When David Foster Wallacedied in 2008, he left behind an unfinished manuscript for his latest novel, along with hundreds of other pages of notes and ideas. Through the combined efforts of his wife, agent, and editor, his final work has been released as The Pale King (2011). It is a jumbled narrative that combines a memoir with the various stories of a group of IRS employees stationed in Peoria, Illinois in 1985. Despite being incomplete and sometimes incomprehensible, the novel's themes of depression, loneliness, self-awareness, and the tedium of daily life are expressed with a depth and poignancy that only Wallace could muster.Not to be confused withThe King in Yellow.
This book provides examples of:
A Date with Rosie Palms: Two IRS employees are in the middle of a lengthy commute, and one decides to break up the monotony by awkwardly asking about what the other guy thinks about when he masturbates. The other guy is understandably incredulous.
Amicably Divorced: Chris's parents try to give off this impression, though both of them are deeply affected by it.
Awesome but Impractical: The parking lot of the Peoria REC: In essence, the baronial splendor of the REC’s grass was a testament to the idiocy and hassle of the whole thing’s planning.
Badass Adorable: Leonard Stecyk saves his high school wood shop teacher when he gets a thumb chopped off by a machine. Everyone starts taking him much more seriously.
Badass Bookworm: The unnamed, impoverished teenaged girl later revealed to be Toni Ware in Chapter 8. She reads anything she can get her hands on, but she knows how to poison people with asbestos, sabotage cars, and likely kill a man who was implied to have sexually assaulted her.
Beauty Equals Goodness: Subverted with Meredith, who becomes a vain, neurotic mess if you let her talk about her problems long enough.
Brainless Beauty: Subverted by Meredith Rand, who is well aware of this trope and annoyed by anyone who assumes she is one.
Buried Alive: Averted. Chris frantically starts digging through a huge mound of snow because he thinks someone might be trapped underneath. It turns out that someone just lost their umbrella.
Captain Oblivious: Chris, during his wasteoid years. Even his life-changing event was the result of him going to the wrong classroom and experiencing something completely different from his own world view.
Character Development: The novel is unfinished, so most of the characters don't get fully examined. There are only a few exceptions:
Leonard Stecyk grows from an irritating and overachieving Cheerful Child and into a kind, level-headed leader. The extra notes after the end of the novel suggests that he had an epiphany that allowed him to fully embrace his strengths instead of using kindness to selfishly make him feel better about himself.
David Cusk slowly becomes more confident and eventually sees a psychiatrist about his phobias.
Chris Fogle starts as a drugged-out, Nietzsche Wannabe college dropout and gradually accepts his self-worth and responsibilities as an adult.
Lane Dean's religious convictions weaken over time, to the point of considering suicide.
Cheerful Child: Leonard Stecyk is so ridiculously wholesome, honest, and hard-working that some of the school faculty want to kill him. His schoolmates hide when they see him coming.
Chekhov's Gun: Director Glendenning's pathological hatred of mosquitoes.
Chekhov's Gunman: A couple of the main characters remain anonymous and seemingly unimportant in their introductory chapters. Toni is mentioned by name only twice in single sentences hundreds of pages apart before finally taking center stage.
Toni Ware's ability to keep her eyes open for minutes at a time.
Child Hater: Anyone who went to elementary school with Leonard Stecyk has what is described as a 'complex hatred' for him. People hate themselves for hating such a well-meaning kid, then hate him even more for creating such self-hatred. The principal has nightmares about the boy and occasionally fantasizes about sinking a meat hook into his face and dragging him behind his car through the streets of Grand Rapids, MI. A homeroom teacher even threatens to kill him with a pair of blunt scissors. It eventually culminates with someone blowing up his locker.
Child Prodigy: Leonard. At 11 years old, he participates in the Meals on Wheels charity, volunteers as a crosswalk guard and hall monitor, donates his ice cream money to UNICEF, has been to origami camp twice, writes letters to publishers about textbook errors, fields all calls and inquiries with regards to his mother's hospitalization, attempts to reorganize his homeroom's seating structure for maximum efficiency, and writes individualized letters of apologies to his bullies. He also intentionally gets a few Bs on his report card solely to ensure he never gets too prideful of being an overachiever.
Conspiracy Theorist: There's an old lady later revealed to be Toni Ware's grandmother who believes Jack Benny is attempting to achieve global thought control via radio waves. She covers her house with electrified hubcaps, which jams her neighbors' signals. She ends up getting cited for diverting her household's amperage, so she salvages a generator that runs on kerosene.
Coitus Ensues: There's a reason why she's called the Iranian Crisis.
Creepy Child: Mr. Manshardt's infant has a terrifying expression on its face and body language of an adult. It can also talk, though the person who heard it may be insane.
