The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace. But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that new employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling. And he has arrived at a moment when forces within the IRS are plotting to eliminate even what little humanity and dignity the work still has.
The Pale King remained unfinished at the time of David Foster Wallace's death, but it is a deeply compelling and satisfying novel, hilarious and fearless and as original as anything Wallace ever undertook. It grapples directly with ultimate questions - questions of life's meaning and of the value of work and society - through characters imagined with the interior force and generosity that were Wallace's unique gifts. Along the way it suggests a new idea of heroism and commands infinite respect for one of the most daring writers of our time.
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David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published The Pale King is a challenging listen. This is made explicit in the introduction from Wallace’s editor and friend, Michael Pietsch, who put the novel together from more than 1,000 pages left behind after Wallace’s suicide in 2008. The intricate, rambling novel is held together by five men including a character named David Wallace who work at an IRS processing center in Peoria, Illinois in the 1980s. There are forays into tax law, nearly rhapsodic tales of drug use, the ennui of working life, and copious footnotes that are a Wallace trademark.
Robert Petkoff is a reassuring presence as narrator of The Pale King, having voiced other Wallace novels. That history makes Petkoff adept at wrapping his tongue around the stream-of-consciousness writing and its varying moods and emotions. Petkoff has a casual, well-enunciated style that he can bend into arch sarcasm, deadpan humor, and even a robotic-sounding transcription machine. Wallace often breaks the narrative with asides, in this case with tax code information, and Petkoff drops his voice to indicate these pauses before picking up the main storyline again. When Wallace switches to first person, writing as his alter-ego, Petkoff gives him a looser, more energetic voice that one can imagine isn’t too far from the late author’s own.
The novel might be best summed up in a passage where Wallace describes the chronic worrier Claude Sylvanshine as he transfers to a new IRS office: “The whole thing presented such a cyclone of logistical problems and complexities, Sylvanshine was forced to do some thought-stopping merge his own awareness with the panoramic vista.” The Pale King is indeed a cyclone of complexities and might require multiple listens to absorb, but Petkoff is to be commended for diving in and bringing an extra layer of cohesion to an often-chaotic novel. Collin Kelley
"One hell of a document and a valiant tribute to the late Wallace.” (Publishers Weekly)
"Deeply sad, deeply philosophical…. The Pale King will be minutely examined by longtime fans for the reflexive light it sheds on Wallace's oeuvre and his life. But it may also snag the attention of newcomers, giving them a window...into this immensely gifted writer's vision of the human condition as lived out in the middle of America." (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times)
"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….” (Lev Grossman, TIME)
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