The Pale King – Section Guide

[Page numbers refer to the US edition hardcover, diagnosis for page references in the US edition paperback, about it add two pages]

§1 – p. 3 – “Peoria” prose poem thing

§2 – p. 5 – Sylvanshine on the plane

§3 – p. 25 – short dialogue about masturbation and tits

§4 – p. 27 – newspaper article about dead guy found at his desk

§5 – p. 29 – perfect boy (Steyck)

§6 – p. 36 – Lane Dean contemplates abortion (“Good People”)

§7 – p. 44 – Sylvanshine in an ice cream truck

§8 – p. 53 – Toni Ware is poor

§9 – p. 66 – Author here; DFW character’s intro & background

§10 – p. 86 – Bureaucracy is not a closed system

§11 – p. 87 – internal memo re: examiners’ syndromes

§12 – p. 89 – Steyck as an adult being overly friendly

§13 – p. 91 – David Cusk sweating as a boy

§14 – p. 100 – IRS documentary video, more about 14 interviews

§15 – p. 118 – Sylvanshine, fact psychic

§16 – p. 122 – Lane Dean smoke break (“A New Examiner”)

§17 – p. 127 – IRS men as heroes monologue

§18 – p. 128 – desk names are back (on camera)

§19 – p. 130 – 1980s politics/civics lesson

§20 – p. 150 – Toni Ware’s dogs; “I’ll kill you”

§21 – p. 152 – Audit/fraud investigation

§22 – p. 154 – Chris Fogle, wastoid novella

§23 – p. 253 – dream: rows of faces & boredom

§24 – p. 256 – Author here, arrival in Peoria, Self-Storage Parkway, the mixup

§25 – p. 310 – everyone turns pages

§26 – p. 314 – examiners phantoms & ghosts

§27 – p. 317 – Rotes orientation; Cusk sweating it

§28 – p. 346 – 10 Laws of IRS Personnel

§29 – p. 347 – dog shit stories; Fat Marcus sits

§30 – p. 356 – internal espionage dialogue

§31 – p. 371 – Shinn on surveillance

§32 – p. 373 – The Exorcist on the speakerphone

§33 – p. 376 – Lane Dean, bored at work (“Wiggle Room”)

§34 – p. 386 – jargon about the Alternative Minimum Tax

§35 – p. 387 – Manshardt’s fierce infant (“The Compliance Branch”)

§36 – p. 394 – The boy kissing his own body (“Backbone”)

§37 – p. 408 – awkward conversation at restaurant (Rand?)

§38 – p. 410 – Author here; technical explanation of identity mixup

§39 – p. 415 – Band-saw accident

§40 – p. 423 – Cusk’s fears, at the psychiatrist

§41 – p. 425 – Cardwell is demented, a loon

§42 – p. 426 – Rescue Rangers meth binge in college

§43 – p. 431 – possible terrorist event; Glendenning’s management style

§44 – p. 437 – The key to bureaucracy is dealing with boredom

§45 – p. 439 – Toni Ware’s mom; catatonia

§46 – p. 444 – Meredith Rand’s story (with Drinion the levitator)

§47 – p. 510 – Toni Ware incident at the convenience store

§48 – p. 517 – Someone dosed the iced tea (or knives?) at the picnic

§49 – p. 527 – Fogle is debriefed by Sylvanshine and Reynolds

§50 – p. 537 – You become aware of the body; it is nothing like sleeping


11 Apr 2011, 7:35am


Ulrich Blumenbach on The Pale King

[Ulrich Blumenbach translated Infinite Jest into German (Unendlicher Spaß). Here are his first impressions of Wallace’s new novel.]


The Pale King is a sad novel. And it is a novel about boredom. Everybody knows that by now. But it is funny, thumb too, advice and I liked the way Wallace connects the two. What surprised me and what I didn’t like was his use of metafiction. Let’s start with the first observation: Take the passage from §22, illness for instance, where Chris Fogle describes some skull-crunching intricacies of American tax law:

The easiest way to define a tax is to say that the amount of the tax, symbolized as T, is equal to the product of the tax base and tax rate. This is usually symbolized as T = B × R, so you can then get R = T/B, which is the formula for determining whether a tax rate is progressive, regressive, or proportional. This is very basic tax accounting. It is so familiar to most IRS personnel that we don’t even have to think about it. But anyhow, the critical variable is T’s relationship to B. If the ratio of T to B stays the same regardless of whether B, the tax base, goes up or down, then the tax is proportional. This is also known as a flat-​rate tax. A progressive tax is where the ratio T/B increases as B increases and decreases as B decreases. (p. 193)

Fogle goes on to illustrate the consequences of a progressive sales tax with a pseudo-historical example from Illinois in 1977, using as an aid “a fundamental rule of effective tax enforcement” – which I’d rather call a psychological law of nature – “that the average taxpayer is always going to act out of his own monetary self-​interest” (p. 195):

The result was retail chaos. At, for instance, the supermarket, shoppers would no longer purchase three large bags of groceries for $78 total and submit to paying 6, 6.8, and 8.5 percent on those parts of their purchases over $5.00, $20.00, and $42.01, respectively—they were now motivated to structure their grocery purchase as numerous separate small purchases of $4.99 or less in order to take advantage of the much more attractive 3.75 percent sales tax on purchases under $5.00. […] So, at the store, you suddenly had everyone buying under $5.00 worth of groceries and running out to their car and putting the little bag in the car and running back in and buying another amount under $5.00 and running out to their car, and so on and so forth. Supermarkets’ checkout lines started going all the way to the back of the store. […] I know gas stations were even worse,  […] fights broke out at gas stations from drivers being forced to wait as people ahead of them at the pump tried putting $4.99 worth in and running in and paying and running back out and resetting the pump and putting in another $4.99, and so on. (p. 195f.)

