Details on DFW’s Pale King

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As you probably already know, David Foster Wallace left an unfinished novel called The Pale King upon his death. Today Tim Martin of the Telegraph UK wrote a remembrance  of DFW that, among many other things, includes details of the novel, a version of which will be published in the spring.

Set in a branch of the US Internal Revenue Service, it aimed to articulate the hard-won thesis of mindfulness that Wallace had come to after years of depression and treatment: “Bliss — a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.”

Wallace threw himself into the research. “He was taking accounting classes from 1998 onwards,” remembers Bonnie Nadell. “We found these syllabuses from accounting classes as well as books you can’t even imagine, books that if you were locked up and forced to read them you would die of boredom. You can’t imagine anyone writing a book about it that would be entertaining, but of course this is David, and it is wonderful.”

Michael Pietsch, who is piecing together the many drafts of The Pale King in collaboration with Nadell and Wallace’s widow, Karen Green, agrees. “The thrust of it,” he says, “is an attempt to look at the dark matter of tedium and boredom and repetition and familiarity that life is made of, and through that to find a path to joy and art and everything that matters. Wallace has set himself the task of making a moving and joyful book out of the matter of life that most writers veer away from as hard as they can. And what he left of it is heartbreakingly full and beautiful and deep. He was looking at how one survives.”

I can understand the idea of bliss-in-repetition as a kind of meditative discipline, but speaking as a writer who has spent a lot of time keeping books and doing light accounting: only a genius like David Foster Wallace could find a path to joy through inspecting transactions and enforcing the tax code.

Be it said, though, that I have met a number of CPAs who seem genuinely passionate about their work. It’s just not for me.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →