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In 2006, ten years after the publication of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Little,
Brown made plans to release an anniversary edition of that glorious novel. Celebrations wereset up at bookstores in New York and Los Angeles, but as the events neared, David demurredabout attending. I telephoned to try to persuade him. “You know I’ll come if you insist,” hesaid. “But please don’t. I’m deep into something long, and it’s hard for me to get backinto it when I’m pulled away.”
“Something long” and “a long thing” were the terms David used to talk about the novel he’dbeen writing in the years since Infinite Jest. He published many books in those years—story
collections in 1999 and 2004 and gatherings of essays in 1997 and 2005. But the question of anew novel loomed, and David was uncomfortable speaking about it. Once when I pressed him, hedescribed working on the new novel as like wrestling sheets of balsa wood in a high wind. Fromhis literary agent, Bonnie Nadell, I heard occasional reports: David was taking accountingclasses as research for the novel. It was set at an IRS tax return processing center. I had hadthe enormous honor of working with David as his editor on Infinite Jest, and had seen the
worlds he’d conjured out of a tennis academy and a rehab center. If anyone could make taxesinteresting, I figured, it was him.
At the time of David’s death, in September 2008, I had not seen a word of this novel exceptfor a couple stories he had published in magazines, stories with no apparent connection toaccountancy or taxation. In November, Bonnie Nadell joined Karen Green, David’s widow, to gothrough his office, a garage with one small window at their home in Claremont, California. OnDavid’s desk Bonnie found a neat stack of manuscript, twelve chapters totaling nearly 250pages. On the label of a disk containing those chapters he had written “For LB advance?”Bonnie had talked with David about pulling together a few chapters of his novel to send toLittle, Brown in order to commence negotiations for a new contract and advance againstroyalties. Here was that partial manuscript, unsent.
Exploring David’s office, Bonnie and Karen found hundreds and hundreds of pages of his novelin progress, designated with the title “The Pale King.” Hard drives, file folders, three-ringbinders, spiral-bound notebooks, and floppy disks contained printed chapters, sheaves ofhandwritten pages, notes, and more. I flew to California at their invitation and two days laterreturned home with a green duffel bag and two Trader Joe’s sacks heavy with manuscripts. A boxfull of books that David had used in his research followed by mail.
Reading this material in the months after returning, I found an astonishingly full novel,created with the superabundant originality and humor that were uniquely David’s. As I readthese chapters I felt unexpected joy, because while inside this world that David had made Ifelt as if I were in his presence, and was able to forget awhile the awful fact of his death.Some pieces were neatly typed and revised through numerous versions. Others were drafts inDavid’s minuscule handwriting. Some—those chapters from the desk among them—had beenrecently polished. Others were much older and contained abandoned or superseded plotlines.There were notes and false starts, lists of names, plot ideas, instructions to himself. Allthese materials were gorgeously alive and charged with observations; reading them was theclosest thing to seeing his amazing mind at play upon the world. One leather-bound workbook wasstill closed around a green felt marker with which David had recently written.
Nowhere in all these pages was there an outline or other indication of what order Davidintended for these chapters. There were a few broad notes about the novel’s trajectory, anddraft chapters were often preceded or followed by David’s directions to himself about where acharacter came from or where he or she might be headed. But there was no list of scenes, nodesignated opening or closing point, nothing that could be called a set of directions orinstructions for The Pale King. As I read and reread this mass of material, it neverthelessbecame 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 ofcharacters doing battle there against the hulking, terrorizing demons of ordinary life.
TheKaren Green and Bonnie Nadell asked me to assemble from these pages the best version of
that I could find. Doing so has been a challenge like none I’ve ever encountered.Pale King
But having read these draft pages and notes, I wanted those who appreciate David’s work to beable to see what he had created—to be allowed to look once more inside that extraordinarymind. Although not by any measure a finished work, seemed to me as deep and braveThe Pale King
as anything David had written. Working on it was the best act of loving remembrance I wascapable of.
In putting this book together I have followed internal clues from the chapters themselves andfrom David’s notes. It was not an easy task: even a chapter that appeared to be the novel’sobvious starting point is revealed in a footnote, and even more directly in an earlier versionof that chapter, to be intended to arrive well after the novel begins. Another note in the samechapter refers to the novel as being full of “shifting POVs, structural fragmentation, willedincongruities.”
