Editor's Note and Chapters 1-2 Summary

An Editor’s Note explains that this unfinished novel was culled from drafts (handwritten, typed, and electronic) and notes left behind by author David Foster Wallace after his death in 2008. In some drafts, characters and story points were revised or eliminated. As much as possible, the editor used Wallace’s notes as a guide for this attempted reconstruction. The novel appears to have been close to completion, but given its unusual structure, it is hard to know. The arrangement of chapters and edits made are an attempt to balance narrative flow with Wallace’s singular structural approach, which often includes abrupt changes in time, point-of-view, character, location, and format.

The novel opens with an invitation to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of a pasture. It contains a variety of flowers and wildlife as well as birds, insects, and worms. Among the birds are crows, which overturn cow pies in search of worms to eat.

Claude Sylvanshine, an IRS employee, is on a small, shaky flight to Peoria. He is surrounded by indifferent businessmen and an elderly woman who seems entirely unable to open the bag of nuts that serves as the in-flight snack.

He is seated next to the emergency exit, whose instructions seem conflicting and less than comforting. As Sylvanshine tries to disregard the frightening specifics of the flight—the unimpressive pilot, the meager canister of oxygen under his seat—he thinks of various accounting facts as part of his ritual preparation for the upcoming CPA exam.

If he passes the exam, Sylvanshine will automatically advance two pay grades, from a GS9 to a GS11. Sylvanshine has been devoting a minimum of one hour per day to go over his study materials but woke up late this morning for his flight and was seized with a last-minute panic about the contents of his suitcase.

Sylvanshine’s anxiety over the exam is heightened by the accomplishments of his roommate and friend, Reynolds. Reynolds started out at the same time as Sylvanshine but has advanced more quickly, and Sylvanshine consistently feels inferior to him.

When the plane finally lands, Sylvanshine and the other passengers step out onto the tarmac as the crew attempts to sort out their luggage. As the doughy businessmen fume impatiently, Sylvanshine once again tries unsuccessfully to calm his nerves. An upcoming assignment he is to work on required boxing and shipping the items he could not carry with him. He feels certain the boxes will arrive late, leaving him unable to finish his work.

Chapters 3-5 Summary

Two IRS men are traveling by car on a long drive to the Region Headquarters in Joliet. One abruptly asks the other what he thinks about when he masturbates. The other man is taken aback and unsure of how to respond. The first man presses further, stating that statistically most men do it and yet no one feels comfortable talking about it.

After some goading, the second man says that he thinks about breasts. The first man seems incredulous at the idea of thinking of a body part not attached to some kind of person. Miffed, the second man asks the questioner what he thinks about.

A newspaper excerpt from the November 17, 1980, issue of the Peoria Journal Star describes the death of an IRS worker named Frederick Blumquist, age 53. The unique aspect of the story is that Frederick died in his office and remained there for four days with people continuing to work around him before someone noticed. Noting his assiduous nature and tendency to keep to himself, his supervisor explains it was not unusual for Blumquist to stay at his desk for long periods of time. Blumquist died of a massive coronary while working on, of all things, the tax affairs of medical partnerships

In 1964, Leonard Stecyk is an unusually organized and thoughtful young boy who attends elementary school. His mother is in a coma and his father is heartened by his son’s forthright nature. Unfortunately, not everyone feels this way. When Leonard throws himself an 11th birthday party, only a few kids attend—mostly outcasts.

Leonard had worked all summer collecting cans to pay for the party himself, hand made invitations for hundreds of kids, and insisted on not receiving any presents. He even donated the leftover goodies from the party to a local charity.

One veteran teacher was driven insane by Leonard’s constant helpfulness and had to be institutionalized after attempting to attack the boy with scissors for suggesting an organizational plan for the classroom. Leonard sent the teacher "get well" cards and other thoughtful notes until the hospital staff had to stop giving the woman her mail.

When several boys beat up Leonard, he later sent them cards indicating there were no hard feelings and offering to attend a mediation with refreshments. In response, someone set fire to Leonard’s locker.

After a while everyone (even the outcasts) goes to great lengths to avoid Leonard altogether.

