Wednesday, July 6, 2011
"The Pale King:" Taxation Representations
In the introduction to Paul Auster's Collected Poems, writer Norman Finkelstein offers a telling passage: "Yes, this a writer not only with readers but with fans (italics mine)." This is equal parts true and a reason for pause, since it seems to suggest that literary writers are "above" enthusiasm that isn't scholarly or critical. Of course, there's absolutely no reason why certain writers cannot have avid fan bases in addition to more studious admirers. The best of both sides of this parallel is mirrored in the fans/readers of the late David Foster Wallace. In addition to his works being commonplace on university reading lists and being generally revered by the literary community, his followers can also be a giddy, fan club-like bunch. In the months and weeks leading up to the posthumous publication of The Pale King, my friends and I dutifully shared links and news reports about the book. Of course, given that he committed suicide in 2008, any of his publications (both books and articles) that have come out are always bittersweet as well. With some deceased authors, a posthumous release can sometimes be viewed as a way to cash in; with Wallace, even his unfinished works have lasting value, and are worthy for an audience still dismayed over his passing.
The Pale King was pieced together by his editor, Michael Pietsch, and his widow, Karen Green. As it's been recounted in numerous articles, the latest novel was a collection of notebooks, computer files, and discs, with notes that hinted to possible trajectories the novel might have taken had Wallace lived to complete it. It's worth noting that, while rightfully extolling the novel's excellence, Piestch is explicit in explaining that The Pale King is an unfinished novel; it's even the book's subtitle. That's not to disrespect the semi-finished product, but a way to make the reader know that Wallace, sometimes a perfectionist to a fault, undoubtedly would have changed and edited some of the pages and passages that made their way into the "finished" product. While it's much different in scope from his previous novel, Infinite Jest, it's a novel that demands attention to minute details, has a penchant for hilarious comedy, and ultimately demands more than one reading.
The Pale King follows a group of characters in 1985, IRS examiners who work in Peoria, Illinois, following vastly different paths to come to that time and place. Their back stories are detailed, and give hints to their personality makeups that may hint to their reasons for being drawn to a career in a tedious, psychologically challenging bureaucracy. In any other profession, these characters would have the same lives and the same inner turmoils; however, the nature of tax work seems to highlight their personalities, sometimes explicitly and sometimes metaphysically. Leonard Stecyk spends his childhood as an impossible model of goodness, selfless to the point of making adults hate him, and being ostracized by his peers to the point of extreme violence; Lane Dean is a Christian who grapples with questions of faith and a pregnant girlfriend whom he doesn't love; Toni Ware, a woman with a troubling history of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her mother's boyfriend; and David Foster Wallace, the character/author who provides legal/liability disclosures on providing IRS information, as well as his personal history of unethical behavior as a college student. The novel also has paranormal elements. In the throes of intense concentration, some of the IRS workers see ghosts that haunt the office. There is also the hint of an algorithm that can put someone in a state of immediate, almost spiritual concentration with no distractions, a mysterious entity that echoes the coma-inducing entertainment tape in Infinite Jest.
These brief summaries are not meant to be of any serious help in understanding the story's complete arc. There are numerous other characters, both major and minor, and while this may seem like a sorry excuse, even some established literary critics have professed some troubles with the book, as far as a complete understanding. Some of the chapters, while moving and brilliant, aren't attributed to any specific character. Even the most devoted readers can be forgiven for glazing over pages upon pages of tax law and documentations. Perhaps some of the frustration can be attributed to the novel's unfinished state, but that's not at all to say it's not worthy of attention. The character sketches are sometimes brilliant. For example, the sketches of Stecyk as a dutiful young boy are both funny and discomforting:
"...[his father] offers to take him to Dairy Queen as a kind of reward, and Leonard tells his father he's grateful and that the gesture means a lot to him but that in all honesty he'd like it even more if they took the money his father would have spent on the ice cream and instead donated it either to Easter Seals or, better yet, to UNICEF, to go toward the needs of famine-ravaged Biafran kids who he knows for a fact have probably never even heard of ice cream, and says that be bets it'll end up giving both of them a better feeling even than the DQ would...Leonard takes a moment to express concern about the father's facial tic again and to gently rib him about his reluctance to go in and have the family's MD look at it, noting again that according to the chart on the back of his bedroom door the father is three months overdue for his annual physical and that it's almost eight months past the date of his recommended tetanus booster (Wallace 30.)
