The Pale King is David Foster Wallace's third and final novel, published in 2011, three years after his death. The work was unfinished at the time of his death, and was put into its final form by his editor.
The Pale King takes place at an Internal Revenue Service office in Peoria, Illinois. The book details the lives of junior workers, whose job is to go over tax forms and forward ones with discrepancies to be audited. The work is boring, and the different employees depicted have different ways of dealing with the boredom. The book has no central plot, although whether this is because it wasn't intended to have one, or whether it was not developed by the time it was finished, is something that is not clear.
The book is told in episodic chapters, ranging from a single page to 100 pages. The chapters are written in a wide variety of styles, some straightforward, and some bizarre. The book mixes together the incredibly prosaic work of an accountant with some typically Wallace-like flights of fancy, such as a man who unknowingly levitates when he is totally concentrated on something. Whether the realistic or surrealistic elements would have been accentuated in the final work is something that is now an unanswerable question.
As well as being stylistically similar to his earlier works, it is also thematically similar. In Infinite Jest, Wallace wrote about people's need to transcend the need for stimulation and gratification in service of something higher, and in The Pale King, Wallace focuses on the ability of the workers to do a boring and sometimes loathed job. Thematically, Wallace wanted to write a book about the ability of people to transcend boredom, and in places he succeeds at communicating that message.
Overall, the book is good. It is hard to judge it against the standard of a finished novel. Some chapters of it feel complete, and are very interesting. Some chapters of it seem more like literary experiments or jokes. It is, however, not merely a manuscript for the scholar, but is a novel that can be read by anyone. It is, of course, not an easily accessible book, but it is a worthwhile read to anyone who wishes to commit to it.
These are my first impressions of the book. I will be interested to see what the consensus on this book becomes, and whether it will be considered a minor masterpiece, a curiosity, or something in between.