Chapters 6-7 Summary

By the lake, Lane Dean, Jr. sits next to Sherri Fisher in an awkward silence. He knows he should say all kinds of things to her, but isn’t sure what they are. Sherri is pregnant and the two of them have made an appointment for an abortion, a word they can’t bring themselves to say out loud. The two of them are very religious and worry about the morality of their decision, even though they know that at ages 19 and 20, they are unprepared for parenthood.

Sherri is the older and smarter of the two, in the middle of completing a nursing program that she would surely have to abandon if she kept the baby. Lane knows he should try to talk Sherri out of the abortion, but he has to admit that it is what he wants. He thinks of their minister, Pastor Steve, and what he would think of their choice. He considers the fires of Hell, and wonders if any such place even exists.

As they sit there, watching people fish on the other side of the lake, Lane has a moment of realization: Sherri is going to tell him she has to keep the baby. She’s going to release him of all responsibility, even though she knows the hardships and judgment she will face. Lane chastises himself for not loving Sherri, but he wonders if maybe he does or maybe he will in time.

Sylvanshine and some other agents pile into a rickety van for transportation from the airport. Sylvanshine meets two fellow passengers, Britton and Bondurant, as they make the trek to Joliet. As they travel along, Sylvanshine faintly hears some childlike music. When he asks the others if they can hear it, Bondurant explains that the van is one of many that used to belong to Mister Squishee, an ice-cream-truck corporation. Mr. Squishee went under and the Service seized the trucks, along with other assets.

Bondurant finds the trucks to be embarrassing and notes that sometimes children will run out into the street when they hear the vans going by. As they pass a sign reading “It’s Spring, Think Farm Safety,” Bondurant slips into a reverie about Cheryl, a girl he dated in high school. Cheryl is now a divorcee living in a trailer with two kids.

Bondurant had an on-again, off-again relationship with Cheryl until she finally decided to leave it off again. He remembers wistfully making love to her in a field and looking into her eyes and seeing nothing but sadness.

Sylvanshine can tell Bondurant is in the middle of a reverie, but he is more concerned with Britton’s blank-eyed stare. Sylvanshine, here to represent his boss, Merrill Lehrl, knows he will be in an awkward position once they reach Joliet and begin work.

Chapter 8 Summary

Under the sign reading “It’s Spring, Think Farm Safety” is a trailer park full of various unhappy lives. One trailer stands as a monument to its dark past; it is falling apart and the plant life has begun to overtake its interior. Many years before, a man murdered his entire family there while they watched Dragnet.

A cul-de-sac nearby serves as a popular spot for couples who want to go “parking.” Some of the girls from the trailer park take to watching the couples, whose lovemaking leaves the windows steamed and sends car moving up and down on its shocks. One night, one of the girls recognizes the sounds she hears; she has heard them many times in her own house.

This girl is something of a survivor and has become more the caretaker of her single mother than vice versa. They have moved frequently, and at different locations the girl has had to fend off potential rapists and sexual abusers (sometimes successfully, sometimes not). The girl’s only constant companion is the head of a doll whose body has long since been lost and in which the girl occasionally stores a few private items.

Her mother has a variety of mental illnesses and eventually becomes institutionalized for a brief period. During this time, the girl subsists on shoplifted food, and she deliberately avoids Children’s Services. To accomplish this, she sleeps in an abandoned car that she is able to lock by jimmying with a coat hanger.

When a man breaks into the car one night and rapes her, she later steals the materials she needs for a sandwich and poisons it. She makes sure the man gets the sandwich the next time he returns. This kind of violence is not new to her: she has started fires, planted noxious fumes, and even cut brake lines to ward off or eliminate the threat of molestation. The girl notes that mental illnesses appears to run in their family as her mother’s own mother suffers from paranoid...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

At this point, David Foster Wallace interjects with a Foreword (despite being placed in the middle of the text by either Wallace or the editor). Wallace goes to great lengths, including giving his name, age, address, and social security number, to emphasize that these are his words and not those of some fictional character. His purpose is to emphasize that the book is based on true events.

Wallace notes the typical disclaimers that appear at the beginning of a work of fiction indicating that any relationship to real events is purely coincidental. In this case, he points out, that creates a paradox, because the fictional work contains the supposedly true words of an author claiming that the disclaimer isn’t true. He makes it very clear that the publisher (and more importantly, the publisher’s legal team) insisted that The Pale King be a work of fiction, particular since it deals with a very visible government agency.