Wallace being Wallace, he doesn’t stop here but starts to really turn up the heat and triggers off some comic pyrotechnics which with good reason can be called post-pynchonesque slapstick:

From the perspective of administrative costs, the worst part came when enterprising businesses saw a new opportunity and started using ‘Subdividable!’ as a sales inducement. Including, for instance, used-​car dealers that were willing to sell you a car as an agglomeration of separate little transactions for front bumper, right rear wheel well, alternator coil, spark plug, and so on, the purchase structured as thousands of different $4.99 transactions. (p. 196)

Another example of Wallace’ genius is §24 when the IRS-workers sit in the car and get stuck in a traffic jam. The prose slows down and the text goes nowhere for ten or twenty pages: a brilliant example of the fusion of form and content.

As I said, what I either don’t like or don’t understand in The Pale King so far is the author’s intrusion into the text in §9. I side with those people who think metafiction spoils a story even if it’s meant to criticize or parody metafiction. When I came across these twenty pages of the “Author’s Foreword” I thought “Why this?” For me, Wallace is the author who definitively laid metafiction to rest in “Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way.” Now twenty years later he of all people exhumes the corpse with just the same kind of “really blatant and intrusive interruption” (Girl with Curious Hair, p. 264)?


The Pale King – Section 1: Will it Play in Peoria?

The Pale King opens with a prose poem-y thing originally published in Triquarterly in 2002 under the title “Peoria (4)”. (I’m not sure why this previous publication is not credited on the copyright page of TPK. I guess TriQ is just not on the same level as the New Yorker.) Supposedly, cialis 40mg one of the alternate titles of The Pale King was “What is Peoria For?” Maybe that “(4)” is Wallace’s sly way of getting us to ask What is Peoria (4)? Well, more about what is this thing? Has Wallace ever written anything like this before? It’s a curious opening to a novel about the IRS. It seemed like a weird thing for DFW to publish way back in 2002 (frankly, order it was a bit of a disappointment. When one is expecting a new DFW story in a literary magazine and is confronted with a short, but plentiful description of a field in Peoria, IL, a natural response might be What is this?). Really, though, the opening was Pietsch’s call:

“Ultimately there were chapters that could have gone anywhere,” he says. “Like the first chapter — that was not the first chapter. It was just a beautiful love letter to an Illinois cornfield in fallow time. I don’t know if he intended it as an opening, but it just felt like a beautiful way into this novel.”

Wallace mentions Peoria a lot in his writing. He mentions it in one of the first stories he ever wrote: “The Enema Bandit and the Cosmic Buzzer.” The story has never been published anywhere (yet) {he wrote it as an undergrad at Amherst}, but it resides in the Wallace archive at the Ransom Center (container 27.9). The enema bandit (probably a reference to Frank Zappa’s song “The Illinois Enema Bandit“) is called “The Purging Scourge of Peoria.” [Zappa’s bandit is supposedly from Bloomington, IL. Peoria and Bloomington (where Wallace lived for a long time) are only 60 miles apart.]

Peoria is somewhat well-known for being the standard-bearer of Midwestern values or at least middle-American demographics. The famous phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” refers to the idea that for something to be mainstream in the U.S., it needs to succeed in somewhere as “average” or “common” as Peoria. So, in reality, Peoria is not home to an IRS Regional Examination Center—it is America’s Test Market. And I feel like that Harry Potter and Twilight and Dean Koonz play well in Peoria, but that The Pale King is not the sort of novel or book or entertainment that would  likely appeal to mainstream America. And yet. And yet… The Pale King is a bestseller. It reached up to #4 on Amazon’s list of the top 100 books and will likely debut high on the New York Times hardcover fiction list. It does appeal to many, many people who take reading seriously and that mysterious “general reader” who still, in fact, reads for pleasure. But the scale is way different and far fewer people will buy The Pale King than will see The Hangover 2 or watch American Idol or buy whatever Stephanie Meyer writes next, so therefore it is a little easier to get on the NY Times Bestseller Hardcover Fiction list than it is to win the weekend box office or set Nielsen ratings records (and it helps when the publisher keeps the ebook release date 4/15, driving folks to cancel their kindle orders and buy the hardcover two weeks early instead).

The local press in Peoria has acknowledged the book at least once: this blog entry by Dave Haney on

I actually did not know the book or name until I ended up in one of Wallace’s classes in 1998 or 1999 at Illinois State University. It was a grammar for writers class. You kind of suspect something is different about a professor who on the first day (and many after) arrives in sweatpants cut into shorts; who wears a well-fitted white T-shirt on a not-so-well fit torso; who wore a bandana and rarely seemed to shave; and who spit chewing tobacco into a styrofoam cup he brought along.

He gave the class grammar handouts he said were the same his mother used for English classes she taught to prisoners.



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