Pale vs King: A squabble over the US and UK covers of the DFW novel

I didn’t actually see The Pale King in the flesh until last week, when I saw two copies – one US, one UK – at the flat of Sam Byers. (My UK edition was waiting for me when I got home.) Among other things we discussed the covers: me saying I preferred the UK version, designed by British designer gray318; Sam saying the US, with a cover image designed by Wallace’s widow Karen Green. It nearly ended in a fight, so I quickly invited him onto the Tiny Camels blog to settle our differences in prose.

King and Pale - the US and UK covers

SB: “Please flip back and look at the book’s legal disclaimer, which is on the copyright page, verso side, four leaves in from the rather unfortunate and misleading front cover.”

So instructs ‘Dave Wallace’ on page 67 of The Pale King. It’s a disarming moment. As he wrote it, Wallace could not have known that the book would actually carry a cover designed by his wife, Karen Green, constructed from the shredded remains of one of his very own tax returns.

Coming up with a Wallace cover must be a difficult business. How exactly is one supposed to reduce thousands of pages of densely-shaped data and prose into a single representative image? The designer of the UK edition clearly had the same thought, then stopped thinking at ‘thousands of pages’ and considered his job done. It gives us the Wallace stereotype: a great big stack of paper one feels distinctly unmotivated to plough through. The title, scrawled on the pages’ sides, seems like an afterthought, an act of petty, white-collar vandalism.

Green’s art for the US edition works because it operates from within Wallace’s literary technique. Where the UK edition sees only the ‘density’ of Wallace’s work, Green reminds us that intricacy and impenetrability are not the same thing. In Wallace, raw data is not simply amassed in heaps, it is artfully threaded through the narrative; technical jargon is not used simply to bulk out the word count, it is repurposed to poetic effect.

In Green’s image, information and a sense of necessity (a tax return) penetrate a symbolic human figure, streaming through his head and chest, splitting him into a sort of fractured burst. Compare this with, for example, chapter two of the novel, where Claude Sylvanshine sits on a plane and considers possible questions for his upcoming exam. Tax codes bump up against niggling memories and roiling fears in a way that feels artistically fresh yet emotionally familiar. The passage is meticulous in its construction; omnivorous in what it appropriates for its artistic ends.

Hardly a great wodge of paper with some scribble on it, is it?

JG: Well, I like the UK cover. First and foremost, because it’s pale. If, as we have been told, but which I’m not far enough through to have found out for myself, the pale king of the book’s title is depression, then let’s agree that this cover majors in pallor. And in eeriness: the way the letters stretch and disintegrate, shearing off on the lateral axis and even – weirdly – drifting up and down at the right hand edge, as if the pages have been compressed at the left hand side (like where they meet the spine?).

Pallor, eeriness, and depression. The cover is as far from bright and brilliant and show-offy as possible, a fact that honours the circumstances of the novel’s publication, and its essence. Which is – above and beyond depression – boredom, the challenge of the mundane. This is a boring cover, and is so much the better for it.

But let’s think about those sheets of paper. Two possibilities occur: firstly, that the image represents a stack of tax returns or supporting documentation sitting slap on Claude Sylvanshine’s desk, him or one of his colleagues, the sight that waits for him each morning. How many sheets? It seems almost possible to count them, for… yes, they gradate and striate, just like tree rings.

So you squint at your cover, and you realise the resolution just isn’t up to it. There’s no way of telling how many they are, nor how long it would take poor Claude to process them. For each horizontal line, plain or scrawled on though it may seem from our perspective, is in truth a page crammed full with lies and pleas, self-justifications and evasions. Each horizontal line a human life, most likely a failed one, or one at least in jeopardy. There’s so much more to this cover than just a ‘stack of paper.’

But there’s a second possibility, though it’s one that frankly makes me a bit queasy. Because that stack of paper might not be one from Claude’s desk, it might be one – the one, the “neat stack of manuscript” – from Wallace’s desk. That way, the scrawled title makes more sense, but it pushes the book airlessly close to the whole question of how far it, The Pake King, can ever be considered separately from the facts of its creation, abandonment and publication. I don’t like that idea. I like to think of it as Claude’s stack.

So, much as I like Karen Green’s image, I do find it rather folksy, and I question the king – why a playing card? And anyway, he’s not pale enough – and I shrug my shoulders at its contemporaneity – all that white space! that elegant, spare font! I’ll keep my pale, eerie, boring one, thanks.

SB: Oddly, I think your arguments in favour of the UK edition actually highlight some of my squeamishness about the way the text has been (mis)represented. ‘Depression’ is a concept that has been radically overstated in this novel’s publicity. Wallace experienced depression, but this book is neither depressive in tone nor directly concerned with depression as a subject. Even the commonly-held view that The Pale King is ‘about boredom’ proves a little simplistic. Thus far in my reading (and I accept that I may be proved wrong as I progress) I would say that this is very much a book about happiness, and the way in which seemingly negative experiences can act as gateways to fulfilment. As Wallace himself wrote in one of his notes:

“Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”

Given the obvious and distasteful publicity angle provided by Wallace’s life and death, it’s no surprise that this book hasn’t been marketed as being about ‘bliss in every atom,’ but it is something of a disappointment nonetheless. You say, ‘The cover is as far from bright and brilliant and show-offy as possible, a fact that honours the circumstances of the novel’s publication.’ Yet Wallace was exploring what ‘stepping from black and white into colour’ might feel like. Why the emphasis on the former at the expense of the latter? And as for ‘honouring the circumstances’ of the most loudly trumpeted and highly anticipated novel in recent years, who are you trying to kid?

