When Wallace took his own life in 2008 at age 46, he left an unfinished novel behind in his garage office in Claremont, Calif. In the notebooks, computer parts and 12 printed chapters hauled away in a duffle bag by his editor, Michael Pietsch, was “an astonishingly full” book, but also a collection of chapters with no instruction as to their order. (Pietsch’s foreword about piecing these bits together is, therefore, essential reading, and there’s an eerie parallel to Wallace’s 1996 masterpiece Infinite Jest—a book centred on the final, lost work of a suicidal genius.)
This book, which Wallace had already titled The Pale King, is about a group of employees at an IRS tax office in Illinois. That might be a turnoff to many: David Foster Wallace writes about taxes. Imagine the footnotes! (Quite a few, it turns out.) The story is frustrating in the way the 1,000-plus-page Infinite Jest could be, with multiple narratives and a plot line you’ll only really figure out if you read long and hard enough. But the book is also philosophical and darkly funny—a group of businessmen are described at one point as “men whose soft faces fit their jobs like sausage in its meaty casing.”
Wallace is often quoted describing fiction as being about “what it is to be a f–king human being.” And The Pale King is a book about human struggles—many chapters are simply snapshots of characters’ lives, thoughts or failings. Also, to really throw readers for a loop, Wallace inserts himself as a main character, beginning in chapter nine with “Author here,” followed by a long, humorous explanation about how this is really a “vocational memoir” (made all the stranger considering the book’s “unfinished” status).
The nagging question: what would this have looked like “finished”? “Vastly different,” writes Pietsch, noting Wallace was a true perfectionist. The novel offers a final bit of evidence, however unsatisfying, as to why Wallace was so often described as brilliant—a guy who could produce heartbreaking stories with no ending and still earn a pop-culture cult following.