The Howling Fantods

David Foster Wallace News and Resources Since March 97

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
Home News by Category The Pale King The Final Text of The Pale King

The Final Text of The Pale King

Over at Conversational Reading in Is This What The Pale King Should Have Looked Like? Scott Esposito puts together a few bits and pieces (including this neat post over at 454 W 23rd St New York, NY 10011—2157 comparing the excerpt 'Backbone' in the New Yorker to DFW's 2000 Lannan reading of the same story) to consider what the published version of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King might end up looking like. I think there's a little too much scepticism in Scott's post compared to what I've read and heard around the web.
I'm both excited and feeling trepidation about the release of The Pale King.
But I think I'm a bit more hopeful than some others and I'll try to explore why I think this is below.
WARNING: There are possible spoilers about The Pale King if you've been trying to avoid reading anything about it.
[Continue reading after the break by clicking read more below]

So I've scoured the web, and this site, for some more concrete examples to explore some of the things brought up by Scott Esposito:


It's common knowledge now that Wallace did not get close to finishing The Pale King, and that the book that will be published on April 15 represents a heavily edited and stitched together version of what Wallace left behind. Clearly, this book has been made to serve the many readers out there who would like to see a completed, standardized version of The Pale King.
Yet, it has been suggested that such a book would have been contrary to Wallace’s objectives as a writer, possibly representing a serious change over what Wallace would have written himself. Recall, for instance, that Infinite Jest is famously an “incomplete” book in that the narrative strands purposely never come close to actually cohering into a typical ending; surely if Jest had been discovered among Wallace’s papers after his death an editor might have given it a “correct” ending, thus ruining Wallace’s vision.
What we see in this Google Document is a vision of what The Pale King might have looked like, if its editors had chosen to leave it in the disarrayed state it was discovered in. Surely this would have been a book with less mass appeal than the “completed” Pale King that will be published on April 15, but would it have been truer to Wallace the writer?


Is it common knowledge that DFW did not get close to finishing The Pale King? I'm not so sure that 'did not get close' is accurate. Absolutely, based on official statements, The Pale King is an unfinished novel. How finished or unfinished? I think there just might be a bit more of it there than many people think.

How close did Wallace get to finishing The Pale King? What do we know about it? How polished is it? D.T. Max's The Unfinished appeared in March 2009 with an exciting first look within a thoroughly saddening article. I've collected what seem to be relevant bits and pieces from D.T. Max's article below and I've taken the liberty to highlight for significance:


From 1997 on, Wallace worked on a third novel, which he never finished—the “Long Thing,” as he referred to it with Michael Pietsch. His drafts, which his wife found in their garage after his death, amount to several hundred thousand words, and tell of a group of employees at an Internal Revenue Service centre in Illinois, and how they deal with the tediousness of their work. The partial manuscript—which Little, Brown plans to publish next year—expands on the virtues of mindfulness and sustained concentration. Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment, the book suggests. As Wallace noted at a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” By then, Wallace had become convinced that the literary contortions for which he was known had become an impediment to this message. Franzen says of Wallace, “There was a certain kind of effulgent writing that he just wasn’t interested in doing anymore.” In the new novel, a character comments, “Maybe 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, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from.”
Wallace began writing “The Pale King” around 2000. A severe critic of his own work, he rarely reported to his friends that anything he was working on was going well. But his complaints about this book struck them as particularly intense. Pietsch remembers being on a car ride with Wallace and hearing him compare writing the novel to “trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm.” On another occasion, Wallace told him that he had completed “two hundred pages, of which maybe forty are usable.” He had created some good characters, but the shape of the book evaded him. In 2004, he wrote to Jonathan Franzen that to get the book done he would have to write “a 5,000 page manuscript and then winnow it by 90%, the very idea of which makes something in me wither and get really interested in my cuticle, or the angle of the light outside.”



"The Pale King,” the name Wallace gave to the novel that, had he finished it, would have been his third, was one-third complete, by an estimate that he made to Nadell in 2007.


