A Previously Unpublished Scene from The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

March 28, 2012 | 15 4 min read

coverEagle-eyed readers looking at the cover of the soon-to-be-released paperback edition of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King may have noticed the words “With Four Previously Unpublished Scenes.” While we haven’t seen all of the new scenes, from the example below, which we obtained from publisher Little, Brown, it appears that this extra material did not neatly correspond with the finished book but nonetheless may offer some additional context. The scenes will apparently be packaged as part of a “Reading Guide” in the new edition of the book. The first paragraph below is an explanation provided by the publisher, followed by one of the four new scenes, in full.

This scene with Claude Sylvanshine and Charles Lehrl together as roommates does not align with details of the character Merrill Errol Lehrl elsewhere in the book. But its evocation of a childhood in semirural Peoria adds to the picture of that place assembled elsewhere.

Charles Lehrl grew up not in Peoria but in nearby Decatur, home of Archer Dentists Midland and Lehrl said a city of such relentless uninteresting squalor and poverty that Peorians point with genuine pride at their city’s failure to be as bad as Decatur, whose air stank either of hog processing or burnt corn depending on the wind, whose patrician class distinguished itself by chewing gum with their front teeth. Lehrl’s narrative was that he had grown up in a mobile home the color of rotten fruit across a drainage culvert from Self-Storage Parkway, an interstate spur once built for an A. E. Staley subsidiary that had closed down when the bottom had fallen out of the pork belly market and now home to mosquitoes, conferva, shattercane, and an abundance of volunteer weeds gone hypertrophic in the outwash of nitrogen fertilizers that summertime pets disappeared in. What had kept his father from being an actual alcoholic was that being an actual alcoholic would have taken too much effort. Mr. and Mrs. Lehrl had not just allowed but encouraged the children to play in the road. The neighborhood’s only going concerns were 3.4 acres of U-Lock It self-storage units and a small rendering-plant owned by a large family of albinos that seemed constantly to grow without any sort of non-albino genetic refreshment and between all eighty-seven of them could not handle more than one animal at a time. Mr. Lehrl spent the bulk of Charles’s childhood lying on the couch with his arm over his eyes. Lehrl spoke of Decatur in the summer as if he’d grown up aloft: the flannel plains and alphabets of irrigation pipes laid down in the bean fields — Peoria and Lake James and Pekin were corn, Decatur and Springfield soybeans for the Japanese — fields simmering shrilly, blind and creamy blue skies untouched by the ADM stacks whose output was invisible but redolent and, according to rumor, flammable, mosquitoes rising as one body from the system of ditches at dusk — and detailed the highlight of those summer days, which consisted of Lehrl, his brother, and his tiny sister negotiating the ditches and fences and crossing Self-Storage Parkway to climb a Big Boy restaurant’s billboard’s support and peer through the hole that was the Big Boy icon’s (a big smiling boy in a fast food cup bearing a tray’s) left incisor to watch the rendering plant’s lone cow or swine, standing chained in the crabgrass as four or more demented albino children threw rocks and broken glass at it until whatever systems inside were in place and the animal was led into a chutelike pen at whose sides several older albinos stood on cinder blocks with hammers and small-caliber rifles, at which time Lehrl and his brother and sister would climb down and try to get back across the expressway to play in the road outside their mobile home. Often Lehrl, who had grown up not in Decatur but in Chadwick, a comfortable bedroom community outside Springfield where his father had been a finance officer in the Highway and Transit Commission and his mother a five-term Recorder of Deeds, liked to reminisce about his childhood as he and Sylvanshine relaxed with one Dorfmurderer Onion lager each during Lehrl’s half-hour unwinding period (10:40–11:10) before making his preparation to go to sleep, and Sylvanshine liked to listen, interrupting only to ask small questions or express alarm at appropriate places, if only because it aroused a kind of tenderness in him that the something manifest but inexpressible in the hydraulics of Lehrl’s smile made it so paternally clear when what he was saying was not literally true. There were an enormous number of little variables and compensations that evened out their dynamics, a kind of complex mortise-and-tenon congruity to their assets and liabilities as men and ages, and though Sylvanshine had never consciously realized it, this was one reason they had become such great friends and so preferred each other’s company to anyone else’s that they had taken the step in Philadelphia of living together, despite the appearance and consequences of this appearance to which this move subjected them. It was because Lehrl was ambitious but not in a conventional way that he had suggested the arrangement, and Sylvanshine would be forced to admit that the unconventionality of Lehrl’s ambition, and the odd self-destructive quality to many of his career decisions — despite extraordinary administrative talents and uniformly high ratings from DDs in every place he’d been posted, Charles Lehrl was still a G-2 and actually subordinate in grade to many of the people he supervised — was a big leveling — and tenderness — mechanism, since Sylvanshine’s career itself wasn’t exactly on the fast track, though once he passed the CPA exam as he surely would, he would himself be promoted to G-2 and able at least to pay exactly half of their communal expenses, an equity about which Sylvanshine fantasized as he sat alone in his leather slippers and plaid robe waiting for the inevitable third piss that every one lager equaled to assemble itself and be passed so he could go to sleep without worrying that he was just going to have to get up again just as his thoughts got pictorial and loosely associated and often toned with sepia or
even a kind of salmon/yellowy visual filter, which was usually a sign that he was genuinely falling asleep and not merely kidding himself out of a fear of insomnia and the terrible fear of what sleep-deprivation often did to his alertness and concentration the next day. There is very little room in any branch of accounting for fuzziness, sluggishness, or any sort of abstraction in one’s faculties or approach to the problems at hand. It is a pursuit of exacting care and metal-minded clarity and precision. This much Sylvanshine knew for sure.

