"HE DIED IN 2008, leaving behind unpublished work of which The Pale King is a part," reads the inside back jacket of David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel. The front jacket copy bills The Pale King as "David Foster Wallace's last and most ambitious undertaking." And, before The Pale King even begins, Michael Pietsch's editor's note stands in the way, carefully and gracefully contextualizing what's about to follow. "David was a perfectionist of the highest order," Pietsch writes, "and there is no question that The Pale King would be vastly different had he survived to finish it."
But Wallace didn't survive to finish it, and while parts of The Pale King feel polished, effortless, and worthy of standing alongside, or above, the best of Wallace's work—there are chunks that are just blisteringly smart and observant, and others that're hilarious and affecting and melancholy—other parts don't. The Pale King sometimes feels like a half-exposed archeological site: characters rise up, then vanish; plot points whip past in bursts of static; Wallace's footnotes flit by in grayish blocks of tiny numbers and type at the bottom of the page. Frequently, but not always, The Pale King's chapters, sketches, and shards connect; while at first the novel feels like a jumble, the book's final quarter finds a surprising number of pieces solidly interlocked. Still, there's no getting around the state of things: At the abrupt end of The Pale King, a "Notes and Asides" section compiles some of Wallace's "hundreds of notes, observations, and larger ideas" that were left unexplored. Given the long, difficult process Wallace had writing The Pale King, the book's immense Infinite Jest-style narrative, and Wallace's suicide, it's tempting to think of this as little more than a rough collage of drafts.
Which maybe it is. Largely set in 1985 in a sprawling, demanding bureaucracy—an IRS regional examination center in Peoria, Illinois—The Pale King is about taxes the same way Infinite Jest was about tennis. Which is to say it's sort of about taxes, but it's mostly about everything going on around them: lives (and afterlives) lived out beneath florescent bulbs; philosophies and conflicts forged out of complex numbers and arcane subsections; sadness and hope and panic and humor and longing squashed down and built up by rules, regulations, and clocks that tick at a pace glaciers would find insufferable.
So maybe instead of declaring taxes the backbone of The Pale King (the book's characters certainly aren't—as astonishing as some of them are, most of them rise and fall and appear and disappear too frequently to grasp onto), a firmer assertion might be that The Pale King is about boredom, sadness, and the kind of liberation that's only found in oppression.
That's my guess, but hey, yours is as good as mine: A lot of things are started in The Pale King, but few are wrapped up. The lack of closure can't entirely be attributed to Wallace's death; as his notes explain, The Pale King was kind of supposed to be this way. ("Central Deal: Realism, monotony," Wallace wrote below the phrase "Embryonic outline." "Plot a series of setups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.")
That isn't to say, though, The Pale King isn't satisfying. This is a tricky book, and a dense one, and—for a number of reasons—a sad one. But it's also stunning, funny, and far more engrossing than any book involving exemptions and 1040s should be. As a final entry in Wallace's bibliography, The Pale King feels unexpectedly appropriate: There are vast amounts of fascinating, stirring stuff here, and yet somehow, it doesn't seem like enough.