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Literature: The Pale King
When David Foster Wallace died 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 with The 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.
  • As You Know: David Foster Wallace mentions this trope in a footnote, calling it an irksome and graceless dramatic contrivance.
  • 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.
    • Leonard Stecyk.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Subverted with Meredith, who becomes a vain, neurotic mess if you let her talk about her problems long enough.
  • Bedlam House: Where Meredith spends her 18th birthday after getting caught cutting.
  • Beleaguered Bureaucrat: The IRS recruiter.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: In college, Chris had nothing but contempt for his religious roommate and his girlfriend.
  • Beneath the Mask: Meredith Rand is so gorgeous that no one realizes how many issues she's hiding. That is, until she starts talking...
  • Benevolent Boss: Leonard, the only one willing to listen to David F. Wallace.
  • Berserk Button: Do not mess with Toni's dogs if you value your life.
  • 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.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Leonard's medical knowledge.
    • 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.
  • Companion Cube: The Doberman Hand Puppet, which is eventually revealed to belong to Dr. Lehrl.
  • 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.
  • Cranky Neighbor: Toni.
  • Crapsack World: The New Mexico trailer park and the rest of Chapter 8 provide a grim portrayal of a teenage girl trying to survive with her drifter of a mother.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Chris Fogle's mother ends up obsessing over birds as a way to cope with the death of her ex-husband.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Toni's shoplifting techniques.
  • 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.
    • Shane Drinion.
  • 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.
  • Cue the Sun: David Foster Wallace says that a rural Midwest sunrise is as soft and romantic as someone’s abruptly hitting the lights in a darkened room.
  • Cute and Psycho: Toni really loves her dogs:
    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.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: None of the characters have happy backgrounds, but Toni Ware has the worst by far.
    • So do not mess with this girl; this girl is damaged goods.
  • Death by Irony: A soybean farmer was decapitated by a Think Farm Safety billboard during a tornado in 1987.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Every male in the vicinity of Meredith Rand, with the sole exception of Shane Drinion.
  • Doorstopper: The mandatory reading materials for the IRS employment applicants.
  • Driven to Suicide: Thanks to Leonard's unbridled optimism, his homeroom teacher threatens to kill herself with a pair of blunt scissors.
    • Garrity.
    • Training Officer Pam Jensen plans to, according to one of Claude's random insights.
    • Lane Dean begins to consider it as he examines tax returns.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Chris Fogle spends a few pages discussing his drug habits, and he's clearly embarrassed in retrospect.
  • Dying Alone: Frederick Blumquist dies of a heart attack at his desk at an IRS office. He passes away on Tuesday, but no one noticed until Saturday evening when a janitor finds him sitting in the dark. It took over four days for any of 25 other employees in the room to realize that they were working with a corpse. Since he was a quiet person and died in his typical sitting position, everyone just assumed he was really absorbed in his work. His personality doesn't change when he comes back as a ghost.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: A handful of chapters appeared as standalone short stories in literary magazines during the many years that Wallace was working on the book.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: ‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle, due to his overly detailed narrations.
    • Ms. Neti-Neti is Persian, but some service members call her the 'Iranian Crisis'.
    • Wallace’s skin condition led his college roommate to call him 'the young man carbuncular'.
    • Diablo the Left-Handed Surrealist.
  • Everybody Must Get Stoned: Chris mentions how common and easy it was to obtain drugs in college.
  • Eye Scream: Revenue Agent Fechner lost an eye in a war. He has a Glass Eye, but he apparently likes to use his empty eye socket as a bottle opener.
  • 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.
  • Footnote Fever: Any time David Foster Wallace provides a direct narration.
  • 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.
  • Hallucinations: Some IRS examiners who strain themselves to remain focused and alert in the face of extreme boredom are visited by phantoms that embody extreme stereotypes of the repressed aspects of their personalities. Macho guys see drag queens, neat freaks see filthy people, etc.
  • Hidden Depths: Chris is surprised when his father quotes a famous poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The again, he didn't know much about his father in the first place...
  • Hilarity Ensues: Thanks to a screw-up with the IRS's records, David Foster Wallace gets mistaken for David F. Wallace and has to spend his first few days in the Peoria REC attending meetings he knows nothing about. The other David gets stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare because the IRS already has records of him arriving and won't allow him to register.
  • 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.
    • Toni Ware is incredibly good at reading people.
  • Hysterical Woman: Toni pretends to be one in her final scene, Inelegant Blubbering and all.
  • Ignorant of Their Own Ignorance: Looking back, Chris realizes just how idiotic and lazy he was during his wasteoid phase.
  • Inner Monologue: Claude Sylvanshine's chapters are usually written as a blend of random sensory observations and musings over personal issues.
  • I See Dead People: Thanks to his Random Fact Intuition, Claude is the only one who can glean any information about the ghosts that haunt Post 047.
  • It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: Any of Chris's antics during his college career.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Leonard gets beaten up by multiple bullies, and someone eventually blows up his locker.
  • 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.
    • He also notes that he was not legally allowed to mention his publisher in the text - no one wants to mess with the IRS, after all - despite the fact that the publisher's name is featured on the book's spine.
  • Local Hangout: Meibeyer's, where the majority of main cast spend their Friday afternoons.