But many of the chapters revealed a central narrative that follows a fairly clear chronology.In this story line, several characters arrive at the Peoria Regional Examination Center on thesame day in 1985. They go through orientation and begin working in and learning about the vastworld of IRS tax returns processing. These chapters and these recurring characters have anevident sequence that forms the novel’s spine.
Other chapters are self-contained and not part of any chronology. Arranging these freestandingsections has been the most difficult part of editing The Pale King. It became apparent as I
read that David planned for the novel to have a structure akin to that of Infinite Jest, with
large portions of apparently unconnected information presented to the reader before a mainstory line begins to make sense. In several notes to himself, David referred to the novel as“tornadic” or having a “tornado feeling”—suggesting pieces of story coming at the readerin a high-speed swirl. Most of the non-chronological chapters have to do with daily life at theRegional Examination Center, with IRS practice and lore, and with ideas about boredom,repetition, and familiarity. Some are stories from various unusual and difficult childhoods,whose significance gradually becomes clear. My aim in sequencing these sections was to placethem so that the information they contain arrives in time to support the chronological storyline. In some cases placement is essential to the unfolding story; in others it is a matter ofpace and mood, as in siting short comic chapters between long serious ones.
The novel’s central story does not have a clear ending, and the question inevitably arises:How unfinished is this novel? How much more might there have been? This is unknowable in theabsence of a detailed outline projecting scenes and stories yet to be written. Some notes amongDavid’s manuscript pages suggest that he did not intend for the novel to have a plotsubstantially beyond the chapters here. One note says the novel is “a series of setups forthings to happen but nothing ever happens.” Another points out that there are three “high-endplayers… but we never see them, only their aides and advance men.” Still another suggeststhat throughout the novel “something big threatens to happen but doesn’t actually happen.”
These lines could support a contention that the novel’s apparent incompleteness is in factintentional. David ended his first novel in the middle of a line of dialogue and his secondwith large plot questions addressed only glancingly. 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 theaction, if there was any.” In the section titled “Notes and Asides” at the end of the book Ihave extracted some of David’s notes about characters and story. These notes and lines fromthe text suggest ideas about the novel’s direction and shape, but none strikes me asdefinitive. I believe that David was still exploring the world he had made and had not yetgiven it a final form.
The pages of the manuscript were edited only lightly. One goal was to make characters’ namesconsistent (David invented new names constantly) and to make place names, job titles, and other
factual matters match up throughout the book. Another was to correct obvious grammatical errorsand word repetitions. Some chapters of the manuscript were designated “Zero drafts” or“freewriting,” David’s terms for first tries, and included notes such as “Cut by 50% innext draft.” I made occasional cuts for sense or pace, or to find an end point for a chapterthat trailed off unfinished. My overall intent in sequencing and editing was to eliminateunintentional distractions and confusions so as to allow readers to focus on the enormousissues David intended to raise, and to make the story and characters as comprehensible aspossible. The complete original drafts of these chapters, and the entire mass of material fromwhich this novel was culled, will ultimately be made available to the public at the Universityof Texas’s Harry Ransom Center, which houses all of David Foster Wallace’s papers.
David was a perfectionist of the highest order, and there is no question that The Pale King
would be vastly different had he survived to finish it. Words and images recur throughout thesechapters that I am sure he would have revised: the terms “titty-pinching” and “squeezing hisshoes,” for example, would probably not be repeated as often as they are. At least twocharacters have Doberman hand puppets. These and dozens of other repetitions and draftsloppinesses would have been corrected and honed had David continued writing . ButThe Pale King
he did not. Given the choice between working to make this less-than-final text available as abook and placing it in a library where only scholars would read and comment on it, I didn’thave a second’s hesitation. Even unfinished, it is a brilliant work, an exploration of some oflife’s deepest challenges, and an enterprise of extraordinary artistic daring. David set outto write a novel about some of the hardest subjects in the world—sadness and boredom—and tomake that exploration nothing less than dramatic, funny, and deeply moving. Everyone who workedwith David knows well how he resisted letting the world see work that was not refined to hisexacting standard. But an unfinished novel is what we have, and how can we not look? David,alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.
We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.
