Hamish Hamilton £20

The Pale King, By David Foster Wallace

In his last, unfinished novel, David Foster Wallace pays attention to the fine detail of everyday mental activity

Of all the myths that have spread about David Foster Wallace in the years since his death, the most frustratingly pervasive was that he was a difficult writer.

It came about mostly because he wrote a very long novel, Infinite Jest, that was exceptional for its intelligence and its vaulting ambition to summarise the meaning of life in an era of information overload. But those characteristics never made it punishing. More than anything else, it was fun to read: the size of the thing just meant you could relax in the knowledge that you still had plenty ahead of you.

The Pale King is pretty long, too, but you can never quite relax in the same way. This is all we have of the book that Wallace, maybe the most talented American writer of his generation, was working on when he killed himself in 2008. There will never be another one. Found by his widow, Karen Green, shortly after his death, the manuscript was miles from complete: it consisted of 200 pages of relatively settled material, and, in notebooks and ring binders, on floppy disks and hard drives, additional sketches in various stages of completion, mostly without any indication as to where they would slot into the whole. From these bare bones (and, those closest to him believe, with Wallace's implicit consent) his longtime editor, Michael Pietsch, assembled the near-novel that's now being published.

Unlike Infinite Jest, The Pale King really is difficult. To begin with, it's a book that complements its predecessor's interest in entertainment by paying forensic attention to boredom. With no real plot to speak of, the book's themes are manifested in a group of stultified and strange low-level tax workers – among them the heavy-sweating Cusk, the "fact psychic" Claude Sylvanshine and one acne-scarred David Wallace – at an IRS office in Peoria, Illinois, a place so featureless that the land merges with the sky and creates "the spectacular impression of being in the centre of some huge and stagnant body of water". An entire chapter consists of them turning pages. And whereas in Infinite Jest we were mostly accompanied by the agreeable, tumbling energy of Wallace's most regular narrative voice, here we flit from register to register: sometimes in the third person, sometimes in the first; sometimes with that familiar exhaustive diction, sometimes with a strange, confident voice that is flinty and mythic and elusive, and in which we get some of the most beautiful passages that Wallace ever wrote.

If you want a plot, one is definitely gestating, about a battle for the soul of the IRS between those who view it as a money-making corporation and those who view it as a moral mechanism for making people pay their taxes. Equally, it's possible that Wallace might have preferred to leave the whole thing to accumulate as a Post-modern short-story cycle in which the poor souls in Peoria simply orbit each other in unacknowledged harmony. That might have been OK, too. Anything that seems not to work might have been resolved, after all, with another draft.

Wallace's brave idea is to use boredom as a way of getting at the almost unmentioned thing that, in fact, makes up real life more than politics or work or even our loved ones: the unattended business of thinking, what Don DeLillo called the "sub-microscopic moments", the "small, dull smears of meditative panic". "Maybe," the character named David Wallace posits, "dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that's dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there." I found myself thinking of the real Wallace's famous graduation-day speech, in which he argued that the value of an education was that it allowed you to choose how to relate to the world. If, as he put it, "you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options .... The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it."

That's the implicit work going on here. We get rapt descriptive passages, frequently very funny, that seem to be examples of how not to think about the world: minute, infuriated descriptions of the failures of the IRS's traffic management system; a three-page paragraph about the unforeseen consequences of a piece of tax policy in Illinois. But we also get proof that Wallace could still deploy his own attention to see things afresh, whether in a perfect diagnosis of a habit of mind that you had thought was yours alone, or in piercing, austere observations of that flat Midwestern landscape.

If, as well as that scattered brilliance, there are some sections that are too diffuse, and a sense that Wallace hadn't yet grasped how to make the whole thing hang together, it's hard to feel disappointed. This is our final communication from a voice that is as inescapable as it is irreplaceable. That it is fragmentary only makes the pieces we have seem more valuable.

To order any of these books at a reduced price, including free UK p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before