Heads Up: The Pale King

The bliss of being bored: the king of fiction's last chapter


What are we talking about?


The incomplete novel that American writer David Foster Wallace was working on before his death in 2008. The book explores the excruciating boredom of employees at an Internal Revenue Service tax centre in Illinois.

Elevator Pitch

The unfinished business of a literary giant.

Prime Movers

David Foster Wallace. The influential writer penned nine books of short stories, journalism, essays and novels – most famously, the whopping 1,000-page modern classic Infinite Jest. Having suffered severe depression for much of his life, he hanged himself on 12 September 2008, aged just 46.

The Stars

Erm, David Foster Wallace. The protagonist of The Pale King is a new trainee at the IRS centre, who shares a name with his creator; the book is a mock memoir.

The Early Buzz

Wallace's editor, Michael Pietsch, has said that the book "is a surprisingly whole and satisfying reading experience that showcases his extraordinary imaginative talents". However, some have suggested that a tidied up version may do a disservice to Wallace; Scott Esposito blogged that the book "represents a heavily edited and stitched together version of what Wallace left behind ... if its editors had chosen to leave it in the disarrayed state it was discovered in [this] would have been a book with less mass appeal than the 'completed' Pale King ... but would it have been truer to Wallace the writer?"

Insider Knowledge

The cover of the book's US edition, featuring a king of clubs with snippets of tax forms cut and pasted over him, was designed by Wallace's widow, Karen Green.

It's great that...

Wallace's agent Bonnie Nadell and Pietsch are developing a substantial website that will include his drafts, journals and notes to launch alongside the published version of The Pale King.

It's a shame that...

While Wallace is interested in a mindfulness that lets his characters transcend their repetitive tasks and attain a state of "bliss", it is still a novel largely about "crushing, crushing boredom". Tough sell.

Hit Potential

Bound to dredge up all the old debates about what to do with unfinished texts; the book may profit from that. Likely to be bought by existing Wallace fans, academics, and the morbidly curious. Unlikely to win new readers, however.

The Details

The Pale King is published on 15 April by Hamish Hamilton.

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