Wallace reveals that this roman à clef was actually based largely on his own experiences working for the agency in the 1985 to 1986 period. He explains his unusual period of employment, which occurred during his interrupted college career. At college, Wallace earned side money for paying down his student loan interest by writing papers for other students. Not only did he write them, but he demanded another piece of their writing so that he could imitate their writing styles.

Little did he know that one of his clients belonged to a fraternity that kept a filing cabinet full of papers ready for plagiarism. Unfortunately one of his clients deposited the paper in the filing cabinet and it was soon used for the same class by another brother of the fraternity.

While Wallace does not dodge the moral implications of his side business, he does mention the hypocrisy of the institution in question in how it punishes students. Wallace was put on probation, which meant that he would have to start paying on his student loans unless he was the employee of a government agency.

In addition to explaining his own personal connection to the story, Wallace notes that his employment came during a critical change in tax laws and procedures in the United States. He observes that the change went largely unnoticed even though the Service made no attempts to cover it up. The reason Wallace gives for this is dullness—tax regulations are inherently boring. If the Service had tried to cover it up, it might have ultimately been picked up by an eager reporter. But by keeping the changes open to the world, the Agency allowed innate lack of interest in the material to act as its own shield.

Chapters 10-13 Summary

An aside about bureaucracy challenges a commonly held view of bureaucracy as a parasite larger than the thing on which it feeds. Instead, bureaucracy and the government are presented as a large and intricate mechanism or machine. The significance of this observation is that those who run a bureaucracy are not outside of the machine; they are just as much a part of it as everyone else.

An excerpt from a report on various medical conditions seen in employees who have worked for the Service for more than three years reveals a wide variety of ailments. Some of the items on the list are physical symptoms such as tremors, hemorrhoids, and difficulties with vision and hearing. Other illnesses are psychologically based, such as anxiety, hypomania, fugue states, and catatonia.

In 1980, a grown-up Leonard Stecyk makes his way through his new neighborhood knocking on doors. He arrives at one house where the owner opens the door only as far as the safety chain will allow. Leonard explains that he is new to the neighborhood and is introducing himself. He also offers a copy of the United States Post Office’s annual zip code directory. He ordered numerous copies weeks in advance as part of his plan to canvas the neighborhood. When the woman at the door remains unresponsive, the undaunted Leonard leaves the directory outside and walks merrily down the street with a smile on his face.

In high school, a boy notices that he has a bit of a sweating problem. He tends to sweat very easily, be it from heat, exertion, or nervousness. Once he notices the sweating, it quickly occupies his thoughts at all times. He lives in constant fear of a sweat attack in confined social situations, so school becomes especially difficult. He tries to get to each of his classes early so that he can both avoid sitting next to the heater and find a seat at the back of the classroom where he will be less conspicuous. He also tries to avoid seating near too many girls, as their very presence often brings on a sweat attack.

The problem with hurrying is that the effort itself can often bring on the sweating. Sometimes, the boy will hide in the boys’ restroom attempting to dry himself with paper towels. The boy thinks of oncoming anxiety-based sweat attacks as “priming” and is especially sensitive to his body’s priming during social situations. The boy begins avoiding parties, family get-togethers, and even dates because of the sweating. He thinks that if he sweats, people will see him for what he really is and that what they see they will find gross and unworthy.

Chapter 14 Summary

A video produced by the IRS begins with basic introductory information about the Service. The video is modestly produced and consists largely of interviews with IRS employees explaining their jobs, their views on the service, and the changes the Service has recently undergone.

The video is dated 1984, and the excerpted interviews are each preceded by a lengthy identification number. Some of the excerpts are short; others are quite lengthy and interrupted by questions from the filmmakers.

Some of the first interviews talk about the challenges of their employment. One employee observes the toll that years of analyzing reports takes, especially on workers who have been in the Service for decades; many of them are losing their eyesight from years of strain. Other interviewees observe the massive changes that started in the early 1980s, with lots of employees placed in new jobs or new regional centers. A single, male employee asserts that single men were moved around the most because it was far more costly to relocate a family. Another breaks down people into two categories: Rebels and Conformists. He asserts that the latter are needed in the Service.