“The Pale King” slowly came into being. In one of Wallace’s notebooks, there is a sentence suggesting that he had hit on the framework of a plot: an evil group within the I.R.S. is trying to steal the secrets of an agent who is particularly gifted at maintaining a heightened state of concentration. It was a witty notion, an echo of the Québécois villains in “Infinite Jest.” It is not clear that Wallace followed up on it, but if he did it did not satisfy him. “The individual parts of this book would not be all that hard to read,” he wrote Bonnie Nadell, in 2007. “It’s more the juxtaposition of them, the number of separate characters, etc.”


Six months later, in another e-mail to Franzen, he spoke of “many, many pages written, then either tossed or put in a sealed box.” He wrote, “The whole thing is a tornado that won’t hold still long enough for me to see what’s useful and what isn’t,” adding, “I’ve brooded and brooded about all this till my brooder is sore. Maybe the answer is simply that to do what I want to do would take more effort than I am willing to put in. Which would be a bleak reality indeed, if that’s all it is.” In the same note, he says how much he admired Philip Roth, who was enjoying, as he saw it, “a Dostoevskian golden period.”



Around this time [August 2007], Wallace wrote Nadell, telling her that he needed “to put some kind of duresse/pressure on myself so that I quit futzing around changing my mind about the book twice a week and just actually do it.” He prepared a stack of about a hundred and fifty pages of “Pale King” to send to Pietsch. There were plenty of equally finished pages—among them the story of the levitating Drinion—which, for whatever reason, he did not include. “I could take a couple of years unpaid leave from Pomona and try and finish it,” he wrote to Nadell. When she encouraged him, he responded more hesitatingly: “Let me noodle hard about it. It may not be until the end of summer that I’d even have a packet together.” In June, he e-mailed Franzen: “I go back and forth between (a) working to assemble a big enough sample to take an advance, and (b) recoiling in despair, thinking . . . I’d pitch everything and start over.”


Green [Wallace's wife, Karen Green] returned home at nine-thirty, and found her husband. In the garage, bathed in light from his many lamps, sat a pile of nearly two hundred pages. He had made some changes in the months since he considered sending them to Little, Brown. The story of “David Wallace” was now first. In his final hours, he had tidied up the manuscript so that his wife could find it. Below it, around it, inside his two computers, on old floppy disks in his drawers were hundreds of other pages—drafts, character sketches, notes to himself, fragments that had evaded his attempt to integrate them into the novel.

Michael Pietsch revealed more about the contents of The Pale King during a panel about David Foster Wallace at MLA 09. One surprising piece of information was that some of the shorter works readers thought to be stand alone stories (because they had been collected as such) were in fact chapters from the novel. Kathleen Fitzpatrick posted an excellent summary of Pietsch's comments on her blog, Planned Obsolescence in The Legacy of David Foster Wallace:

And finally, Michael Pietsch discussed The Pale King; I madly took notes, but they’re a little disjointed. Pietsch says Wallace had been working on since 1996, and the novel went through various working titles, including “Glitterer,” “SJF” (which stood for Sir John Feelgood), and “What is Peoria For?” As we’ve heard, Wallace did extensive research for the novel in accounting, tax processes, and so forth. What I hadn’t heard before today was that various pieces we’ve seen in stand-alone form are in fact chapters of the novel, including “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” and “Incarnations of Burned Children.” Pietsch is working with more than 1000 pages of manuscript, in 150 unique chapters; the novel will be published in time for tax day in April 2011. As we know, the subject of the novel is boredom. The opening of the book instructs the reader to go back and read the small type they skipped on the copyright page, which details the battle with publishers over their determination to call it fiction, when it’s all 100% true. The narrator, David Foster Wallace, is at some point confused with another David F. Wallace by IRS computers, pointing to the degree to which our lives are filled with irrelevant complexity. The finished book is expected to be more than 400 pages, and will be explicitly subtitled “An Unfinished Novel”; the plan is to make available the drafts and phases the text went through on a website that will exist alongside the book. Pietsch is editing the book in close collaboration with Bonnie Nadell and the estate, but as we’ve heard him say before, he sees his role very clearly as attempting to order the text into a unified whole, and not making changes that the author isn’t there to argue with.