My friend Paul , arguably the biggest fan of Wallace that I know, described his reading of the novel as "equal parts brilliant and tedious." The tedium, which comes in the details of IRS tax preparation, is completely intentional. Wallace describes it in a way to make the reader understand how detailed and intense the work is; it's not written to show the amount of research that went into the book, but to give concrete examples as to why tax examination is such a specialized field. It's not so much that it requires care and attention to detail (which it does), but that it takes a certain kind of personality to be able to deal with long days of careful readings and understandings of wildly complicated tax codes. Of course, given Wallace's penchant for footnotes and incredibly detailed non-fiction passages, there's a certain joy and admiration that comes with even the most daunting accounts. There are very few authors who could pull off such passages without losing the reader. We're not expected to understand the codes, but we're shown them for the sake of understanding the characters and what they deal with on a daily basis:
"For ruling requests concerning the classification of an organization as a limited partnership where a corporation is the sole general partner, see Rev. Proc. 72-13, 1972-1 CB 735. See also Rev. Proc. 74-17, 1974-1 CB 438, and Rev. Proc. 75-16, 1975-1 CB 676. Revenue Procedure 74-17 announces certain operating rules of the Service relating to the issuance of advance ruling letters concerning the classification of organizations formed as limited partnerships. Revenue Procedure 75-16 sets forth a checklist outlining required information frequently omitted from requests for rulings related to classification of organizations for Federal tax purposes (Wallace 248-249)."
Taking this even further, there are passages that even work to explain boredom, both historically and socially:
"Word appears suddenly in 1766. No known etymology. The Earl of March uses it in a letter describing a French peer of the realm. He didn't cast a shadow, but that didn't mean anything. For no reason, Lane Dean flexed his buttocks. In fact the first three appearances of bore in English conjoin it with the adjective French, that French bore, that boring Frenchman, yes? The French of course has malaise, ennui. See Pascal's fourth Pensée, which Lane Dean heard as pantsy (Wallace 383)."
I'm still convinced that Wallace, for all of his talents, never gets full respect as a humorous writer, and in several sections of The Pale King, it's evident that Wallace's knack for humor was as strong as ever. Sometimes that can be lost in the shuffle, but along the same argumentative lines as the "reader/fan" debate, there's also a need to understand that hilarious commentary can easily be great writing in its own right. There are very few authors who make me laugh out loud, and I did so more than once while reading The Pale King.
"'My earliest memory of shit is dog shit. Remember as a kid how potent a presence and threat dog shit was? It seemed to be all over. Every time you played outside, somebody was stepping in it, and then everything stopped and it was like "OK, who stepped in it?" Everybody has to check their shoes, and sure enough somebody had it on their shoe.'
'Embedded in the sole. In the pattern.'
'Impossible to scrape off.'
'New was always wet and yellow and horrible, the most horrible. But old got embedded more deeply in the sole. You had to set the shoes aside until it dried and then try to scrape out the sole's pattern with a sticky or a rusty old knife out of the garage (Wallace 347).'"
"In short, not only was it surprising to be greeted in person with such enthusiastic words, but it was doubly surprising when the person reciting these words displayed the same kind of disengagement as, say, the checkout clerk who utters the words 'Have a nice day' while her expression indicates that it's really a matter of total indifference to her whether you drop dead in the parking lot outside ten seconds from now (Wallace 287)."
The fact that I've been able to cull such varied examples of the novel's themes proves two points: one, even unfinished, The Pale King stands as one of the best books published so far this year. Two, even with his death (understandably) permeating the few reviews that I've read so far, this isn't a work of nostalgia, nor does it exist solely as a lamentation of Wallace's passing. While reading it, I was challenged, amazed, sometimes confused, and ultimately very satisfied. Wallace left behind an excellent piece of literature, evocative of his previous efforts and consistent talents. When getting lost in the book, the events surrounding its release tend to fall to the side, and the novel becomes the focal point, not the author's passing. Of course, those sad events are still there after the book is done, but it's a relief that The Pale King is a work on its own, even if it was a work in progress. Much like Infinite Jest, it's not easy. Careful readings, note taking, re-reads, and pauses for reflection are required. As I mentioned above, there is so much that I haven't touched upon or summarized. Taking it all in, it's a welcome addition to the Wallace canon, and the people responsible for its publication were right to see that it made its way into book form, and its unfinished standing and occasional questionable detours work as smaller pieces to a large, enjoyable puzzle.
Wallace, David Foster. The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel. Copyright 2011 by David Foster Wallace Literary Trust.