Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spine-cabbage, goldenrod, creeping Charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

Some crows come overhead then, three or four, not a murmur, on the wing, silent with intent, corn-bound for the pasture’s wire beyond which one horse smells at the other’s behind, the lead horse’s tail obligingly lifted. Your shoes’ brand incised in the dew. An alfalfa breeze. Socks burrs. Dry scratching inside a culvert. Rusted wire and tilted posts more a symbol of restraint than a fence per se. NO HUNTING. The shush of the interstate off past the windbreak. The pasture’s crows standing at angles, turning up patties to get at the worms underneath, the shapes of the worms incised in the overturned dung and baked by the sun all day until hardened, there to stay, tiny vacant lines in rows and inset curls that do not close because head never touches tail. Read these.


  1. In November 2008 Bonnie Nadell jointed Karen Green, David’s widow, to go through his office, a garage with one small window at their home in Claremont, California. On David’s desk Bonnie found a neat stack of manuscript, twelve chapters totaling nearly 250 pages…exploring further they found hundreds and hundreds of pages of his novel in progress, designated with the title “The Pale King”. Hard drives, file folders, three-ring binders, spiral bound notebooks, and floppy disks contained printed chapters, sheaves of handwritten pages, notes and more.. and a box of books that David had used in his research.

    There were few broad notes about the novel’s trajectory, no list of scenes, no designated opening or closing point, nothing that could be called a set of instructions for The Pale King. As I read and reread this mass of material, it never-the-less became clear that David had written deep into the novel, creating a vividly complex place – The IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, in 1985 – and a remarkable set of characters doing battle there against the hulking, terrorizing demons of ordinary life.

  2. Putting this book together was not an easy task. Even the chapter that appeared to be the novel’s obvious starting point (above) is revealed in a footnote. Another note in the same chapter refers to the novel as being full of “shifting POV’s, structural fragmentation, willed incongruities.” In several notes to himself, David referred to the novel as “tornadic” or having a ‘tornado feeling” – suggesting pieces of story coming at the reader in a high-speed swirl. One note says the novel is “a series of set-ups for things to happen but nothing ever happens.” Another points out that there are three “high-end players…but we never see them, only their aides and advance men.” Still another suggests that throughout the novel “something big threatens to happen but doesn’t actually happen.”

    One character in The Pale King describes a play he’s written in which a man sits at a desk, working silently, until the audience leaves, at which point the play’s action begins.” But, he continues, “I could never decide on the action, if there was any.”

    The complete original drafts and the entire mass of material from which this novel was culled, will ultimately be made available to the public at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center, which houses all of David Foster Wallace’s papers.