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  1. This is my first experience of David Foster Wallace and I must say it reads like fake Celine and mish-mash Joyce. Run-on sentences and the holding of one’s literary breath while spewing out words do not a stream of conscious style make. Nor does it make much sense. The word incoherent comes to mind. At best it is bad Kerouac, and when Kerouac is bad he is very bad. Let loose your slings and arrows, all ye fans of DFW, batter me with brickbats. Peace.

  2. j.corpora i am not going to batter you with brickbats, whatever that is/those are, but i do think your reading of DFW is superficial at best. It’s a shame you don’t see the enormous difference between this brilliant tortured soul and bad Keroauc (can’t even imagine how you came to that). If you were able to discern the difference (and I hope you give it another shot by reading Infinite Jest or Consider the Lobster), you would find yourself opened up to a world of uncanny observations and affirmations of your darkest fears and highest hopes. The world DFW conjures up is terribly flawed but somehow shiny at the same time, sort of the way each of us sees it as we walk around with our inner voices gnawing at the edges of our consciousness. Hope you can reconfigure that filter of yours that seems to operate with a front-loading, ‘anti-stream-of-consciousness-and-big-words’ module.

  3. Uh, also there are good reasons that piece wasn’t in the finished book. DFW wrote hundreds of better passages than that excerpt. Also, his style was NOT stream of consciousness. Ever.

  4. Wallace’s self-death is more inspiring than his writing. Suicide is a light affair because it is entered into lightly. The one-thousand questions asked by those left behind are without weight because it matters nothing to Death. Grieving embarrasses the suicide itself (especially so in Wallace’s case) by the very act of memorializing it in writing and twice-fold in the reading of it out loud at a service. The point of self-murder is too leave everyone and thing behind, not be followed after with airy prayers and praise.

    A life lived is light too in contrast to the epochal march. What came before, the now and what is future days converged on Wallace and there was nothing but the noose, the fatalistic joining with absolutism. Death, a singular death, is a trifle. Suicide as method is inconsequential and endlessly leads to the next man waiting in self-murderous solitude

  5. its passable, easily one of the best 4 min of my day. he wrote fiercer,funnier and sadder than this. the whole albino thing (not to beat a dead mule with some goathead bur´s) but ir seemed like Mark Leyner ish. and yes ive read “et pluribus unum” and the whole charlie rose thing…aparte pelan pendejos

  6. Tom B. is correct and i stand corrected. “Stream of Consciousness” never entered into DFW’s head as a remotely entertaining or enlightening genre. I am not sure why i tacitly agreed with that assessment with my comment! Agh. He’s the opposite of the masturbatory, arrogant Beats!

  7. I didn’t make it to the end. I’m sure it was similar to the beginning of the paragraph. It is okay. Well, okay in the sense that I didn’t enjoy it enough to read the whole bit.

    “Archers ‘Dentist’ Midland”? Nope. It is Archers Daniels Midland. Editing is hard, especially with names, but this will be noticed by people who live in Iowa or Illinois.

  8. Brian: For whatever reason, it might be intentional. There’s a fascinating passage at the beginning of The Pale King that explains how IRS employees are issued new Social Security Numbers upon beginning their employment, which makes quite a bit of sense (at least to my gullible mind), but happens to be completely false.

  9. Jobe,

    I felt I should give it a second chance. I still found reading the entire passage unpleasant, but since it was out of context, I decided to go to Amazon and check out the beginning. He certainly has a lot of impressive blurbs.

    I understand that literature is supposed to use lots of run on sentences, flaunt grammar, punctuation rules, and all, and I took this into account while I was reading. The first paragraph was certainly “literary” and since he has passed away, I will just leave it at that. I’m sorry if I came across as harsh, cruel or mean spirited.


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