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Trickle-Down Citizenship: Taxes and Civic Responsibility in David Foster Wallace's The Pale King

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 44, Numbers 4, Winter 2012
pp. 464-479 | 10.1353/sdn.2012.0041

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The Pale King is conspicuous in David Foster Wallace's oeuvre in being the only one of his three novels not set in the future. Whereas he set The Broom of the System in a cartoonish 1990s America almost indistinguishable from the mid-eighties world of the novel's creation, and Infinite Jest in a post-millennial America imagined from the vantage point of the actual early nineties, both novels take place in a fully replete alternative reality that seems to have branched off from the reader's world and pursued its own quirky, though plausible, path. This playfully proleptic strategy frees Wallace to exaggerate and alter the details and contours of our workaday world for the purposes of comic and thematic emphasis. As a result, both novels achieve an almost ahistorical and, at times, even spectral quality that, whether intended by Wallace or not, sometimes obscures the historical contingency of their signature themes. Conversely, The Pale King takes place in a carefully reconstructed historical past, with May 1985 through June 1986 carved out as of primary interest, as this marks the thirteen months during which one David Wallace allegedly worked for the Internal Revenue Service as a lowly G-9 in the Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois. In very deliberate ways, Wallace portrays the IRS as this novel's alternative reality. In a paragraph-long section early in the novel, the third-person narrator describes the IRS as a "parallel world, both connected to and independent of this one, operating under its own physics and imperatives of cause" (Pale King 86).

This dramatic shift in approach feeds directly into what I wish to submit is one of The Pale King's more striking agendas. More so than any of his other major works, The Pale King wrestles directly with matters of real world politics and—here we have one of the novel's key words—civics, while the philosophical and ethical issues it engages are grounded firmly in a series of concrete historical particulars that Wallace rightly identifies as key to understanding what Salon journalist Steve Kornacki, in an internet postmortem posted on the colossally stupid "debt ceiling debate" of summer 2011, identified as "the hopeless politics" of our current political era. The Pale King zeroes in specifically and relentlessly on the Reagan tax cuts of 1981 and the subsequent ascendancy in American political discourse of so-called "supply side economics" as a pivotal and damning moment in postwar American civics history, and it builds its elaborate inquiry into taxes, bureaucratic heroism, and civic responsibility atop this decisive event that, in the words of Dewitt Glendenning, might very well "bring us down as a country" and signal the "end of the democratic experiment" (Pale King 132). These concerns all converge with dramatic force in IRS agent Chris Fogle's lengthy account of his surprise conversion from 1970s "wastoid" to devoted IRS "wiggler." Fogle's monologue operates as a quasi-religious narrative grounded in the work of American pragmatist William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, as well as a focused dramatization of the novel's more diffuse analysis of post-Reagan conceptions of taxes and civic responsibility.

One would not necessarily know any of this from a cursory reading of the voluminous press that greeted the novel's spring 2011 publication. Most of the book's initial reviewers described the book primarily as an IRS novel about boredom. Some of this blindness to one of the book's central concerns may be inadvertently credited to Michael Pietsch, who undertook the Herculean task of compiling the published book from Wallace's copious drafts and notes. Nowhere in his introduction does he touch upon the novel's political concerns. Rather, he argues that "David set out to write a novel about some of the hardest subjects in the world—sadness and boredom—and to make that exploration nothing less than dramatic, funny, and deeply moving" (ix-x). To be sure, this description of Wallace's primary purpose limns seamlessly with the unfortunate popular conception of Wallace as a technically dazzling and intellectually sophisticated writer of self-help narratives designed to "save us" from solipsism, loneliness, addiction, and so on...



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