Wikipedia tells us that there have been at least five published “stories” that are likely excerpts of The Pale King:
- “Good People”, in the February 5, 2007, issue of The New Yorker.
- “The Compliance Branch”, in the February 2008 issue of Harper’s.
- “Wiggle Room”, in the March 9, 2009, issue of The New Yorker.
- “All That”, in the December 14, 2009, issue of The New Yorker.
- “A New Examiner”, in the January 2010 issue of The Lifted Brow and the September 2010 issue of Harper’s.
Nick also covers more about the potential excerpts at The Howling Fantods. It’s also thought that previously published stories “The Soul is Not a Smithy”, “Incarnations of Burned Children”, and the “Peoria” prose pieces from Triquarterly are likely excerpts from the unfinished novel—as are several stories Wallace read in public but did not publish separately (namely the Lannan readings and one story about a man caught in a subway train accident). The structure then partly seems to be that the characters in The Pale King work at the “IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois,” but their stories are told (partly) through their childhoods. [Bear with me, this is all just speculation, I know, I know.] The catalog copy does state that “David Foster Wallace” is also a character in the novel. The only other time Wallace has directly mentioned himself or named a character after himself is in “Good Old Neon” — could that be a novel excerpt also? Or is it just that Wallace has been dealing with these ideas for a long time? [GON appeared in 2001 and DT Max tells us that Wallace had started researching The Pale King as early as 1997. I’ve seen some of these early research materials in the Ransom Center archive. For example, there is a 1997 letter from Frank B. Linton, who says that DFW’s question regarding “The Silver Butterfly” caught him off guard.]
“Good People” concerns Lane A. Dean, Jr. and his girlfriend Shari sitting beside a lake discussing what they should do about the Shari’s pregnancy. “The Compliance Branch” (I think of it as the “Fierce Infant” piece) is set in the IRS processing center and describes the Group Manager Gary Yeagle’s infant son. The story/excerpt is narrated in the first person, but it’s unclear who the narrator is. Could it be “David Foster Wallace”? It doesn’t sound like the interior voice of Lane Dean in “Good People.” These first two excerpts, both featuring Lane A. Dean, Jr. appeared before Wallace died. There was a palpable sense, in 2008, that there was a forthcoming novel announcement imminent.
Lane Dean shows up again in “Wiggle Room” (in the third person narration), and this story, it seems, gets into the guts of the novel. Lane is diligently working away at his IRS Tingle table and watching the clock.
Try as he might, he could not this last week help envisioning the inward lives of the older men to either side of him, doing this day after day. Getting up on a Monday and chewing their toast and putting their hats and coats on knowing what they were going out the door to come back to for eight hours. This was boredom beyond any boredom he’d ever felt.
Sounds very very much like one of the big themes of “The Soul is Not a Smithy” to me. The narrator of “Smithy” is never named, but his interior voice sounds nothing like that of what we’ve seen from Lane Dean so far. Also, the narrator’s father in “Smithy” works not for the IRS but for an insurance company. It will be interesting to find out which childhood story is Lane Dean’s. Could it be that he’s the baby from “Incarnations of Burned Children”?
We see Lane Dean Jr. again in the excerpt titled “A New Examiner” (it appeared first in the Australian journal The Lifted Brow and then in Harper’s). This excerpt is every similar to “Wiggle Room” except that Lane is not at his Tingle table but on a break, listening to an older examiner tell a boring story. In fact, the only story not to feature Lane A. Dean is “All That”, which leads me to wonder how that story fits in, if at all. When “Good People” first appeared in 2007, it had been a while since we’d seen any fiction at all from Wallace. The strange Peoria pieces were published in 2002, Oblivion was published in 2004, then practically nothing fictionwise until “Good People” in 2007. It will be fascinating to see how this sliver is representative of the whole—even of Lane Dean’s story.
We know that the novel deals with boredom (Max paraphrases the theme as “Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment”), but it Wallace is excels at transcending just one theme in a novel. Infinite Jest is about more than just addiction or entertainment. The Broom of the System is about more than just the limits of language. I’d imagine that The Pale King is about more than just boredom. In fact, a big theme of “Good People” and “All That” is the role of spirituality, religion, and mysticism in everyday life. Wallace began writing more about religion and Christianity with his lengthy review of Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky biographies, but it’s hard to forget Don Gately’s struggle with AA’s Higher Power in Infinite Jest. I’m not sure how any of this figures in The Pale King, but I can’t wait to find out.
I really wish The Pale King had a different subtitle. Instead of “An Unfinished Novel” it should say “A Novel” or “An Entertainment” or “Volume 1” or anything but unfinished, half-finished, never completed, no. We can’t edit time, though. The ravages of time. What we face is a future without new writing by David Foster Wallace. There will be many, many future books examining exactly how he accomplished what he did and who he influenced and why, but no more novels by him. This is it.
Without a doubt, April 15, 2011 is one of the most anticipated release dates in literature. I predict that The Pale King will draw many more readers into Wallace’s other works, and surprise many skeptics who don’t believe an unfinished novel is worth reading. There are also a lot of haters out there who think any book by or about David Foster Wallace will now be a pure money grab and they can’t wait to make terrible pronouncements about how something is being trampled. But of course all this is ridiculous baloney; and if you’ve learned anything about the internet by now it’s this: ignore the haters. Look, I don’t pretend to be an objective reviewer. This is my Star Wars, my Harry Potter, my Steve Jobs keynote and Christmas morning all rolled into one. If there were a parking lot where I could set up a tent and a lawn chair months in advance and camp out and be first in line for this, I’d do it.
I’m going to start reading The Pale King the day it is released and I’m going to post about it on this site until I’m finished with it. No set schedule, no forums, but I invite you to share your thoughts with me in the comments here and on twitter under the hashtag #paleking. After all the buildup, I’m especially interested in people’s first impressions of the book—and then how it feels to turn that last page and close the book and set it down and consider what might have been in light of what was.
We know roughly what the book is about and to me, from the excerpts published so far, it appears to be Wallace’s most humanistic novel, one less interested in showing off and more interested in exposing nerve endings. I believe Wallace accomplished a similar thing in Oblivion, but short story collections just don’t have the cachet of novels. (I also think there is a deep, humanistic side to Infinite Jest, but have to concede that not every page of the novel burns with the same concerns.) I’ll be interested to see if the short story “The Soul is Not a Smithy” ends up as part of the unfinished novel—it does seem to fit with the boredom-tax processor theme—and how it fits in with the other characters we’ve seen in the excerpts. But I find myself coming back to worrying about that narrator and his fear of his father’s job, his despair at the prospect of facing that soulless room of white-collared men everyday of his working life. I worry that I don’t have enough of that despair, or that I’ve already conditioned myself out of any instinct to run from such a horrorshow of cubicles. Or that I have no choice. I don’t know, but I think about that a lot.