An unfinished novel is a ghost, a fixed phantom of an idea the moment the words hit the page. That may sound morbid, but it’s impossible to read David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King without feeling a little morbid. Wallace committed suicide in 2008, after a lifelong struggle with depression. When he died, he left behind stacks of manuscript pages—some edited, some rough—and notes on possible story structure. The result, as explained by editor Michael Pietsch in an introductory note, has been published under the title The Pale King: It’s a collection of sketches, character studies, and occasional hints of plot that tantalize readers with the possibility of cohesion.
Admittedly, Wallace spent much of his literary career avoiding completeness; Infinite Jest, his best-known work of fiction, covers more than a thousand pages (and often hilariously voluminous footnotes) without reaching a clear narrative conclusion. But while that novel was satisfying in its tangential chaos, King, for obvious reasons, is frustratingly disjointed. The story, so far as there is one, revolves around a group of people working in the mid-’80s at an IRS office in the Midwest. Chapters range from brief interludes to short-story-like character bios to a handful of longer sections. Characters dance around the edges, occasionally taking shape in caricature or greater depth. The author’s stand-in, “David Wallace,” occasionally appears. Early on, the impression arises that this book will always feel too short; this impression does not fade.
So King will never really be finished. But is it worth reading? Wallace wrestles with boredom in the modern world, the way patient attention and commitment to detail is simultaneously impossible to live without and mind-rackingly tedious. The book never brings these concepts to fruition, but it has bracingly powerful moments when it does hit on a new idea, or when previously random or disjointed information suddenly forms into some new, unexpected shape. As always, Wallace is concerned with the ways in which intelligent minds take comfort in their endless ability to rationalize despair, and how those rationalizations’ endless recursions only create new traps. The Pale King is riddled with dead-ends, lost lines, and fumbled plotting. But like the most vital spirits, it’s a potent, indefatigable reminder of life.