My suspicion, then, is that this ‘pale and eerie’ UK cover has more to do with perceptions and misconceptions surrounding the author than it does with any attempt to represent his work, and therefore sells us the myth in place of the art. The US edition sidesteps these issues while neatly summarising the title and the work in a visually arresting manner. I like the ‘white space,’ (quite ‘pale’ in itself, of course) and the ‘elegant, spare font.’ I adore the sharp simplicity of the spine, and the way the little club symbol is used as a motif throughout. It feels cohesive. Most importantly, though, I like the king’s flash of colour amidst all that blankness, reminding us of Wallace’s bliss amidst all that tedium.

JG: I suppose what the difference between the two covers comes down to is that line: “stepping from black and white into colour,” with one cover offering one, one the other. What I’d say to justify my preference for the monochrome UK cover (and Sam, white, or at least that white on the US cover, is not pale, despite the image on-screen; they’re almost entirely different things) is that, thus far in my reading, none of the characters is yet to reach that gateway, or make that step, though Lane A. Dean Jr in Chapter 6/‘Good People’ is brought tantalisingly close.

If the book is about the possibility of working through boredom and mundanity to a state of bliss, then I hope you’d agree that most of its actual contents, page by page, are concerned with the former, leaving the latter by and large as a goal, even an unconscious, unacknowledged one. The boredom is there to be “rode out.” In fact, that could be said to be true of Wallace’s writing in general: there is always something to be rode out, something tricky or difficult or oblique that must be worked through and accepted for the eventual lesson to become clear. And I think a cover that honours that aspect of his work is a fitting advertisement for it.

To take another analogy from that same quote, if The Pale King is about the possibility of finding “water after days in the desert,” then a cover that gives you the water right off the bat is in danger of a) mis-selling the book to people who wouldn’t spend half an hour in the desert without the cast-iron guarantee of a chilled bottle of Evian waiting for them at the nearest oasis and b) ignoring the fact that for most people who go out into the desert for days, the water remains fatally, tragically absent.

A final point re: the UK cover. I particularly love the way that the trompe l’oeil image of the stack of paper works with regards to the book-as-physical-object. We are used to trompe l’oeil playing with the gap between 2D and 3D, but here the flatness of the cover image quickly gives way, when you have the book in your hands, to the depth of the book itself, so that it’s possible to imagine the hypothetical A4 pages of the ‘stack’ (which are, after all, only a little smaller than ‘life-size’) extending horizontally through the real, vertical pages of the real book: the imaginary intersecting and passing through the real at a neat right angle, and sticking out the other side.

The cover, in other words, implies a bigger physical object than the one it wraps. If you’re willing to embrace the potential mawkishness of that thought (bearing in mind what we’ve said about The Pale King and its provenance) then it’s a subtle reminder that what we hold in our hands is far from the whole story.

Sam Byers (@Byers90) is currently studying for a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at UEA. His thesis examines illness and pain in the work of David Foster Wallace. His debut novel, Idiopathy will be published by Fourth Estate in 2012/3. 


  1. Pingback: I am about to start reading The Pale King « esoterica
  2. Ewan Parry

    I must say that while I at first prefer the idea of having the copy with the cover designed by Wallace’s wife, I find myself just preferring the aesthetic of the UK cover. This is for similar reasons, I guess, as to why I prefer the UK cover of Infinite Jest to the US ones – mainly that I prefer a ‘design’ to an ‘illustration’ in this context.

    The other big reason for me relates back to something I was taught as a Drama student. When devising a dance to a song, if the lyrics say something about tying your shoes, don’t perform the action of tying your shoes, because we’ve already got that from the lyrics, we don’t need it again. Instead show us something that tells us your feelings about it. This is why I’m always suspicious of novels where the cover shows a depiction of the title. For example, a novel called ‘The House’ whose cover depicts a house… well that gets me worried, because surely the title tells us there’s a house, we don’t need to be shown it. The picture should tell us something more about the book that the title doesn’t. This is why the image of a King on the cover seems too literal to me, too kind of obvious and not telling us anything. Even the fact that it’s the King on a playing card is a bit too clever-clever for me, like some kind of sly wink that we don’t need.

    To be honest, I hadn’t realised the UK version showed a big stack of papers, I thought it was just a design made up of lines, but I prefer it for its simplicity in any case. And obviously, neither really matters anyway, it’s the contents inside that are important.

  3. Jonathan Gibbs

    Ewan, thanks for the comment. I agree with you about the obviousness of a literal illustration of the title, and the dance analogy – it’s the same thing with theatrical monologues, when people mime the very thing they’re describing. Ugh!

    As for the Infinite Jest covers, well I think I prefer the US hardback, for its generous expanse of clouds. There’s another one with upside-down clouds which is rather splendid. The UK one gives me shivers largely because of its lower case type (Helvetica? I’m not an expert) which just shrieks 90s to me and I have to cover my ears.

    Perhaps I think about book covers rather too much for their authors’ liking, but there we go. I justify my interest with the fact that soon enough they’ll be no book covers left worth speaking of. *sigh*

  4. Jeff M.

    You “while away the hours playing cards”–hence the playing card. Found this actual quote in Wiktionary’s entry for “while away.” (I wasn’t sure how “while” was spelled in this phrase.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s