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Divine Drudgery

Wallace made himself as dauntingly knowledgeable about the work of the IRS as he was about drugs in Infinite Jest. In 1998, when he was teaching at Illinois State University in Normal, he talked over the phone about his research to Gus Van Sant, the movie director, who transcribed the conversation:

GVS: Um, well, so, um, how’s your class?
DFW: I’m on leave this year. I’m auditing a class but I’m not teaching. The class I’m auditing is a real bitch but somehow I’m holding on at a high C or low B.
GVS: What’s the class?
DFW: It’s ah, it’s advanced tax accounting, which is a long story and you probably don’t want to know about it but it’s wa-a-a-y over my little noggin’. It’s a Will Hunting class.
GVS: Oh my God.
DFW: 35 pages of incredibly dense, you know, CPA stuff at night and then you get tested on it the next day.

Saturated in tax law and lore, The Pale King turns the IRS into a self-contained society with its own history (marked by congressional changes to the tax code), command structure, mystifyingly arcane language, and cherished customs and traditions. Only readers who are employed by the real-life IRS will confidently see the difference between what Wallace freely invented and what he researched, and the novel, which goes out of its way to ambiguate its own status in every aspect, is nowhere trickier than on this point. However, the IRS’s official stamp does not—as he writes—represent Bellerophon slaying the Hydra, its Latin motto is not “Alicui tamen faciendum est” (which does not translate as “He is the one doing a difficult, unpopular job”), and IRS agents are not issued new Social Security numbers, all beginning with the number 9, which they carry with them for the rest of their lives. Most of the easily checkable “facts” of the book turn out to be creative moonshine, but the playfulness that obviously went into these constructions does little or nothing to lighten the gloom and drudgery that suffuses the building over whose front entrance stands a giant 1040 form, picked out in terra-cotta tiling.

Much of the most readable sections of the book relate the lives of individual characters before they are inducted into the Peoria REC—Sylvanshine on his commuter flight; Lane Dean with his just-pregnant girlfriend; Chris Fogle, the garrulous Chicagoan student who dabbles in drugs; the profusely sweaty David Cusk; Leonard Stecyk, who will go far in the IRS, and is first met as an obnoxious do-gooder at his elementary school; Toni Ware, self-educated, ingeniously vindictive on a grand scale, her personality irreparably warped by her wild and violent trailer-park underclass childhood; and one David Wallace (“Author here”), equipped with a biography similar to, but importantly different from, the author’s own. Except for Toni Ware, whose rigid psychopathology renders her immune to change, these people, lavishly and precisely depicted as children and in their college years, will become obedient drones when they enter the Service.

Not that they see themselves as drones; rather, they’re heroes who sacrifice themselves for a higher calling. Chris Fogle finds his true vocation when, at the Catholic DePaul University in Chicago, he mistakes the building where he’s meant to attend an American political thought class on The Federalist Papers for its mirror-image twin, where he finds himself listening to a lecture on advanced accounting, delivered by a magnificently phony substitute teacher:

True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer.

The man retrieves his hat (“a dark-gray business fedora, old but very well cared for”) from the stand and waves it high:

Gentlemen, prepare to wear the hat. You have wondered, perhaps, why all real accountants wear hats? They are today’s cowboys. As will you be. Riding the American range. Riding herd on the unending torrent of financial data. The eddies, cataracts, arranged variations, fractious minutiae. You order the data, shepherd it, direct its flow, lead it where it’s needed, in the codified form in which it’s apposite. You deal in facts, gentlemen, for which there has been a market since man first crept from the primeval slurry. It is you—tell them that. Who ride, man the walls, define the pie, serve.

He ends his peroration with “Gentlemen, you are called to account.” Wallace was both satirist and preacher in the same breath, and the idea that the IRS, imagined as a quasi-religious foundation in which the burdensome and egotistic self might find redemption in the service of a greater good, could be both a comic conceit and a heartfelt belief seems to have been central to his conception of The Pale King.

Wallace’s intellectual sophistication and prowess were entwined with a moral and social simplicity that feels almost childlike and that’s a crucial part of his fiction. When Infinite Jest came out in 1996, interviewers who made their way out to Illinois were surprised that his closest friends there were an older couple, Doug and Erin Poag, whom Wallace had met at a Mennonite church he was attending. Frank Bruni of The New York Times found himself in the Poags’ sitting room while Wallace and the couple sat around the television, watching The X-Files and eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and Italian heroes. Wallace paid for Mrs. Poag to fly with him to New York, where she attended his readings and sat in on his interviews.

