Not much. Some IRS employees of the US government are transferred to an obscure posting where they are to participate in a reform of the income tax system according to theories of a senior director, the eponymous Pale King, who does not appear. It is signalled that the project was not a success, but in fact we don’t see it get underway (maybe it doesn’t). The novel is supposedly unfinished, but no worse for that. Wallace’s cult success “Infinite Jest” could also be seen as unfinished – mostly by its readers, who tend to be carried for hundreds of pages on the wave of its many qualities before being beached on the banks of its infinite silliness. An important theme of the Pale King is boredom, which few writers tackle for obvious reasons. Another is social responsibility and engagement, for which tax and the obligations of taxpayers is a convenient jumping off point.
How is it written?
Many characters have thoughts and occasional conversations and reflect on their past lives. Thoughts are explored in sub-text notes in the manner of an academic work. One of the minor players is Wallace, who briefly worked for IRS, but this is a fictional not Wallace the author himself. Wallace is genius or as near as makes no difference when it comes to expressing the way in which thoughts develop in the mind – not linear but reiterative and working through several thoughts at once. Like many very clever people, he can often be extremely daft and his style is sometimes described as difficult (mostly by the kind of people who ploughed on to the end of Infinite Jest in order to say they had done so). Actually when they are not momentarily falling apart, his books are very readable.
Why should I read it?
If you can stand fiction that is both deeply flawed and brilliant, genuinely daring (as opposed to what publisher’s blurbs call daring) and both seriously funny and funnily serious, then Wallace is likely to claim some part of you one day. In fact you’re not reading a novel so much as a collection of monologues and mini-essays of questionable sincerity. Fiction is supposed to reflect human life – that’s what we get from it – but even if boredom is the most ubiquitous sensation in the developed working world, it is hardly touched upon by novelists. Very few could make boredom as entertaining as Wallace does.
For some reason, Wallace seems to have been claimed by a generation of stoners in his own country (some of whom may have actually read his work). Presumably, because the work is odd and quirky, and Wallace’s suicide can be seen as some kind of Van Gogh statement, the image of the man is a good fit to their viewpoint. In fact, the writing shows something different – even when very playful, it should be obvious he’s engaged in a somewhat desperate search for a way to engage with the world on terms that are honest, rather than looking for a retreat from the society that gets up and takes the kids to school on the way to work. Wallace’s characters are not interested in getting rich, or even in ‘finding themselves’ (whatever that might mean). They want to be part of something bigger than themselves, whether it be a family or an institution or a country, but they want to find a way to do that without the BS. It is a unique world that once you have visited, you are likely to return to.