The majority of interviews, including one lengthy one, try to explain the root of changes in the IRS and its structure. In 1981, the Spackman Memo (or Initiative) began major changes in the IRS. The memo, whose title refers to its author’s name, was actually written in the late 1960s but languished.

When it was resurrected in 1981, the key principle seized by the initiative was based on the idea of the Tax Gap. The Gap is the disparity between the money owed the government through tax laws and that which is actually paid (which is always less than what is owed).

The reorganization that followed was founded on the idea that unearthing unpaid taxes would help close the tax gap. Deregulation ensued, and regional tax centers become more and more individuated in their procedures. These changes lead to an increase in audits, particularly those designed to find unpaid tax.

The last few interviews shift the focus back to the employees themselves. One compares the work to an episode of The Twilight Zone. Another likens his work to mowing the yard in sections: a sense of completion followed by a renewed sense of duty, linked in a cycle that never really ends.

The final interview talks about a dog chained to a pole in the yard. The dog never felt constrained by the chain because everything that concerned him was in the circle of area the chain would allow him to explore. The interviewee wonders how much the dog knew of his own confinement.

Chapters 15-18 Summary

Fact Psychics, or Data Mystics, are little-known parts of the paranormal world because of the unique and less-than-flashy nature of their divining abilities. The process, known as Random Fact Intuition, refers to people who suddenly know obscure pieces of knowledge that they should have no reason to know. That the information is often obscure and relatively unimportant only further obfuscates the powers of the Fact Psychic.

The Fact Psychic might be able to name the number of people facing in the same direction when Guy Fawkes was executed in 1606 for treason. Another might be able to name the dimensions of Caspar Weinberger’s intestines. The randomness of the data has presented historical problems for many seers,...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

In an elevator in 1980, DeWitt Glendenning, X, Stuart Nichols, Gaines, and possibly others discuss an overall shift in American culture and how it has impacted the tax system. DeWitt dominates the early part of the conversation, opining about civics and how the sense of civic duty or responsibility has evaporated. DeWitt points out that in the 1960s, one of the most important shifts within the culture was a focus on the individual rather than collective responsibility; in this shift, the idea of civics was lost because it was rooted in the now-unpopular concept of putting the greater good before the individual good.

The 1960s also changed the collective attitude towards government. The men observe that the overall...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Chapters 20-22 Summary

In a small rural town, a man named Lotwis gets a new neighbor. His previous neighbors, a very nice couple, are replaced by a single woman who owns two very loud dogs. When he talks to the woman about it, she warns him to bring any issues with the dogs to her. She tells him that if anything happens to her dogs, she’ll know it was him and will kill him and burn his house down.

In the middle of an audit, an agent points out to a businessman a series of fraudulent deductions. He threatens imprisonment unless the man rewrites his tax forms without the erroneous deductions and pays an agent with a certified check the very same day. If he agrees to do this, the agent promises to destroy the fraudulent tax return and file the...

(The entire section is 557 words.)

Chapters 23-24 Summary

A man recalls a bad dream that continues to wake him in the middle of the night. He is in an office filled with tedious busywork. In the dream, the time it takes for all of this to happen feels endless, but when he awakens, he finds almost no time has passed. The man likens this dream to his childhood, in which his brother, a musician, was the favorite. His father worked in a dead-end job and his mother attempted to keep the household happy for her beleaguered husband. The man recalls being a fretful, worry-prone boy who felt like the achilles’ heel of the family. He remembers grammar school as a time of increasing tedium.

The author, David Foster Wallace, again interjects to describe his arrival at his IRS post in...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Chapters 25-26 Summary

At the IRS center, a group of wigglers (an inside slang term for employees who review returns) works assiduously and in virtual silence. Lane Dean, Jr. is among them and he is surrounded by coworkers with unusual nicknames: "Irrelevant" Chris Fogle, "Groovy" Bruce Channing, Kenneth "Type of Thing" Hindle, and "Second-Knuckle" Bob McKenzie.

