 2008. But, given his large reputation as a master of postmodern fiction and his nearly cultlike fan following, it was perhaps inevitable that whatever he left behind would find its way to print — whether he would have wanted it to or not.

As his longtime editor Michael Pietsch writes in the introduction, Wallace had worked for years on the novel. After his death at age 46, his home office yielded 250 pages of neatly stacked pages, plus enough notes, scraps, drives and disks to fill "a green duffel bag and two Trader Joe's sacks." Pietsch has compiled all that material into a book more than twice as long as the stack of completed draft pages, with no distinction made on the page between Wallace's more or less finished portions and Pietsch's interpolations.

Should the book have been published? More thornily, should it be published in a form so substantially altered from what Wallace completed?

Plenty of books have been printed posthumously — John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and most of Franz Kafka's work, to name a few. But there are a couple of things about The Pale King that make me reluctant to critique it as a novel. For one, it was far from being finished, and Wallace left no outline or detailed plan for it. (And, given his always experimental approach to structure, there's no linear plot path to assume. In his notes, he describes this book's plot as having a "tornado feeling.") For another, he was famously persnickety about the final form of his books, revising endlessly and debating editors over changes in wording and even punctuation marks.

Given all that, I just don't feel comfortable reviewing the book as I would a novel whose author had completed it, or nearly so. But that doesn't mean I don't think people should read it.

If you're a fan of his work, you're probably already immersed in The Pale King and finding plenty of Wallace's trademark polymath brilliance, vivid humor and literary pyrotechnics. There are also broad swaths of minutely detailed arcana about tax codes and accounting practices that absolutely prove Pietsch's contention that one of the main subjects of The Pale King is boredom. Is that a flaw, an intentional effect, something Wallace would have changed or refined? We can't know.

But, for anyone interested in Wallace's work, The Pale King is worth reading. I think Pietsch may be setting up a false dichotomy in his introduction, but I understand the emotion behind it: "David was a perfectionist of the highest order, and there is no question that The Pale King would be vastly different had he survived to finish it. . . . But he did not. Given the choice between working to make this less-than-final text available as a book and placing it in a library where only scholars would read and comment on it, I didn't have a second's hesitation."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel

By David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown, 548 pages, $27.99

What-might-have-been's aside, David Foster Wallace's 'The Pale King' is worth a read 04/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 23, 2011 5:30am]

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