I think there's a good chance that a significant portion of the material will already be in a highly polished state.

So what of the editing? In The Unfinished D.T. Max also delves into Pietsch's editing role w/r/t Infinite Jest:

Wallace sent the remaining six hundred pages of the manuscript to Pietsch in the summer of 1994. Pietsch had not expected Gately to assume such a dominant role. “The ending of the novel, the horror of Gately’s hitting bottom, is gorgeous and very very powerfully sad,” he wrote Wallace in December. He expressed concern, however, over the novel’s many dangling threads. Earlier, he had cautioned Wallace that the reader, after so many pages, would feel entitled to “find out who or how or why.”
Wallace was more certain of his literary approach than he had been when he published “Broom.” He knew what he wanted to resolve and what not. He wrote to Pietsch, “We know exactly what’s happening to Gately by end, about 50% of what’s happened to Hal, and little but hints about Orin. I can give you 5000 words of theoretico-structural argument for this, but let’s spare one another, shall we?”
Pietsch suggested extensive cuts, many of which Wallace accepted. Eventually, he learned to erase passages that he liked from his hard drive, in order to keep himself from putting them back in. In all, he delivered seventeen hundred pages, of which Pietsch cut several hundred. The bound galleys went out with a list of corrections that hadn’t made the printer’s deadline.

Michael Pietsch wrote an article about editing Infinite Jest, and a version of it appeared during Infinite Summer: Editing Infinite Jest:


We’d agreed early on that my role was to subject every section of the book to the brutal question: Can the book possibly live without this? Knowing how much time Infinite Jest would demand of readers, and how easy it would be to put it down or never pick it up simply because of its size, David agreed that many passages could come out, no matter how beautiful, funny, brilliant or fascinating they were of themselves, simply because the novel did not absolutely require them.

Every decision was David's. I made suggestions and recommendations and tried to make the reasons for them as clear as possible. But every change was his. It is a common misconception that the writer turns the manuscript over to the editor, who then revises, shapes, and cuts at will. In fact the editor’s job is to earn the writer’s agreement that changes he or she suggests are worth making. David accepted many cuts—around 250 manuscript pages is what I recall. But he resisted others, for reasons that he usually explained.

The DFW Archive at the Harry Ransom Centre has correspondence between Wallace and Pietsch about the editing of Infinite Jest. Cuts certainly weren't made lightly, and the discussion was in depth and at length. The letter below illustrates the this particularly well (click through to see them larger):



The David Foster Wallace special that aired on To The Best of Our Knowledge in May 2009 included an interview with Michael Pietsch by Anne Strainchamps (about 28 mins into the full show, part way through part 2 listen here). I've transcribed a little of it below (apologies for any errors):


Strainchamps: By all accounts he was a perfectionist in terms of his writing. He was fiercely Intelligent. Emotionally fragile. what did that mean in terms working relational.
Pietsch: [...]He described the editorial process as thumb wrestling. he had enormous ambition and a complex vision of how his work fit together as a whole, that not many people could recognise or appreciate.

S: Does that mean he'd quibble over every change you wanted to make?

P: No, quibbling was not in his vocabulary. He graciously accepted a lot of suggestions, I have hundreds of pages of manuscript notes in which he's written in the margin, "My canines are bared over this one," meaning I'm not letting go of this one, "but note that the previous eleven I've given into completely." i think what he looked for in the editorial relationship was, probably more than anything, someone who could give him a sense of when the pacing was effective, when the long,long, elaborate sections he was developing sometimes felt like they could overwhelm the book as a whole and make people just lose their patience.

S: You've taken on the task of editing his unfinished novel, Pale king, you went to pick it up at his house, right?

P: It was some weeks after he died that his agent went into his office with his widow, Karen Green, and called me to say that she had found a manuscript - substantial stack of pages - on his desk. And they invited me to come there to begin reading them and to look at everything, the papers he'd left behind. There was an enormous amount of work that he'd done on the novel which was called the Pale King.

