Is location the reason the ‘King’ was ‘Pale’?

David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, will hit stores April 15. Chances are, if you follow the book/lit/publishing world at all, you’re already well aware of this fact.

I first read about it on NPR.org (“The Magic Of David Foster Wallace’s Unfinished ‘King’”). The next day I did a tiny metaphorical eye-roll when I opened TIME to find another feature on Wallace’s “Unfinished Business.” I mean, perhaps Wallace never even meant to have it published. And what about all the struggling, living writers with finished works that aren’t getting any attention? Wallace killed himself while working on The Pale King. And, forgive me,  but there is the media-saturated part of me that feels like our culture lionizes too many writers and bandleaders after they’ve committed suicide.

That said, Wallace was indeed one of the most important contemporary American writers, not at least in part because, as Lev Grossman puts it in that TIME article, his novel Infinite Jest “reshaped the skyline of American literature.”

And it is kind of fascinating, (if not a little bit morbid), to read about how others put the book together after Wallace died, and to obsess a bit over what was going through Wallace’s mind before he decided to end his life.

But perhaps most importantly, how could I not be interested when I learned this little tidbit about the work that Wallace left behind?

His agent, Bonnie Nadell, knew he’d been working on it…. [but] she had no idea how much of it he’d managed to finish. She did know it had an unlikely subject: the lives of a group of IRS employees in Peoria, Ill.

I can’t help but be curious about how and why Wallace had Peoria, of all places, on his (brilliant, troubled) mind. Did he feel tied to central Illinois (or, conversely, critical of it) because he was born in Champaign and had lived and taught in Bloomington-Normal? It’s equally fascinating to wonder if he found Peoria valuable as a poetic or metaphorical setting. (A few years ago, one his short stories published in the New Yorker was set in Peoria, too).

And as for the title? The TIME article mentions that the editor who helped piece together the unfinished book never figured out what that phrase “The Pale King” refers to; it’s used to describe a certain character only once and then never explained.

I coulda told ‘em. (Obviously, the TIME writer and the editor are not from the pasty Midwest).


About Alison McGaughey

Alison McGaughey was raised in Hancock County, IL, home of one single stoplight and one holy site known 'round the world (look it up). As a newspaper columnist, McGaughey interviewed C- and D-list celebrities, investigated the origin of the Rueben sandwich, and unintentionally set off a firestorm of hate mail from Phil Collins fans. Now a writing instructor and adult-literacy advocate, McGaughey lives and works in Iowa. Her work has been published in Creative Nonfiction, Midwestern Gothic, Hippocampus Magazine, and, most recently, in the international anthology What I Couldn't Tell My Mother. She gets super excited when readers send her mail at alison dot sixdegrees @gmail.com.

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