IN THE THREE MONTHS since the publication of David Foster Wallace's third, unfinished novel, The Pale King — an eternity in the world of professional reviews — plenty of opinions have been offered, but no consensus has yet formed about how it relates to the author's career or aesthetic priorities. The novel, which follows a host of troubled characters that work or have recently arrived at the IRS's Midwest Regional Examination Center in Peoria, IL, in 1985, remains elusive. Everywhere in these fifty busy chapters, there are ominous signs of an ongoing organizational restructuring of the Service known as the "Spackman Initiative" or sometimes just "the Initiative." One gets only a vague sense of the contours of the Initiative and the high-level plotting that gave rise to it over the course of The Pale King's five-hundred-and-forty pages. Despite multiple dialogues about civics and shadowy background plots, what Wallace seems to care most about is describing how his characters survive the mind-numbing boredom of their IRS jobs and telling the varied, often brilliantly funny and inventive stories of how they came to work there in the first place. But what exactly was Wallace attempting to do with these characters, and more generally with this "long thing," as he described the book to his editor, Michael Pietsch? How would The Pale King, had it been finished, have advanced the plot of Wallace's career?
There are clear signs from what we have that Wallace was himself concerned about the novel's reception, and with its effects on his authorial identity. Indeed, among the novel's large cast we find a character named David Wallace, an alternate version of the author, who suddenly announces in the book's ninth chapter (a belated "Author's Foreword") that what we thought was a work of fiction is in fact "a kind of vocational memoir." "This book is really true," David explains, and the disclaimer on the copyright page declaring everything herein to be a work of fiction or a product of the author's imagination is designed to provide "special legal protection" for reasons that remain mysterious.
The perplexing description of The Pale King as a "vocational memoir" unveils the paradox at the heart of the novel. Wallace's fictionalized doppelganger is clearly not the book's protagonist; by burying the foreword nine chapters and sixty-six pages into the text (a structural decision that Pietsch stresses was clear from what Wallace left behind), Wallace signals that "David Wallace" is someone whom we should not confuse with the author. Unlike the author, the "David Wallace" of The Pale King was drummed out of Amherst College for selling his writing services to his fellow undergrads, though he seems in time to have become a fiction writer, albeit one who has been forced to write this "vocational memoir" as a way of making a buck. This mercenary "David Wallace" is an object of fun, an emblem of what Wallace came to dislike most about his own literary style (tellingly, almost the only footnotes in the novel appear in David's chapters). Wallace's working notes, some of which are printed in the back of the book, indicate that "David Wallace" the character would eventually disappear from view: "David Wallace disappears — becomes creature of the system," reads one note, with Pynchonian undertones (Tyrone Slothrop makes a similar disappearance in the final pages of Gravity's Rainbow). It seems Wallace cared less about dr...