S: Is it hard to work on a book like this that must be so emotionally loaded, so personal for you? When you're working are you able to put that aside and just focus on the prose?

P: When I first sat down in front of this stack of pages, it was, his death was recent and I was still grieving and expected this to be a grievous experience and in fact the opposite happened. As soon as I began reading I was happy because I was in his presence again. It was something he had made that I'd never seen before, it was thrilling.
And for the duration of reading any part of it I disappeared in it as one disappears into a written work. So it actually was an experience of almost of joy to read this and to see what he'd been working on. To understand the challenge he'd given himself. To see what great, what huge accomplishments he'd made. So it's actually been work in which I've been taking... it's horribly sad that he's gone... but working on this book actually is a, it is a sad delight. It's very exciting work.

Jump a couple of years to the fantastic BBC Radio 3 documentary in 2011 by Professor Geoff Ward, Endnotes: David Foster Wallace (listen here - if you haven't heard it yet make time to!) which includes interviews with Bonnie Nadell (DFW's agent and literary executor) and Michael Pietsch. Here is what Bonnie Nadell had to say about the manuscript (from about 5:15):


He certainly left a manuscript sitting on his desk in his office so that it would be found [...] He told his wife, "Destroy things that you don't think are any good." It wasn't destroy everything, it was destroy things if you don't think they're... good. When Karen and I started going through his office, which was the garage next to his house where they lived in Claremont, I mean, first of all, it was the spookiest most haunted room I think I've ever been in in my entire life. It just felt... awful to be there and to be doing what we were doing, and we were so shell shocked at the time. But, I mean we both knew that we'd found a manuscript, and we'd found pages. And then we started opening up these plastic containers that he used to keep books and notes and manuscripts and notebooks in and we just kept finding more and more and more pages. But, I mean the first batch, which was about 200 clean typed pages, were very much sitting on the desk. If there could've been a spotlight on them, you know, to say "Here it is," there would've been, but, it was sort of everything but that.


And Michael Pietsch (at 35:10):

Pietsch: The task of assembling The Pale King was grievous at first, then it was exhilarating. The great surprise to me when I began working on it was the joy I felt being in the presence of a world that David had made and seeing how fully he had made it. I had no knowledge of this book before he died. I'd heard from his agent, Bonnie Nadell, just a few sentences. She said, "He's writing a book about accounting, [...] he's writing a book about boredom, [...] he was writing about the IRS and had been taking advance tax accounting classes." Those I the only things I knew about this book, and I was waiting.
And then I entered this landscape which was not just a world that he had made, but a world that he had made himself a character in. So I was shocked as I began reading these pages just five months after he'd died and there he was on the page. It was a joy to see the work that only he could have done. One of the many fascinating aspects of working on this was determining what was part of the novel because, as it emerged, there are chapters in this novel which are just stories of childhoods. From extremely difficult, bizarre childhoods. It gradually emerged that these are the childhood stories of characters, who in the present moment of the story, are working in this IRS tax return processing centre in Peoria, Illinois. Eventually I came upon a chapter in which one of these childhood characters was an adult and working in the IRS, "ah!" That's what's happening here.

They were clearing developing a single central story arriving in Peoria on a particular day in 1985, going to an orientation session, and learning about the world of work that they are going to be entering, which is a world of vast boredom and part of they on-boarding process is tedium survival training.

[Lane Dean excerpt from The Pale King]

Ward: So it moved from being what must have seemed, initially, an editor's worst nightmare, you know, here's the great new novel from the voice of his generation and the subjects are, boredom and the IRS. But, then it becomes apparent that there's more depth to it, that boredom leads somewhere. Is this the great white whale that this vast novel is chasing, or is boredom a hook on which to hang other kinds of story?

P: David loved to set himself enormous challenges, Elmore Leonard famously said, "I became successful when I learned to leave out the parts that readers skip". David was thinking about the fact that most of our lives are made up of boring bits, most of our lives are what he calls, "irrelevant complexity". Things that you just do again and again and your brain learns to go elsewhere while you're doing them. And Most novelists just avoid them, they just compress around the exciting bits.