The room is full of employees flipping through the pages of the returns they are analyzing. This intense activity is only periodically interrupted by someone stretching or looking for something in a desk drawer. The employees have all learned to sit bent forward from the waist to avoid certain aches and pains, although one man’s wrist is clearly bothering him because of the...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Chapter 27 Summary

The group of future examiners is seated in the training room listening to a presentation by a training officer and her aide. They have a rhythm to their presentation, one which includes them regularly interrupting each other or finishing each other’s sentences. It also includes moments of tension when the aide disagrees with the training officer’s statements and the training officer attempts to shut down the aide’s digressions and nitpicking.

Sylvanshine is among the trainees, and his psychic abilities inform him that Pam, the training officer, carries a loaded gun and is planning to shoot herself after completing her 1500th return, which is only about a year or so away. Sylvanshine’s psychic revelations are...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Chapters 28-29 Summary

The 10 Laws of IRS Personnel describe not so much a constant desire for upward mobility as for change. The lower paying the job, the more rote and boring it is, so these employees are likely to seek some kind of shift within the Service. Those who make their way up to the role of district director have one goal that dominates all of their work: increasing the district output. Output is calculated simply as the revenue brought in less the expenses of bringing it in. Several catchphrases within the service speak to this bottom-line mentality: Output or Kaput, Supply or Die, Revenue or Au Revoir.

A group of IRS workers, including Bondurant and Gaines, sits around talking, and one of them brings up the subject of...

(The entire section is 544 words.)

Chapter 30 Summary

Sylvanshine is engaged in a lengthy conversation with Reynolds, his best friend and a corporate climber. As Reynolds continues to grill Sylvanshine about the people and facilities of the Center, it becomes clear that Sylvanshine is performing some kind of covert research on the facility. Reynolds is the right-hand man of Mel (or Merrill) Errol Lehrl. Lehrl seems to want a wide variety of information about the other center’s performance, and it seems possible that Sylvanshine’s informational psychic abilities are part of the reason he was chosen for the assignment.

As they talk, Reynolds becomes increasingly impatient with Sylvanshine, who tends to linger on details that Reynolds finds irrelevant, such as the clothes...

(The entire section is 409 words.)

Chapters 31-33 Summary

A lean, mop-topped, and new IRS employee named Shinn rides in a transport van filled with other employees. When the van picked him up, he and the others had been standing out in the humid, sunny weather for awhile. The other men all seemed to know each other and conversed with each other as they smoked or drank their morning coffee.

Every time the van takes a turn, the employee sitting next to Shinn presses into him with his full body weight. Another spends his time reading and rereading pamphlets. In the silence, Shinn focuses on the sounds of the morning birds chirping. It occurs to him that what sounds musical and pleasant to human ears could actually be cries of hatred or intended murder in bird-speak.


(The entire section is 505 words.)

Chapters 34-35 Summary

From IRM subsection 781(d) is a detailed list of how to calculate Alternative Minimum Tax, or AMT, for Corporations. Some of the factors included in this calculation include foreign tax credits and other deductions and adjustments. The process is very complicated and subject to a variety of potential exceptions.

An IRS employee lives in fear of an infant. The child in question belongs to the employee’s supervisor, Mr. Manshardt. Mr. Manshardt’s wife has a very busy career of her own, so Mr. Manshardt regularly brings his baby into the office with him. His office contains a variety of "infant apparati" for changing and entertaining the child as he plays in his father’s office. Manshardt’s office is also covered...

(The entire section is 376 words.)

Chapter 36 Summary

A boy has an unusual goal that he begins pursuing around the age of six: he wants to be able to kiss every inch of his body. When he meets a chiropractor named Dr. Kathy, she teaches him about stretching and spine health, little knowing that the boy is going to perform the exercises for hours upon hours every day.

Initially the boy focuses on the areas he can access most easily, such as his extremities. As his stretching and contorting regime becomes more elaborate, he starts working towards more difficult areas, such as his lower stomach, genitals, and perineum. As he enters late elementary school and early middle school, he is able to reach his nipples and sets his sights on more difficult areas such as his upper...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Chapters 37-39 Summary

A man and a woman awkwardly begin a first date. The woman tries to keep the conversation going despite long silences and short responses from the man. The woman wonders if conversation is easier for people who know each other because they have all of their common history to talk about. The man, whose name is Russ, has no response. The woman asks him if he has any aspirin.

