The Pale King Summary

David Foster Wallace

The Pale King

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The Pale King Summary

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The Pale King by David Foster Wallace is an unusual novel, which was written before Wallace’s suicide in 2008, and published in 2011. The novel is considered to be unfinished, and critics have speculated over its meaning. It also does not follow a chronological sequence. In general, it covers the challenges that IRS workers in the 1980s faced when dealing with bureaucracy. Wallace also wrote himself into the book, causing some critics to refer to the book as a “pseudo- memoir.”

The novel begins with a description of a bucolic scene, which is seemingly disconnected from the rest of the plot. In the next chapter, a man name Claude Sylvanshine, an IRS worker, travels to Peoria, Illinois to the site of his job relocation. He is thinking about his boss, Merrill Errol Lehlr, and can’t take his mind off of an accident that happened at his work recently. He is afraid of the safety instructions in the aircraft. He has been studying for an exam that will advance him at work and he is nervous to take it. While on the plane, he has many stream-of-consciousness thoughts about the relocation.

In the next section, two IRS men go to company headquarters in Joliet. They talk about their masturbation habits and argue over what one should think about while masturbating. An excerpt from a newspaper reports the unusual death of a man named Frederick Blumquist, who died while working at the IRS and no one noticed for four days. A very strange child named Leonard Stecyk is introduced. He drives people crazy with his incessant planning and organization and often apologizes elaborately for his mistakes.

Next, a young couple named Lane Dean and Sherri Fisher sit next to each other awkwardly. They are pregnant and are going to have an abortion despite their religious beliefs. Lane wants the abortion and is happy Sherri is having it, but at some point, he realizes she wants to keep the baby. A girl in a trailer park watches some couples making out in a car. The girl has always had a hard life caring for her mother and has often had to ward off sexual advances from men. At the end of her narrative, a man rapes her and she poisons his sandwich.

In the next section, David Foster Wallace interjects with a “forward.” He gives a bio of himself as a writer, even including his social security number. He says that the novel is non-fiction, but that his publishers insisted they market it as fiction for legal reasons. He also says that the publisher manipulated the book and he had to fight with lawyers to get it published as nonfiction. An unnamed character is introduced and later in the novel identified as David Cusk. Cusk has overactive sweat glands and has intense sweat attacks that are extremely embarrassing to him. Claude Sylvanshine returns, alleging that he is a psychic. Sometimes “facts” pop into his head related to whatever he is doing at the moment, which is why he thinks he is psychic. He is fully certain of his abilities.

Two employees are out on a lunch break gossiping and one of them feels excluded. They discuss cultural shifts from the 1960s to the present (which, at this point in the novel, is the 1980s). Wallace returns and continues his life story. He gives an overview of US pop culture from the 1970s and 80s. Wallace has a certain degree of knowledge about taxes because his father worked for the IRS. He describes himself as a “wastoid” which implies his drug use and general apathy. His favorite drug is called Obetrol. The book switches narrators again and the narrator tells a dream about being bored. Wallace returns and gets a job as a GS-9 examiner. He gets a ride from an IRS van and Cusk is in the van. Wallace spends a lot of time describing the drive and concludes that the infrastructure at the IRS building was designed to be intentionally frustrating.

Training starts for new hires at a company and Cusk feels scrutinized in the screening process. He chooses a seat in orientation that gives him easy access to an exit. He avoids looking at a woman sitting behind him to avoid sweating. He does not exactly know what she looks like but he imagines her to be beautiful. Sylvanshine returns and is investigating a new branch for a potential relocation. Sylvanshine tells his colleague about everything he has unearthed, most of it using his psychic powers. He thinks he has uncovered a man named DeWitt Glendenning who will be competing with his current boss. He knows the names of all his assistants and details about their lives. He even knows where his boss’s office will be. The next few chapters are mostly summaries of IRS procedures.

A boy is introduced whose goal in life is to stretch his body so that his lips can touch every part of it. His parents don’t understand his obsession so he keeps it a secret. As he grows older he must face the reality that it will be hard to reach his face and head. In chapter 37, a man and a woman go on an awkward date. Cusk asks to go see a psychiatrist and he tells her all the things he fears including spiders, pens, and mail. A man named Dave accepts that adult life is hard because it contains bureaucracy and boredom. IRS employees relax after work at a bar. Meredith Rand is the only regular female colleague who joins. She changes the tone of voice to fit whoever she is talking to. DeWitt Glendenning is in a hospital bed and two colleagues interrogate him about events that happened earlier that day at a picnic. Chris Fogle meets with Merrill Errol Lehrl, and has an interview with Sylvanshine and Reynolds. They grill him with a set of demanding interview questions.