The Pale King – Chapter 1

Dear Dave,

I can’t tell you how excited I was to see The Pale King on the shelf of my local bookstore – and place of employment – last week.  Before clocking in for my shift, I grabbed a copy and stuck it on the reserve shelf behind the register to purchase at the end of my shift.[1] There were at least six copies on the shelf, but with my luck it would have been the night that a busload of Fantods pulled into the parking lot, swooped into the store while I was enjoying an iced blended coffee during my ten-minute break, and bought every available copy.  Mine was the only copy sold that night, but I wasn’t going to take any chances on something this important.

Despite my excitement to begin reading it, I had to wait over a week before opening that beautiful front cover.  The release date[2] coincided too perfectly with the end of the third quarter at school, so the never-ending pile of grading took precedence, and alas I had to resist the urge to say, “Screw it all, I’m reading The Pale King!”

After fulfilling my grading obligations, I finally had a free evening to sit down and enjoy the unfinished novel that had been staring longingly at me from the bookshelf in my living room.  I first read Michael Pietsch’s Editor’s Note with mixed emotions: I was excited to be reading a brand new novel by my favorite writer, but sad that it was left unfinished and even sadder that this would be the last of your books published.[3]

Then came chapter 1.  I must admit I was overwhelmed at first by the rich description of the open fields in the first paragraph.  The sheer volume of it, I quickly felt lost amongst the list of plants and flowers and weeds.  I restarted the paragraph several times trying to find my way out of it.  As I ventured back into the field a second and third time I found the prose somewhat reminiscent of the opening of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, in which he gracefully paints the scene of the Central Californian river valley that bookends the short but tragic novel.  I saw something similar here; prose that acts almost as a playwright’s stage directions, pulling back the curtains to reveal the stage as the orchestra plays the overture.  A grand landscape for the much-anticipated novel.

As I came to the end of that first paragraph, it hit me: there is not a verb until the very short, two-word fifth sentence that simply says, “All nodding.”  The myriad plants out in that field in perfect harmony, all nodding.

Noticing this grammatical oddity, I read and reread the rest of the first chapter to find it very sparse on action words.  There is movement and action in the field, and a handful of crows flying overhead, but most sentences are lacking verbs.[4] This lack of verbs drew my attention to the few that did grace the page, particularly the two occasions in which the fourth wall is broken to address the reader.  Near the end of the first paragraph is the imperative, “Look around you;” then the final sentence of the chapter: “Read these.”

Stop for a moment, you say.  Take it all in.  The first calls for awareness.  The second asks for more; not simply a casual observation of the vast scenery.  But “read these.”  Reading is a far more active verb and active process.  It involves careful consideration and intentional interaction with the text, or in this case with the imagery just laid forth on the preceding page and a half.

You’ve asked us to do that on a number of occasions.[5] And you are asking us to do it again.

I’m ready to join you on this journey.  Let’s take it slow, because I know there will be a lot to look at and a lot to read.  But I know it will all be worth it.

[1] I gotta keep my priorities straight.  Sure, it meant losing three minutes on the clock and 45¢ off my paycheck.  But it was so worth it.

[2] There seems to have been some controversy over the release date (or “laydown date,” as we call it in the big chain retail book industry).  In keeping with the spirit of a novel that takes place at an IRS processing center, it was advertised that the book would be released on April 15.  All the release party events are scheduled for that weekend.  But all the major retailers began shipping and shelving the book at least a week prior to that date.

[3] There have been rumors floating around online of other unpublished works that are scheduled to be released, but I have my doubts.

[4] Are they actually sentences, then?  They begin with capital letters and end with periods, but don’t they need verbs?

[5] The allusion in the title of “Consider the Lobster” comes to mind, as does the contrast of the true beauty of the natural surroundings with the artificial beauty on the M.V. Nadir in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”


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