The IRS has a notoriously buggy computerized personnel system that doesn't begin to get resolved until the late 1980s. The issue is that the system creates what are called “ghost redundancies” whenever someone in the Service is promoted or changes position. Ghost redundancies are duplicate records.

In an effort to combat this problem,...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Chapters 40-43 Summary

Cusk enters the office of a female psychiatrist. As he sits down and begins to list his phobias, he pacifies himself by counting the boxes of Kleenex. Among the long list of his fears are spiders, certain types of pens, and mail. He moves on from counting Kleenex boxes to mentally repeating “large, soft, and warm” in his head while he continues. He then explains to the psychiatrist that he has a whole set of phobias involving anything that spirals or moves in a spiral formation, such as spiral notebooks, flushing toilets, and stirred beverages.

Charlie is being reprimanded for sending Cardwell to pick up one of Lehrl’s aides. Cardwell is prone to ranting and could give a bad first impression of the whole center....

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Chapters 44-45 Summary

Dave learned in his early twenties that life is much harder in the “real world”; moreover, it is full of bureaucracy. To survive in a bureaucratic world, he realizes you have to have one key quality: the inability to be bored. Given how much rote, repetitive work and tasks there are in the world, the ability to defy boredom is key to success. In 1984 and 1985, Dave meets two such men in the Service.

The young girl whose horrible childhood was detailed in Chapter 8 is Toni, who has grown up to be a service employee. Toni Ware’s mother and grandmother both suffered from mental illness, most likely some form of schizophrenia. As a child, Toni often found her mother in catatonic states, which she would later describe...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Chapter 46 Summary

At the end of most weeks, the IRS employees like to blow off some steam and head out to the bars. The majority of the employees (the heterosexual ones at least) go to Meibeyer’s. Meredith Rand is one of the few women who regularly attends these get-togethers and is easily the most attractive. The men either become quiet and withdrawn or loud and excessively macho in Meredith’s presence, much to the dismay or amusement of the other female employees in attendance.

At a get-together in June, Meredith Rand finds herself sitting alone with Shane Drinion (whose nickname is "Mr. X.") after a number of employees in their group have left for the evening. Drinion is incredibly analytical and seems to lack the ability to be...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Chapter 47 Summary

Toni Ware is on a payphone at a combination gas station and convenience store (which some dub Ramp Tumors). She is speaking with an employee at Butts Hardware store and placing an order for six-inch copper tubing cut into smaller pieces. The credit card she uses to pay for the transaction is her own, but it has a different name and social security number.

When she talks to the employee, she uses one of twenty different voices she has developed. In this case, she finds it useful to adopt the voice of a younger, somewhat innocent girl. In the past, she has found that this persona encourages people to help her.

Toni’s car stands nearby and has two dogs in the backseat. The two dogs have the same name but...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Chapter 48 Summary

DeWitt Glendenning lies in what appears to be a hospital bed in a state of extreme agitation and confusion. He is being interviewed by two Service higher-ups, Clothier and Taylor. Taylor is the more impatient of the two, anxious to get information from Glendenning and weary of his tangents; Clothier is more patient and periodically speaks in pig Latin, especially when trying to have a side conversation with Taylor.

The two are asking Glendenning to recount the events of a company picnic earlier in the day. Glendenning explains that he was at the grill preparing the meat. He seems especially fixated on the fact that there were lots of mosquitoes present at the picnic. He obsesses over the ways in which they suck blood...

(The entire section is 457 words.)

Chapters 49-50 and Editor's End Notes Summary

Chris Fogle is being prepared for a meeting with Merrill Lehrl, who has taken over Mr. Glendenning’s office for unclear reasons. Fogle is alternately intimidated and confused by Sylvanshine and Reynolds, the two agents preparing him for his interview. They paint Lehrl as severe and eccentric, explaining that there will be an eight-year-old child in the office with them to whom Fogle should not speak.

They then present Fogle with a series of “What ifs” to prepare him for his meeting. The most important question centers around what Fogle should do if Lehrl asks him where he went to college and then misidentifies the school mascot. They ask Fogle if he would correct Lehrl (and risk angering him) or ignore it (and...

(The entire section is 471 words.)