—Frank Bidart, “Borges and I”
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 waterdownriver, 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, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print,nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all headsgently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow ofstarlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is andsteams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigidand still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-coloredsunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all businessall 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 murder, on the wing, silent with intent,corn-bound for the pasture’s wire beyond which one horse smells at the other’s behind, thelead 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 ofrestraint 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, theshapes 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 neverquite touches tail. Read these.
From Midway Claude Sylvanshine then flew on something called Consolidated Thrust Regional Linesdown to Peoria, a terrifying thirty-seater whose pilot had pimples at the back of his neck andreached back to pull a dingy fabric curtain over the cockpit and the beverage service consistedof a staggering girl underhanding you nuts while you chugged a Pepsi. Sylvanshine’s windowseat was in 8-something, an emergency row, beside an older lady with a sacklike chin who couldnot seem despite strenuous efforts to open her nuts. The core accounting equation A = L + E canbe dissolved and reshuffled into everything from E = A – L to beyond. The craft rode theupdrafts and downdrafts like a dinghy in a gale. The only service into Peoria was regional outof either St. Louis or the two Chicagos. Sylvanshine had an inner ear thing and couldn’t readon planes but did read the emergency laminated card, twice. It was mostly illustrations; forlegal reasons, the airline had to presume illiteracy. Without being aware that he was doing so,Sylvanshine mentally repeated the word illiterate several dozen times until the word ceased to
mean anything and became just a rhythmic sound, not unlovely but out of sync with thepropellers’ flux’s pulse. It was something he did when he was under stress and did not wantan incursion. His point of departure was Dulles after a Service shuttle fromShepherdstown/Martinsburg. The three major codifications of US tax law being of course ’16,’39, and ’54, with ’81 and ’82’s indexing and anti-abuse provisions also relevant. Thefact that another major recodification was on the horizon would not, obviously, be on the CPAexam. Sylvanshine’s private goal was to pass the CPA exam, thereby immediately advancing twopaygrades. The extent of the recodification would, of course, depend in part on the Service’ssuccess in carrying out the Initiative’s directives. The job and the exam had to occupy twoseparate parts of his mind; it was crucial that he maintain separation of powers. Separation ofthe two areas. Calculating depreciation recapture for ?1231 assets is a five-step process. Theflight took fifty minutes and seemed much longer. There was nothing to do and nothing wouldhold still in his head in all the confined noise and after the nuts were gone there was nothingelse for Sylvanshine to do to occupy his mind but try to look at the ground which appearedclose enough that he could make out house colors and the types of different vehicles on thepale interstate the plane seemed to tack back and forth across. The card’s figures openingemergency doors and pulling cords and crossing their arms funereally with their seat cushionson their chests seemed amateurishly drawn and their features little more than bumps; youcouldn’t see fear or relief or really anything on their faces as they slid down the emergencychutes in the drawing. Emergency doors’ handles opened in one way and emergency hatches overthe wings opened in a totally different way. Components of equity include common stock,retained earnings, and how many different types of SE transaction. Distinguish betweenperpetual and periodic inventory and explain the relation(s) between a physical inventory andthe cost of goods sold. The darkly gray head ahead of him gave off a scent of Brylcreem thatwas even now surely soaking and staining the little paper towel on the seat top. Sylvanshinewished again that Reynolds was with him on the flight. Sylvanshine and Reynolds were both aidesto Systems icon Merrill Errol (‘Mel’) Lehrl although Reynolds was a GS-11 and Sylvanshineonly a miserable and pathetic GS-9. Sylvanshine and Reynolds had lived together and goneeverywhere together since the Rome REC debacle in ’82. They weren’t homosexual; they justlived together and both worked closely with Dr. Lehrl at Systems. Reynolds had both his CPA anda degree in Information Systems Management although he was only slightly more than two yearsClaude Sylvanshine’s senior. This asymmetry was just one more thing that compromisedSylvanshine’s self-regard since Rome and made him doubly loyal and grateful to SystemsDirector Lehrl for having salvaged him from the debris of the catastrophe in Rome and believingin his potential once his niche as a cog in the system was found. The double-entry methodinvented by Italian Pacioli during the same period as C. Columbus et alia. The card indicatedthat this was the type of aircraft whose emergency oxygen was a fire-extinguisherish thingbeneath the seats rather than dropping from overhead. The primitive opacity of the figures’faces was actually scarier than fear or some kind of visible expression would have been. It was
unclear whether the card’s primary function was legal or PR or both. He briefly tried to
yaw. Every so often while studying for the exam this winterremember the definition of
Sylvanshine would burp and it would seem like more than a burp; it would taste like he’dalmost thrown up a little. A light rain made a moving lace on the window and distended thecrosshatched land they went over. At root, Sylvanshine saw himself as a dithering ninny with atmost one marginal talent whose connection to him was itself marginal.