His other close attachments were his two dogs, adopted mutts, called (in a salute to Wodehouse) Jeeves and Drone, later succeeded by Bella and Warner. Not long before he hanged himself, Wallace talked with his wife, Karen Green (whom he married in 2004), about abandoning writing altogether in order to open a dog shelter.* This churchgoing, dog-loving Wallace, faithful to the rural Illinois landscape of his boyhood, imbued with the conviction that fiction exists to make readers feel less alone in the world and thereby improve their lives, is a ghostly but constant presence in The Pale King.

In his notes about the book (too few of these are included in the skimpy nine-page appendix), Wallace made clear what he was hoping to do. He would take the most boring and repetitive job imaginable, apply to it the same formula about heightened attention and awareness that he offered to the Kenyon College graduates, and demonstrate how tedious, irksome labor could yield a path to grace and the salvation of the soul:

Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + 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. Constant bliss in every atom.

This is a variant on the old and familiar Christian theme of how to ennoble lowly toil by doing it in the service of Christ. Milton touches on it in “On His Blindness” (“They also serve who only stand and wait”), and George Herbert explores it in “The Elixir”:

…All may of thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture (for thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and the action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold…

But the Christians, with their supernatural god and his promise of an individual life beyond the grave, had weaponry at their disposal superior to that of Wallace, who at Kenyon insisted that “the capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death,” and, though he went to church, doesn’t appear to have been a believer. In his notes, Wallace’s instances of bliss-through-attention are somewhat tepid: an “Asian kid” in a library, maintaining the exact same posture in his chair for eighty minutes, as he studies and annotates a textbook on statistics; a security guard at a credit union, continuously alert to small variations of movement among the incoming and outgoing crowds; or a “woman on assembly line counting number of visible loops of twine on outside of bale of twine”:

Counting, over and over. When the whistle blows, every other worker practically runs for the door. She stays briefly, immersed in her work. It’s the ability to be immersed.

In the pages that we have of The Pale King, only Chapter 46 really tries to put Wallace’s alchemical theory into action. On Friday afternoons a regular coterie of IRS employees gathers at Meibeyer’s cocktail bar, which “features drink specials that are indexed to the approximate cost of gasoline and vehicle depreciation involved in the 2.3-mile drive from the REC to the Southport-474 interchange.”

Here, Meredith Rand, a GS-10, sits down with Shane Drinion, a GS-9, a colleague in her work group, or “pod.” She is drop-dead beautiful, known as a “fox” at her Catholic high school; his looks are so nondescript that a paragraph of detailed description ends with “He’s the sort of person you’d have to look at very intently even to be able to describe.” She smokes; he doesn’t. She drinks gin and tonics with a twist of lime; he drinks Michelob. Over the course of sixty-five pages, she engages him in what she calls a “tête-à-tête” and tells him of how she spent three and a half weeks in “The bin. The mental Marriott. A nut ward” when she was seventeen and a compulsive self-mutilator, and how she was rescued by a thirty-two-year-old ward attendant there named Ed Rand, who later became her husband and is now slowly dying of cardiomyopathy.

Meredith Rand’s story is wholly absorbing, with Wallace showing his ventriloquial ability to find for his characters voices that sound startlingly exact and true. Rand is the single most interesting person in the book. Her epic, self-absorbed monologue has her confiding in Drinion and mocking him by turns; clever, impatient, flirtatious, and angry, she’s like a cat toying with a cornered mouse. In a note, Wallace wrote of her:

IRS rap on Meredith Rand: she’s pretty but a yammerer of the most dire kind, on and on, excruciating to be around—they speculate that her husband must have some kind of hearing aid that he can turn off at will.

But it’s Shane Drinion who is the real center of the chapter. He speaks in short, pedantic questions and interpolations, with an exaggerated lack of affect, like someone with an autism-spectrum disorder. His answers to her are dispassionately factual: no, he’s never been out on a date; no, he doesn’t fear being mistaken for a homosexual. She asks him, “Is this boring?”

  1. *

    See D.T. Max’s “The Unfinished,” The New Yorker, March 9, 2009—a valuable posthumous profile. Max’s full-length book on Wallace was slated to be published in 2011 by Viking, but hasn’t so far appeared. 

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