Will David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King Be the Most Boring Book Ever?

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You can't rush my stimulus, baby. Photo: Getty Images

It's 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, which means the people who bought a copy of this week's New Yorker right after it went on sale yesterday and started reading it immediately should be approximately halfway through D. T. Max's massive profile of the late David Foster Wallace. The feature's major newsy takeaway, of course, is the fact that The Pale King — the novel Wallace was working on when he died — will be released in some form next year. Obviously, we're excited and we'll certainly read it, but, having miraculously made it to the end of Max's profile, it's hard for us not to wonder — will The Pale King be the most boring book ever?

It's about boredom, for God's sake! Only an estimated one third finished at the time of Wallace's death, The Pale King is about a group of IRS agents with jobs the crushing dullness of which "ultimately sets them free." According to a note found with the manuscript, this is the novel's central idea:

"Bliss — a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom."

The obvious problem — and the one that Wallace was apparently still struggling with before he died — was how to spin the premise into non-tedious narrative. According to his editor, Wallace "posed himself the task that is almost the opposite of how fiction works," which — as every author who is not Stephenie Meyer knows — is "leaving out the things that are not of much interest." So who the heck wants to read about a bunch of tax-processing bureaucrats filling out forms?

Wallace allegedly attempted to resolve this by DFW'ing it as best he could — turning the book into a mock memoir, inserting himself as a character, and presumably sticking footnotes all over the place. Still, despite the fact that he allegedly "tidied up the manuscript so that his wife could find it" in his final hours, it was clearly unfinished, definitely not intended for publication, and quite possibly still boring. And even though Wallace fans are used to ambiguous endings that don't go out of their way to satisfy, The Pale King's will be really ambiguous — it'll cut off about 400 pages before its author intended.

We're sad to say that the excerpt that accompanies the New Yorker profile (like the other confirmed Pale King pieces that have run elsewhere) is not particularly engrossing. So surely next year's full release will give fascinating insight into Wallace's process, but actually reading the thing seems like it might be more boring than watching televised golf.

The Unfinished [NYer]
Pale King excerpt [NYer]