Creepy Monotone: On behalf of her superiors, Ms. Neti-Neti is 'extremely pleased' to invite Wallace to the Peoria REC…except that she shows no enthusiasm or interest whatsoever.
Cruel and Unusual Death: Chris's father gets his arm stuck in a closing subway door, and is dragged the length of the station and beyond. The authorities find pieces of him roughly 65 yards away from the platform, at which point the train was traveling over 50 miles an hour.
Now I'll know. If anything happens to these dogs. If they run off, or limp, or anything - I'll kill you, your family, burn your house down, and sow salt. I have nothing to live for but these dogs...But if anything gets done to these dogs I'll decide it was you and I'll sacrifice my life and freedom to destroy you and everyone you love.
Fate Worse Than Death: Leonard Stecyk's homeroom teacher finally snaps from having to deal with the kid's incessant happiness and perfection, brandishes a blunt pair of scissors, and threatens to kill both him and herself. She is promptly put on indefinite medical leave, during which she receives three highly-organized and detailed Get Well cards from the boy per week. This does not improve her condition in the slightest.
Finishing Each Other's Sentences: Reynolds and Claude's promotion interview in the penultimate chapter. Chris incredulously wonders how long they had to practice it.
Fortune Teller: Mother Tia, one of the New Mexican trailer park elders.
Freudian Excuse: The unnamed narrator of Chapter 23 has issues with regards to his self-worth. He remembers a presentation he did on The Iliad in the eleventh grade, and he freely associates it with his family. He likens his family to Achilles, in that his seemingly perfect brother is Achilles's shield, while he is the heel. He even develops a fixation on people's feet.
Good Girls Avoid Abortion: As a teenager, Lane Dean secretly hopes that his Christian girlfriend will break up with him, but still keep their unborn child. It's eventually revealed that they're still together and raising the child.
Growing Up Sucks: A major theme throughout the novel, but especially prevalent in Chris Fogle's chapter.
Greasy Spoon: Chapter 8 ends with the girl eating breakfast at a diner in Plepler, MO, as her mother has sex in the truck outside.
Hyper Awareness: Chris Fogle. It starts off with existential ponderings during his drug-induced highs, but he eventually gets a sober epiphany during a random viewing of As the World Turns.
His exceptional memory allows him to explain things with several minute details. David Foster Wallace later lampshades this: Rest assured that I am not Chris Fogle, and that I have no intention of inflicting on you a regurgitation of every last sensation and passing thought I happen to recall.
David Cusk also qualifies, but his senses get thrown off whenever he gets a panic attack.
Leave the Camera Running: In-universe. Chris Fogle's 99-page monologue is, according to the author two chapters later, "actually heavily edited and excerpted" from his interview for the IRS faux-documentary; the employees serving as the documentary crew allowed Chris to talk as long as he wanted to increase their overtime pay.
Literary Agent Hypothesis: The Author's Foreword. He claims that all of it is true, yet he points out the disclaimer on the copyright page states that the characters and events are fictitious. He spends a good portion of the chapter noting the inherent paradox.
In other words, this Foreword is is defined by the disclaimer as itself fictional, meaning that it lies within the area of special legal protection established by that disclaimer. I need this legal protection in order to inform you that what follows is, in reality, not fiction at all, but substantially true and accurate. That The Pale King is, in point of fact, more like a memoir than any kind of made-up story.
Claude, as implied by the events of the annual corporate picnic.
Master of Disguise: Toni has at least twenty distinct voices and differently-colored contact lenses.
Mistaken Identity: David Foster Wallace is mistaken for another David F. Wallace who was scheduled to show up at the same time. He gets an expedited entry into the Peoria REC, a promotion, and a consultation with the Iranian Crisis. It takes a few days for the IRS to figure it out, and he faces impersonation charges for months.
Shane Drinion can levitate if he concentrates on a single thing long enough. He gradually starts floating as he listens to Meredith's story. He also once gets caught floating upside down while examining a tax return.
Rousing Speech: Given by a substitute teacher on the final review day of the Advanced Tax class. It motivates Chris to clean up his life.
Gentlemen, you are called to account.
Rule of Symbolism: The IRS seal depicts the mythical hero Bellerophon slaying the Chimera, which represents those who are stuck doing the difficult and unpopular work.
Sanity Slippage: David Cusk's inner monologue slowly spirals into this whenever he gets an anxiety attack. It's so powerful that Claude notices it via his psychic powers.
Lane Dean starts losing it as he spends hours examining tax returns.
Director Glendenning in one of the last chapters.
Sylvanshine is possibly going insane when he hears Manshardt's baby speak. It could have actually happened though.
Secret Test of Character: Applying for the IRS involves listening to a lengthy, mind-numbingly boring presentation. The recruitment office is closely monitored to see how would-be applicants react to the dull, tedious nature of the work.
