Editing The Pale King

A pretty good article by longtime David Foster Wallace editor Michael Pietsch discussing how he put The Pale King together.

Other chapters are self‑contained and not part of any chronology. Arranging these freestanding sections has been the most difficult part of editing The Pale King. It became apparent as I read that David planned for the novel to have a structure akin to that of Infinite Jest, with large portions of apparently unconnected information presented to the reader before a main story line begins to make sense. In several notes to himself, David referred to the novel as “tornadic” or having a “tornado feeling” – suggesting pieces of story coming at the reader in a high‑speed swirl. Most of the non‑chronological chapters have to do with daily life at the examination centre, with IRS practice and lore, and with ideas about boredom, repetition and familiarity. Some are stories from various unusual and difficult childhoods, whose significance gradually becomes clear. My aim in sequencing these sections was to place them so that the information they contain arrives in time to support the chronological story line. In some cases placement is essential to the unfolding story; in others it is a matter of pace and mood, as in siting short comic chapters between long serious ones.

The Pale King’s central story does not have a clear ending, and the question inevitably arises: how unfinished is this novel? How much more might there have been? This is unknowable in the absence of a detailed outline projecting scenes and stories yet to be written. Some notes among David’s manuscript pages suggest that he did not intend for the novel to have a plot substantially beyond the chapters here. One note says the novel is “a series of setups for things to happen but nothing ever happens”. Another points out that there are three “high‑ end players . . . but we never see them, only their aides and advance men”. Still another suggests that throughout the novel “something big threatens to happen but doesn’t actually happen”. These lines could support a contention that the novel’s apparent incompleteness is in fact intentional. David ended his first novel in the middle of a line of dialogue and his second with large plot questions addressed only glancingly. One character in The Pale King describes a play he’s written in which a man sits at a desk, working silently, until the audience leaves, at which point the play’s action begins. But, he continues, “I could never decide on the action, if there was any”. In the section titled “Notes and Asides” at the end of the book I have extracted some of David’s notes about characters and story. These notes and lines from the text suggest ideas about the novel’s direc‑ tion and shape, but none strikes me as definitive. I believe that David was still exploring the world he had made and had not yet given it a final form.



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Isn’t that article simply parts of the novel’s introduction?

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