Here is what occurred at the Service’s Rome NY Northeast Regional Examination Center on orabout the date in question: Two departments had fallen behind and reacted in a regrettablyunprofessional fashion, an atmosphere of extreme stress was allowed to cloud judgment andoverrule set procedures, the department attempting to hide the growing pile of returns andcross-audit receipts and W-2/1099 copies rather than duly reporting the backlog and requestingthat some of the excess be rerouted to other centers. There failed to be full disclosure andprompt remedial action. Just where the failure and breakdown had occurred was still a matter ofcontroversy despite blamestorming sessions at the very highest levels of Compliance, thoughultimately the responsibility lay with the Rome REC Director despite the fact that it was neverquite established whether the department heads had made her fully aware of the extent of thebacklog. The dark Service joke about this Director now had been that her desk had had aTrumanesque wooden plaque on it which read: WHAT BUCK? It had taken three weeks for districtaudit sections to start howling over the shortfall of examined returns for audit and/orAutomated Collections Systems and the complaints had slowly worked their way up and over intoInspections as anyone should have been able to figure was only a matter of time. The RomeDirector had taken early retirement and one Group Manager had been fired outright, which wasexceedingly rare for GS-13s. It was obviously important that remedial action be quiet and thatundue publicity not compromise the public’s full faith and confidence in the Service. No onethrew forms away. Hid, yes, but not destroyed or discarded. Even in the midst of disastrousdepartmental psychosis no one could bring himself to burn, shred, or pack in Hefties anddiscard. That would have been a real disaster—that would have become public. The emergencyhatch’s window was nothing more than several layers of plastic, it appeared, the inside ofwhich gave ominously under digital pressure. Over the window was a stern injunction againstopening the emergency hatch accompanied by an iconic triptych explaining how to open just thishatch. As a system, in other words, it was poorly thought through. What was now called stress
used to be called tension or pressure. Pressure was now more like something you put on someone
else, as in high-pressure salesmen. Reynolds said one of Dr. Lehrl’s interbranch liaisons haddescribed the Peoria REC as a ‘real pressure cooker,’ although that was in terms of Exams,not Personnel, to which latter Sylvanshine was posted as advance and ground-laying for a
The truth, which Reynolds had stopped just short of expressing aspossible Systems full-out.
such, was that the assignment couldn’t be that sensitive if they trusted it to Sylvanshine.There were, according to his researches, registration slots for the CPA examination at PeoriaCollege of Business on November 7 and 8, and at Joliet Community College November 14–15.Duration of this posting unknown. One of the most effective isometric exercises for thedeskbound is to sit up quite straight and tighten the large muscles of the buttocks, holdingfor a count of eight, then release. It tones, aids blood flow and alertness, and can, unlikeother isometric exercises, be performed even in public, being largely obscured by the desk’smaterial mass. Avoid grimacing or loud exhalations upon release. Preferential transfers,liquidation provisions, unsecured creditors, claims against bankruptcy estate as per Ch. 7. Hehad his hat in his lap, over the belt. Systems Director Lehrl had started as a GS-9 auditor inDanville VA before the éclat and rapid rise. He had the strength of ten men. When Sylvanshinestudied for the exam now the worst thing was that studying any one thing would set off a stormin his head about all the other things he hadn’t studied and felt he was still weak on, makingit almost impossible to concentrate, causing him to fall ever further behind. He’d beenstudying for the CPA exam for three and a half years. It was like trying to build a model in ahigh wind. ‘The most important component in organizing a structure for effective study is:’something. What killed him were the story problems. Reynolds had passed the exam on his firstsit. Yaw was rotating slightly from side to side. The word for pitching forward and back was