The Pale King
by David foster Wallace
Little, Brown, 548 pages, $27.99
It’s not often that suicidal postmodern novelists and conservative public-policy intellectuals share each other’s concerns about the troubling conditions of contemporary American life. This seemed to be the case in April, however, when David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King was released just as Yuval Levin’s “Beyond the Welfare State” was published in the journal National Affairs.
Both works are animated by a persuasive awareness that, as Levin writes, “in our everyday experience the bureaucratic state presents itself not as a benevolent provider and protector but as a corpulent behemoth—flabby, slow, and expressionless, unmoved by our concerns, demanding compliance with arcane and seemingly meaningless rules as it breathes musty air in our faces and sends us to the back of the line.” It has created “a kind of spiritual failing” in Americans, consigning them to “less grounded and meaningful lives.”
By reputation, function, and structure, the Internal Revenue Service is perhaps the institution that best exemplifies the bureaucratic state’s invidious effects on its people. Wallace’s novel explores the inner workings of this very institution, or, more precisely, the inner workings of the people who keep it running. Yes, that’s right, The Pale King, one of the most highly anticipated novels in recent American letters, is a 550-page book about the IRS.
This comes as no surprise. After all, he first won wide acclaim with Infinite Jest (1996), easily the funniest 1100-page dystopic novel about burnt-out New England junior tennis stars and diabolical Quebec separatists ever written. The book represents human life as slackened and distended by the excesses of the present age without—as so often happens with postmodern fiction of this sort—fatally blunting the moral, creative, and intellectual acumen the writer brings to bear on the material.
In a commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, he spoke to his youthful audience about the challenge awaiting them, which he framed as the question of “how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” For years before he capitulated to the sorrowful solipsism he identified that afternoon at Kenyon, committing suicide in 2008, he explored the desire for transcendence, and the difficulty of it, in a work that’s now been published as The Pale King. Having willfully chosen an unexpected context for this exploration, he identifies, in the world of income tax policy and processes, nothing less than the great drama of the human condition itself.
As his narrator, a fictionalized version of himself, explains in the prefatory remarks: “The truth is that the larger narrative encompassing this Foreword has significant social and artistic value,” which he indicates by then quoting from a speech given by one of his characters, who declares, “‘If you know the position a person takes on taxes, you can determine [his] whole philosophy. The tax code, once you get to know it, embodies all the essence of [human] life: greed, politics, power, goodness, charity.’ To these qualities,” the narrator continues, “I would respectfully add one more: boredom.”
Indeed, boredom is the baseline condition of life in this novel—boredom that Wallace undermines with lyrical, soaring passages rescued from mere gauziness by flashes of moral purpose. Consider the wonderful opening: “Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat. . . . An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. . . . Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.”
Alas, the greater novel tells us, if we are able to regard ourselves as brothers, it is only in boredom. And this is not the rarefied boredom of decadent, advanced-consciousness types such as we find in modernist works like The Waste Land or The Magic Mountain. Instead, it’s far more mundane and pervasive, as is suggested by the novel’s basic plot: IRS agents interact while undergoing policy, procedure, and process retraining in a Midwestern tax center in the mid-1980s.
Wallace gives each of the main characters a substantial backstory. The most compelling explore 1970s suburban family breakdowns, the harmless childhood sources of terrible adult anxieties, and the tortured effort that a young man feeling “broken and split off” makes to respond, with grace and courage and love, to his girlfriend’s quiet insistence that she is having their baby.
The characters face bleak prospects in terms of transcending either the boredom of their surroundings or their closed-in selves—whether they try through intense IRS retraining seminars or blithe commuter chitchat or after-work drinks. Yet, admirably, they press on.
The result is a novel that features a series of long and intensely observed sequences that reveal the substantially moral purposes of tax work and also the deadening, infinite minutiae of tax forms, tax acts, and internal IRS directives. Wallace only offers one with the other, so as to establish how fully the characters’ sense of self and world are invested, indeed integrated, in the IRS’s structures and mandates, which often leaves them feeling painfully isolated and indeed suicidal, if occasionally epiphanic. Rare and affecting are moments of intact feeling, as when that young man, who found the courage and grace and love to marry his girlfriend and raise their baby, seeks momentary respite from auditing an infinite stack of tax returns by imagining them back home, playing together: “They were why, they were what made this worthwhile and the right thing.”
There are certainly many more absurd than sincere moments in The Pale King, like an entire chapter that consists only of IRS workers turning the pages of tax returns, one after another after the other, where you feel—as you always do when reading work by a more fully dressed postmodern writer like Thomas Pynchon—that the joke’s on us, that we’re ridiculous for devoting precious reading time to such patently absurd material in hopes of gaining insights about the human condition, and especially when we could be reading a sure bet like Dostoevsky instead. Instead of abandoning Wallace along these lines, we could also choose to be in on the joke.
To do so would be to treat the author’s efforts at the revelation of meaning as more accurately postmodern feints at “meaning,” or better still, the “effects” of “meaning.” The greater effort, however, would be to approach Wallace’s writing as a playful, difficult, but ultimately sincere effort to reveal meaning in an age that distances itself from such possibilities with ironies and disavowals and quotation marks around otherwise now loaded or emptied-out words.
Taking this third approach leads to the book’s crowning challenge, which hearkens back to Levin’s diagnosis as well as revealing Wallace’s ambition to invest a baroquely told story about life at an Illinois tax center with universal import. Near the end of The Pale King, one of the characters observes that he learned early in his time at the IRS “that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.” To survive in such a world, he continues, requires “the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. . . . It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”
If you are accepting, in other words, of a static condition of solitude and purposelessness, if you can live in such state, having thereby accomplished your own dehumanization, then you’re well suited to life in a bureaucratic age. As such, The Pale King proposes, you’re at once alone and yet not alone, certain only of death and taxes, but still, like others in this important novel, you can’t help but hope that life is more.
Randy Boyagoda is a professor of American Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto. His second novel, Beggar’s Feast, was published by Penguin Canada.