  • 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.
  • Money, Dear Boy: Arguably the entire point of the Spackman Initiative.
  • Monster Clown: Mrs. Sloper resembles an embalmed clown, 'the stuff of nightmares'.
  • Motor Mouth: Garrity haunts Post 047 by randomly appearing before examiners and talking non-stop.
    • Meredith, once she gets going. Some of her coworkers prefer examining tax returns to listening to her talk.
  • Nice Guy: Leonard.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Chris's whole gimmick throughout most of his wasted college education.
  • No Fourth Wall: Whenever David Foster Wallace is narrating, he addresses the reader directly.
  • Noodle Implements: Toni is last seen hauling around a dozen bricks and ordering several feet of copper tubing. Given how mentally unbalanced she is, the results probably won't involve construction.
  • Noodle Incident: It's never revealed what landed Leonard's mother in the hospital, but it apparently involved the kitchen oven malfunctioning.
    • Nor is it revealed what went down at the annual corporate picnic, but it involved mosquitoes, an infectious disease, and some spiked Kool-Aid.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Fat Marcus the Moneylender and his friends get caught doing a prank that everyone thinks looks like a 'prison-type gang-type sexual assault gone wrong'.
  • Novella: Chapter 22 is just under 100 pages.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Author's Foreword includes a lengthy description of all the legal issues that went along with the creation of the book.
    • The horrendously complex and ultimately bungled wrongful death lawsuit after Chris Fogle's father dies.
    • After his experience in Advanced Tax class, Chris tries to make up for his mistakes by going to the dean and begging for a chance to salvage his college career. The dean laughs in his face.
  • One-Paragraph Chapter: Occasionally. Chapter 17 is little more than half a page long.
  • Only Sane Man: Chris, as revealed at the end of Claude's investigation.
  • Open Minded Parent: Chris's mother. She defends her son while dealing with her own issues with regards to feminism and individuality.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Post 047 is haunted by two ghosts: Garrity and Blumquist. The former is extremely chatty and distracting, and the latter is silent but companionable.
  • Our Lawyers Advised This Trope: The Author's Foreword is rife with this. David Foster Wallace even uses his footnotes to apologize for the abundance of apparently necessary legal writing.
  • Plagiarism: Wallace admits to writing papers for his college classmates to earn money. It doesn't end well for him.
  • Psychic Powers: Claude Sylvanshine's Random Fact Intuition.
    • 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.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Leonard. Dr. Lehrl, on the other hand...
  • 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.
  • Single Mom Stripper: Implied by the list of previous jobs held by Toni's mother in Chapter 8.
  • 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.
  • Spock Speak: Shane Drinion, who may not be human.
  • 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.
    • The owner of the Doberman Hand Puppet is Dr Lehrl.
    • The identity of drifter girl and the fate of her mother.
    • The identity of Mr. X. It makes the Uncomfortable Elevator Moment chapter read completely different the second time through.
    • The fate of Lane Dean's girlfriend and their unborn child.
    • The true purpose of Claude's investigation.
    • Chris Fogle's role.
    • Dr. Lehrl's intentions for Post 047.
  • The Tease: Deconstructed with Meredith Rand.
  • The Un Reveal: Practically everything, considering that the book was unfinished.
    • The individualized phantoms for each examiner.
    • The fate of the nearly all the characters, especially Lane Dean, the Iranian Crisis, and the kid contortionist and his father.
    • The legal proceedings once David Foster Wallace is accused of impersonating David F. Wallace.
    • What Shane Drinion really is, and his relation to Keith Sabusawa.
    • If Mr. Manshardt's eventually Dr. Lehrl's child can actually speak, or if the person who hears it is insane.
    • Toni Ware's eccentricities.
    • The full extent of Claude's powers.
    • The origins of the nicknames introduced in Chapter 25, particularly Bob 'Second-Knuckle' Mckenzie.
  • There Are No Therapists: Averted. David Cusk eventually goes to a psychiatrist. The book also ends with a second-person narrative that describes the start of a therapy session.
  • This Is a Work of Fiction: David Foster Wallace points out the paradox of the book being both a memoir and literary fiction in The Author's Foreword.
  • Title Drop: Mentioned offhand in Chapter 18.
  • 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.
  • Verbal Tic: Kenneth 'Type of Thing' Hindle.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Garrity's rants include references to Pascal, Marquise du Deffand, Latin, Greek, Metropolis, Kierkegaard, and philology.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Claude and Reynolds.
  • Vocal Dissonance: Nugent's little sister can imitate Regan MacNeil's voice perfectly, much to the delight of Nugent's bored coworkers.
  • Wacky Fratboy Hijinx: The confrontation between Fat Marcus the Moneylender and Diablo the Left-Handed Surrealist.
    • 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.
  • What Could Have Been: The last few pages are a quick rundown of ideas that David Foster Wallace was musing over.
    • More Character Development, with a huge focus on Leonard Steyck.
    • Claude and Reynolds are based on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and were apparently planned to be roommates or even lovers.
    • 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.
    • A intriguing plan courtesy of Dr. Lehrl.
  • What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway?: Claude Sylvanshine has Random Fact Intuition, which is basically ESP with nothing but useless facts.
  • 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.

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alternative title(s): The Pale King
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