He begins this novel by saying, "Remember those pages of fine print you just skipped over on the way to this page? Go back and read that page called the copyright page, and here's why you have to read the copyright page," and actually it makes it a really funny part of the novel about how his publisher is forcing him to publish this true story as fiction... that in fact it's all true.

W:From what little I've seen, The Pale King contains Wallace's trademark breadth of vocabulary, his ability to elevate jargon to the heights of poetry, and indeed the heights of comedy. But in what ways do we see a development from the earlier books?

P: The Pale King, on first blush, has a lot of similarities to Infinite Jest. There are the wonderful footnotes right there in the opening scene, there is a structure that similarly you have to take in and accept before you gradually understand how they fit in the story. It would be against human nature for people to read the novel that he left unfinished without looking for ideas about his state of mind as he was writing it. And there's no question that he was struggling with severe depression. I did not know the extent of his condition nor that of his medication. He kept that entirely private. People will look for that, they'll see, I believe, a heroic struggle on these pages. Someone grappling with issues of life and death. Like, "How. Can. One. Live?", was what he was asking himself. And that's what this book is asking, and it's a terrifying question. In a way the novel, I think, comes home. The novel is full of this really detailed love of the Midwest, this landscape of Illinois that was inside of him. He goes to great extent to show the beauty of what's thought of as the most ordinary part of America.

[Followed by another excerpt from The Pale King]

I'm not surprised by the differences between last week's Backbone and the Lannan version from 2000 [previously], I think Steven Moore's essay about the first draft version of Infinite Jest (and, to be honest, some of the early versions of Wallace's work I have seen) prepared me for significant changes. Based on the accounts available about the editing of Infinite Jest, I'm more inclined to see the changes as Wallace's not Pietsch's. Let's hope that Little Brown delivers with the website Michael Pietsch said would be devoted to The Pale King , '[...] upon publication Little, Brown will create a website to make large chunks of the manuscript available to fans, so they can see how the book came together and “have a detailed sense of Wallace as a working writer.”

It's a fine line. I'd be surprised if ANY novel was eventually published in the form of the author's original manuscript - editors exist for a reason. What IS clear is that Pietsch and Wallace worked very closely on Infinite Jest, and that Pietsch is well and truly mindful of the conversations he and Wallace would have had over future edits. Most importantly, Pietsch understood very well the overall vision of Infinite Jest. It's ending was not compromised.

Whether readers want to acknowledge it or not, editors help to shape, direct, and refine literary works. To quote from Kathleen Fitzpatrick's summary, "[Pietsch] sees his role very clearly as attempting to order the text into a unified whole, and not making changes that the author isn’t there to argue with."


I very much hope this is what Pietsch has been able to do.


So will The Pale King end up reading like 1/3 of a full novel? Will it suddenly and inexplicably end? My gut feeling is that it will be much more of a novel than we expected and thus when it reaches the 'end of material' point we'll feel a very different emotion to the usual Wallace kind of 'end'. I hope that doesn't occur, but I expect it will.

Will it be edited to a neat ending contrary to Wallace's 'design'? Discounting the ridiculous premise of this question... If it were the case, structuring it to have a neat ending would not even be an option. I can't imagine Pietsch making that kind of decision.

Would a published version of the unedited manuscript of The Pale King have less mass appeal? For sure.

Would it have been truer to Wallace?

No way.

Wallace's publications are, I'd assert, partly a result of a fruitful, productive, respectful and long term editing relationship between Pietsch and Wallace. I'm glad it was Pietsch editing this one.

I just hope Little Brown follow through with the website alluded to when The Pale King was announced so that we can compare the manuscript, drafts and notes (or at least some of them) to the final published, unfinished, novel. That might help to answer some of the questions of editing and authorship.

More about The Pale King

Last Updated on Saturday, 05 March 2011 20:17  

The Howling Fantods