Shrinking Violet: As a teenager, David Cusk is so morbidly afraid of someone seeing his excessive sweating that he tries to keep as low a profile as possible. He gets better - but not complete - control over it when he grows up.
Skewed Priorities: Debated among a few characters as the IRS deals with drastic changes brought on by the Spackman Initiative. Focus on ideal output and civil service is shifted toward a free-market approach that attempts to maximize profits.
Snowed-In: Chicago gets hit with a nasty winter storm in 1979. It doesn't stop Chris from reaching the IRS recruitment office.
Socially-Awkward Hero: Lane Dean attempts to converse with his fellow IRS employees during his fifteen minute break, and fails miserably.
Social Services Does Not Exist: Averted. Toni and her mother simply avoid them by drifting around the country. This lasts until the mother is killed by her boyfriend.
Stylistic Suck: Part of Chapter 24 is taken from the packet of IRS orientation materials for new hires, which Wallace states is the reason for the dead, bureaucratic flavor of the narration.
Super OCD: David Cusk. Thanks to his fear of being noticed for his sweating, he eventually develops the ability to keep track of a room's temperature, the locations and distances of the exits, sight lines and proximity of every person in the room, and quickly strategize ways to avoid detection.
The Dandy: Leonard wears a stylish carpenter's apron for his high school wood shop class. It keeps his clothes from getting covered in his teacher's blood during an accident with a machine. It also carries his metric-conversion ruler, which he uses to create a perfectly-tied tourniquet.
The Pollyanna: Leonard, to the point where no one can stand being around him. He apparently survives his childhood and pleasantly gives out US Post Office National Zip Code Directories to his new neighbors. He eventually grows out it and ends up being the most competent and stable of the higher-ups at Post 047.
The Quiet One: Shane Drinion. When he does speak, he has a lengthy, thought-provoking conversation with Meredith Rand and completely throws her off her game.
The Real Heroes: The IRS employees are likened to policeman, firefighters, and other emergency service members in a few places.
Chapter 17 is a single paragraph that explains the idea.
The IRS seal depicts the mythical hero Bellerophon slaying the Chimera.
The Reveal: Only a few, and even then they're only explained in passing or subtly hinted.
Uncomfortable Elevator Moment: There's a whole chapter devoted to three IRS employees that are stuck in an elevator. Their resulting debates include the future of American society, presidential politics, democracy, tax law, psychology, film, and existential dread.
Didn't anybody at your school ever have names like Joe or Bill?
"Well Done, Son!" Guy: The entire relationship dynamic between Chris and his father. Chris is fully aware of how disappointed his father is of him, but is usually too stoned or selfish to care. It's not until his father dies that Chris feels guilty enough to change his life.
This is made depressingly clear when the father comes home early to find Chris and his buddies in his living room, high out of their minds, surrounded by discarded Taco Bell wrappers, and their feet resting lazily on one his prized pieces of furniture. The father doesn't yell; he simply says, Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!, walks to his bedroom and shuts the door.
Chris Fogle apparently knows a sequence of numbers that grant him the power of total concentration when uttered.
The themes of humanity versus technology/tradition versus efficiency/civil service versus corporate profit would be much more fleshed-out, including a contest between Shane Drinion and the latest scanning machine.
A deeper exploration of Meredith's marriage and Blumquist's past, with Meredith possibly falling for Drinion in a "savior" type of way just like with her husband while she was in the psych ward.
What Would X Do?: When faced with the prospect of breaking up with his pregnant, loveless girlfriend or aborting their would-be child, Lane Dean wonders what Jesus would do.
White Collar Crime: Chapter 21 is a conversation between an IRS auditor and a businessman trying to falsify his tax report. He is given two options: jail, or filing a new report with the correct information and paying the late fees.
Claude suspects that the higher-ups at Post 047 are doctoring the records so that the site has a perfectly averaged productivity rate, which would make them appear less suspicious.
Would Hurt a Child: At least one adult directly attempts to kill Leonard as a child. Another hits him with their car, though it's debatable if that was accidental. The rest of them have a little more restraint. There's also an unnamed man in Chapter 8 who is implied to be a sexual predator. And the man who kills Toni's mother.
You Are Number Six: Anyone who has worked for the Service is given a new Social Security number that exclusively begins with a 9.
Artistic License - Economics: Invoked during Chris's description of the new tax laws in Chicago in 1978. Since the amount of taxes that needed to be paid were determined by the amount you spend per transaction, people did their shopping by buying one item at a time. The resulting lines and traffic are horrendous, and the governor loses his job over it.
Your Cheating Heart: The unnamed father in Chapter 36. He gets off on the idea of women needing him.
We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.