The Truth is Stranger than Fiction

David Foster Wallace's final book, "The Pale King."

David Foster Wallace’s final book, “The Pale King.”

My last “big books” post was at the end of March when I covered Richard Russo’s memoir. I intended to do one of these each month, as my reading, even at this year’s slightly less robust pace, has yielded intriguing reads in April and May.

Actually, what I intended for April was a review of David Foster Wallace’s, The Pale King, which I finished reading near the end of the month. This was Wallace’s final book, published posthumously, from the remains of a manuscript he left behind.

The work in progress, which was to be the author’s long awaited follow-up novel to Infinite Jest, was discovered when his wife, Karen Green, and his agent, Bonnie Nadell, were going through David’s Claremont, California office in November 2008, about a month after his suicide.

I can’t imagine how painful it must have been to go through the remains of someone’s office, especially the office of a loved one. Yet during this process, according to Wallace’s editor at Little, Brown, Michael Pietsch, Green and Nadell found a “neat stack of manuscript, twelve chapters totaling 250 pages.” There was also a disk containing the same material with the label, “For LB advance?”  clearly referencing the coming negotiations that were to commence with his publisher, and the chapters he intended to send for their review.

There were hundreds of pages of additional manuscript labeled “The Pale King,” three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks and floppy disks. Pietsch would be summoned by Green and Nadell and given the unfinished remains of Wallace’s book, and the task of assembling the “best version” of the book he could cobble together.

Pietsch offers this account as the editor’s note to the hardcover edition that my son, Mark, gave to me last summer for Father’s Day. I started it and then, let it languish until this spring, when I re-engaged with the book.

I’m glad I did because it’s an intriguing read and the introduction by Pietsch begs the question about whether Wallace left all of this intentionally, with what remaining clarity he possessed before taking his own life.

None of this information is new, especially to fans of Wallace, a group that I clearly consider myself part of. The Atlantic ran an article/interview by Joe Fassler, covering this same ground that I’d point readers to that clearly shows the skill and savvy of Pietsch in the process of assembling the book. More important, he was able to provide the book that Wallace left, and the opportunity to experience this talented writer one last time.

From the Atlantic piece, Fassler notes that “Though Pietsch was struck by the completeness and polish of The Pale King’s many individual pieces, Wallace had not indicated a plan for the book’s overall structure. The author wanted the book to be non-linear and challenging; there was no obvious or straightforward way to order the manuscript.”

The setting that Wallace created for his novel was a fictional, but vividly complex place—the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois. The setting was 1985. The cast of characters are seen doing epic battle against the byzantine structure of a hulking bureaucracy, the IRS. There’s much more going on, however, than just another condemnation of government inefficiency.

Much has been written about the book since its release. Wallace tacked two of life’s toughest subjects—sadness and boredom. These are elements that anyone that has spent even a short period of time working deep within the bowels of an impersonal beast like the IRS, or enmeshed in the sociopathic mind games that are endemic to working in corporate America, are all too familiar with.

Spending your waking hours in these places forces you to find ways to tune out and maintain some sliver of your own personality and values, as well as your own individuality. Most succumb to the soul-sucking happy talk, and are nothing more than another disposable cog in America’s profit-making enterprise.

Like almost all news stories that gather momentum and eventually take on personalities and narratives of their own, the current IRS story on the surface seems simplistic; government employees, politically-motivated, and craven to the core, targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny. Perhaps this even came down from higher up, possibly from President Obama.

For the Fox crowd, and other conservatives, this provides the simplicity and limited understanding they crave and helps them maintain their narrow ideological perspective. “Don’t confuse us with the facts.”

Here’s one article that shows an alternative to the standard take on the issue that’s been coming from most news sources. It’s not a narrative that the Tea Party crowd or others on the right that have been bending tax laws since the early 1980s for their own political advantage want to hear.

It’s intriguing to me how Wallace saw the IRS, and created a narrative exponentially more complex than surface news stories ever scratch beneath. This is part of the genius of a writer like Wallace and why those that recognize him for his literary talents, were so devastated to learn of his suicide.

Why did Wallace set his fictional, IRS universe, in 1985? This becomes his “ground zero” for the novel’s plot.

Ronald Reagan: America's 40th president.

Ronald Reagan: America’s 40th president.

An explanation I’ve heard and I think is quite plausible is that 1985 is the year when the Reagan Revolution gained a critical mass. The tax-cut mania central to this groundswell, centering on the 40th president and his philosophical desire to dismantle government, is his legacy, and currently influences the debate on taxes, and I might even make the case that it is helping to frame the current IRS story’s narrative.

One of the book’s characters, Chris Fogle, represents what Wallace saw as a religious component to taxes and the mechanism for collecting them. Fogle, who is a member of Wallace’s own generation, a pot-smoking, self-described “wastoid,” who spends the 1970s stoned, watching a lot of mindless television, lacking any core convictions, until he has what Wallace frames as a “religious experience.” This gets played out when Fogle stumbles into an accounting class taught by a Jesuit priest, who tells the class: “You are called to account.” Fogle feels these words are directed at him, and he gives up his rootlessness and finds his purpose. That purpose is to become an IRS agent.

In a terrific interview with Marshall Boswell, on WBUR’s Here and Now show, Meghna Chakrabarti  talks with Boswell about Wallace’s work, and how in many ways, Wallace’s work and legacy are in danger of becoming an “abstraction,” via hagiography and the need for people to lionize and lift gifted humans to a place above the chattering masses. In doing so, their work loses its urgency and the ability to speak to the time and place it’s intended to reside in.

Perhaps the story that Wallace was trying to tell, in much greater complexity than most of idiot America can grasp, is that paying taxes and adhering to tax codes, is actually tied directly to civic duty. By using the IRS as his backdrop, and the massive shifts away from wealthy Americans paying higher taxes (what some might posit as “their fair share”), perhaps Wallace was making the case that we have responsibilities to one another that reside in the mundane, and even boring aspects of our lives, such as paying taxes, which help maintain the infrastructure of a civil society.

In The Pale King, Wallace uses the IRS and taxes to make an argument about civic engagement and citizens’ responsibilities to one another. That would certainly align with Wallace’s very well-known commencement address he gave at Kenyon College, back in 2005.

Anything less diminishes us as humans and short of what Wallace believed we as a society could be.