A paperback copy of The Pale King has been sitting on the table by my reading chair for several months now. After several tries of being faced with run-on sentences and “stream-of-consciousness” type writing with which I never do well, it occurred to me that it might not be worth the effort it was going to take to complete the 545 page tome. Therefore, I stopped to go in search of reviews. Bolstered with the thought that better thinkers and readers than I have given this piece superb recommendations, and that it is possibly Pulitzer material I soldiered on. Also the Kennedy Library book group in Muncie, Indiana was scheduled to discuss it this month and wanting to go I decided it would be good to finish it before attending. I have to say that now I am very glad I did. That being said this is probably a book that if it ever gets recommended by me it will be with trepidation. This piece has some brilliant writing, enthralling plot lines, and wonderful characters. However, it is very difficult to read for several reasons.
First of all this book is referred to in most reviews as “unfinished” due to the untimely death of the author, and in reality it does feel fragmentary and chaotic. Also the average reader may not have enough understanding of what the IRS does and of tax code to follow some of the plot and dialogue. There is no set plot line, not much exciting action, and many characters. Finally, the interjection of the author himself into the story via ponderous footnotes apparently is also off-putting to many readers.
When I got to book group there were only two of us that had finished the book and all, to a person, had basically the same impression of the book being too fragmentary and rambling. Knowing ahead of time that it was published posthumously did nothing to excuse what some felt was a disservice to the author. We discussed whether better editing could or should have resulted in an arrangement of the vignettes that comprised the chapters into a piece that made better sense. As it is, it remains very hard to follow. This is a novel-in-stories. Every chapter is different; in perspective, style, theme and even the font. Some chapters are monologues or dialogues, some are third person vignettes, some are in the past and some present tense. Sometimes the reader will be several paragraphs or even pages in before it is clear who is talking or whether the chapter is in the present or the past. I so much longed to have the chapters titled with at least the name of the character whose thoughts we were examining. I have to confess I wrote the names in my book as soon as I figured out who was talking.
An acquaintance told me that probably one could skip the whole beginning and just start with chapter nine and be better off. Well, knowing that could not be right I didn't follow his advice. He was spot on. After reading the whole book and suffering through those first eight chapters I do wish I had simply skipped them. Chapter two is Claude Sylvanshine's musings and wonderings while being captive on an airplane. He switches from mundane daily observations to the recitation of accounting problems that are going to be on the exam that he is on his way to take, and which will be very important for advancing his position at work. I think as a reader we are supposed to understand that Claude has no control over a constant data flow that runs through his mind. The second paragraph of this chapter is ten pages long, which must be the longest paragraph I have ever read. However, in this paragraph Claude remembers his roommate, Reynolds telling him that, “Reality was a fact-pattern the bulk of which was entropic and random.” Therefore one simply needs to figure out what “facts” are important. That I took to be indicative of this whole novel and I decided to simply read it fast and try to remember the parts that are relevant.
Trying to encapsulate the premise of the novel I will say this, it is about a bunch of IRS employees who are each unique with stories to tell of their lives and travails. While you are privy to their tales you also will struggle with them in their jobs while working to set up a new IRS office in Peoria, Illinois sometime in the 1980s. There are some great characters here. I loved the Toni Ware chapters and wanted more about her. Her childhood was sad and often very scary but she is smart and strong. Leonard Stecyk is and always was a true selfless nerd who seemed so “good” no one could ever stand him and yet he becomes an inspiration to others. Lane Dean has been a devout Christian but is questioning his beliefs. My favorite chapter is Chris Fogle's life story most of which takes place in the 70s. It was fun for me because there was a lot of 70s slang and reminiscing about things that went on then. The death scene of Chris's father is bizarre and so vivid. I still think about.
There is a lot here and a lot to think about. One other thing I did not like at all was the interjection of the author into the story including many annoying and useless footnotes. My friend Mike says this is a horrible piece of drivel and he would never recommend it to anyone. I do not agree. There is much here to enjoy and I can see in the future many excerpts of this book being included in college anthologies for study. I would love to discuss this book with someone else who sees its value. I may go back and make notes in my own book telling anyone who reads it after me what parts to skip which could end up being half of the piece.
As I said before there is in this novel much great writing, many beautiful thoughts, witty and interesting language. I think my favorite line is on page 438 in chapter 44, “To be, in a word, unborable.... It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.” the very reason I may like it so much is because when my own children were young and complained of being bored I always told them, “Only boring people get bored.” which is my way of saying that the secret to success is to be immune to boredom as apparently also thought David Foster Wallace.