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  • Introduction:David Foster Wallace's The Pale King
  • Marshall Boswell (bio)

This issue of Studies in the Novel constitutes the second of a two-part Special Number devoted to the novels of David Foster Wallace. The first part (fall 2012) addressed Wallace's first two novels, The Broom of the System (1987) and Infinite Jest (1996); the current issue focuses exclusively on Wallace's unfinished third novel, The Pale King. Set in the mid-1980s at an IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, the novel was Wallace's attempt to deal with such weighty issues as boredom, information overload, civic responsibility, taxes, and the significance of human dignity in a digital age. According to his biographer D. T. Max, Wallace began the book immediately after finishing Infinite Jest and worked on it steadily up until his suicide in September 2008 (256). Michael Pietsch, Wallace's longtime editor at Little, Brown, prepared a publishable version of the unfinished novel from Wallace's manuscripts and notes. It appeared in hardcover in April 2011 from Little, Brown.

At the time of his death, Wallace had already secured his place as one of the most gifted, important, and influential writers of his generation largely on the basis of a single novel, Infinite Jest, a reputation that was burnished by the steady appearance in print of a stream of well received essays and journalistic pieces. In this respect, his career bears instructive similarities to that of Ralph Ellison. Like Wallace, Ellison vaulted to the top ranks of the literary establishment via a huge, culture-devouring novel, in this case Invisible Man, only to struggle for the rest of his career to complete a commensurate follow-up. Also like Wallace, Ellison saw his stature grow rather than diminish during those long years of frustrating labor, thanks in part to the unshakable greatness of the novel that had defined him but also to the nonfiction, essays, and lectures he continued to produce, work that clarified, enhanced, and built upon the rich [End Page 367] and inexhaustible storehouse of themes and ideas he had already addressed in that career-making novel. Of course, Ellison's unfinished follow-up has since been published, not once but twice, first as Juneteenth (1999), edited by John H. Callahan, and constituting a self-contained portion of the 2,000 pages Ellison produced during the four decades following the 1952 appearance of Invisible Man, and again as Three Days Before the Shooting... (2011), which encompasses all of Juneteenth as well as early and late sections and fragments, totaling more than 1,000 published pages.

It is tempting, then, to regard The Pale King in much the same light as Ellison's unfinished behemoth. According to Pietsch, Wallace compiled a neat stack of 250 manuscript pages on his desk before he took his life. These pages he hoped to send to Little, Brown by way of securing an advance (The Pale King vi). Wallace's agent Bonnie Nadell and his wife Karen Green subsequently unearthed "hundreds and hundreds of pages" of the novel in progress. To all outward appearances, Wallace had prepared neither an outline nor a plot summary. As a guide, all Pietsch had to work with were "a few broad notes about the novel's trajectory" and various "directions" Wallace had written to himself indicating "where a character came from or where he or she might be headed" (vii). In contrast to the Ellison archive, The Pale King papers did not feature a more or less self-contained novel within the plethora of scenes and set pieces. In fact, Pietsch freely admits that the "novel's central story does not have a clear ending," which raises the obvious question, raised by Pietsch himself: "How unfinished is this novel?" (viii). Although Pietsch declares the issue "unknowable," he insists that Wallace had "written deep into" the book and that the notes and set pieces in and of themselves constitute "an astonishingly full novel" (vii, vi). The version he put together, then, is neither a self-contained portion of the whole designed for a general readership, like Juneteenth, nor a clearinghouse of manuscript pages and notes targeted at scholars and specialists, like Three Days...


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