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Books: The Pale King

December 26, 2011

The Pale King does not read like an unfinished novel until near the end. Those who  read Infinite Jest will encounter a kind of strange familiarity with the way chapters unfold, alternating between seemingly unrelated events, narrators, styles, lengths, and so on. But as the end comes into view, the weight of lost potential becomes heavier. Complex lines of plot development hang in the air, and a “Notes and Asides” section in the back reveals how much did not make it to the final book.

The Pale King can be frustrating in this way; committing to Wallace’s writing style is in itself its own reward, but without major plot movements the book becomes largely a series of vignettes. The characters and their stories, despite being largely set in a Midwestern I.R.S. center, are compelling. We care, and are reminded of this caring through their perhaps appropriately unfinished stories.

Yet as the understanding of the book’s nature become clearer it is not just the unfinished nature of the plot that comes into view. The major themes that unify disjunct chapters come into focus, providing all that is really necessary to appreciate this book–startlingly coherent for something an editor pieced together from a room full of notes–for all that it is. At times it is dry, and purposefully so. And in between there are some of the most powerful lines I can recall reading. Lines that, as Esquire’s Benjamin Alsup described, “…make you feel like you can’t breathe.”

I make it a point to keep these reviews brief, and in lieu of going on forever (which I could) I’ll refer you here if you want more. For the record, that chapter that consists of page-turning is one of my favorites. Worth owning in hardcover.

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