Wallace suffered from depression from his teenage years on, and had several breakdowns, suicide attempts, and hospitalizations. Max writes that after one of these breakdowns, in his sophomore year of college, Wallace described himself in a letter to a friend as “obscurely defective.” Even when he was not in acute crisis, Wallace often had trouble finding a comfortable way to be around other people, to interpret their actions or imagine their internal states, to go with the grain of various kinds of social expectations, or just to be in his own skin.
Reading his story collections Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999)and Oblivion, one has a feeling that some part of Wallace just doesn’t believe in normal life. The appearance of normalcy is at best a scrim hiding desperate internal states. And even if some of us are able to lead a decent and maybe even satisfying personal existence, Wallace observes, our national political and civic life is in a state of emergency. The main plot of The Pale King has to do with a struggle within the IRS in the (fictional) 1980s over the possibility of a computer-automated tax enforcement system that would replace a lot of accounting employees. This was part of a deeper struggle “over the very mission and raison of the Service,”
between traditional or “conservative” officials who saw tax and its administration as an arena of social justice and civic virtue, on the one hand, and those more progressive, “pragmatic” policymakers who prized the market model, efficiency, and a maximum return on the investment of the Service’s annual budget. Distilled to its essence, the question was whether and to what extent the IRS should be operated like a for-profit business.
Our narrator, Dave Wallace, who spent thirteen months working for the IRS during this crucial period of upheaval and presents this book as a memoir, tells us that most of the changes at the IRS are not known to the public:
The reason for this public ignorance is not secrecy. The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull….
Fact: the birth agonies of the New IRS led to one of the great and terrible PR discoveries in modern democracy, which is that if the sensitive issue of governance can be made sufficiently dull and arcane, there will be no need for officials to hide or dissemble, because no one not directly involved will pay enough attention to cause trouble. No one will pay attention because no one will be interested, because, more or less a priori, of these issues’ monument dullness.
Wallace was an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, and it’s not hard to see the wider political implications of the boredom problem, of our marked collective preference for televised entertainment over muckraking articles about the tax code. While we have been devoting our scant daily hours to professional and personal obligations, and maybe squeezing in a little recreation, there is another category of obligations that has been going unmet, and that is civic ones. There is, we infer, a reason we should vote in congressional elections and join neighborhood councils and take an interest in zoning laws, but the reason is not that doing these things will bring us personal pleasure. It’s that they will improve the character of communal and national life.
This is the moral claim that seems to me to be latent in The Pale King, certainly the most urgent moral claim, although there are fuzzier references to universal brotherhood and the potential “bliss” and “gratitude at the gift of being alive” that will supposedly accrue to us if we practice concentrating on boring things. Beginning with Infinite Jest, Wallace’s writing has had a streak of small-c communism, most clearly visible in his portrait of Gately.
We can think of Gately’s portrait as a triptych, roughly corresponding to the beginning, middle, and end of the novel, that shows the three main elements of his heroism. The first panel shows Gately resolving to change his life and undergoing the trials of early sobriety—a process that every addict who quits must undergo. The last panel repeats and amplifies his heroic commitment to sobriety by posing an extraordinary version of the addict’s dilemma: Gately has been shot while defending an Ennet House resident from two angry thugs, yet because of his narcotics addiction, he refuses painkillers for his nearly unbearable pain.
But the middle panel shows us Gately going about his quotidian duties (“divided pretty evenly between the picayune and the unpleasant”) as a staffer at Ennet House: he cooks the communal evening meals, meatloaf or boiled hot dogs, to the best of his modest abilities, which are usually met with oblique derision by the residents; he makes sure residents are doing their assigned chores and observing the nightly curfew; he works a night shift as an on-call counselor to talk newly sober residents down from graphic nightmares; he supports himself with his job as a janitor in a homeless shelter, where he cleans soiled toilets and showers. He doesn’t especially like most of these responsibilities, but he believes in the halfway house. He takes all these parts of his job seriously and, with a touching vulnerability, tries to do his best at them.
The scenes in the middle panel suggest the highest possible use to which a newly sober life could be put. In a novel in which every parent betrays his child in one way or another, and every child is estranged from his parents, and there are certainly no mutually devoted spouses or couples in love or loyal friendships that do not eventually get sundered, the highest form of human relations is this example of adults who are not related by blood or marriage, or even especially fond of each other, who nonetheless take care of each other with dutiful good humor.
Outside of halfway houses and actual communes, the way that adults unrelated to each other by blood or marriage routinely take care of one another is to participate in the many forms of civic life, from cleaning up after their dogs to running for PTA to voting. These community relationships are not particularly intimate; they don’t usually change anyone’s life or offer intense interpersonal rewards; and they can be quite boring as pastimes go. But they are the well person’s version of making meatloaf for Ennet House residents. I have no idea how you write a good novel dramatizing the urgency of civic responsibility. On the other hand, a plot about sweeping, revolutionary changes in the enforcement of the American tax code that no member of the American public can be bothered to take an interest in is a brilliant start. I join the rest of Wallace’s fans in wishing he had been able to finish it.