David Foster Wallace's I.R.S. Pen Pal Tells All!

Slate's Culture Blog
April 15 2011 4:16 PM

David Foster Wallace's I.R.S. Pen Pal Tells All!

David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel The Pale King is based on the premise that its subject, the I.R.S., "is the most boring subject on earth," writes Jennifer Schuessler in an essay from this Sunday's New York Times Book Review . But Wallace himself seems to have felt the opposite; while researching the novel which is officially out today he plumbed the arcane depths of the American tax system with an "exuberantly obsessive relish," she writes. (Even the director of the Tax History Project was befuddled to learn of Wallace's fervor. "Let me tell you what it's like to go to a cocktail party and tell people you're a tax historian.")

Schuessler's essay provides a good opportunity to celebrate both Wallace's book and the rather-less celebrated Tax Day: It's a surprisingly lively tour through the author's research into compliance studies and audit criteria and "I.R.S. office furniture" you can almost get a whiff of the "weird Zen-type meditation high" Wallace's accountant pen pal describes getting when he concentrates on a notoriously difficult line of tax code. *


In his correspondence with that accountant, Stephen Lacy a philosophically-minded number cruncher given to heartfelt, lofty pronouncements like, "Our tax system wants to be a 'modernist' enterprise in an increasingly 'postmodernist' world" Wallace expresses a wistful appreciation for his friend's chosen line of work. "Logic and semantics" the men's shared passions "seem like a better prep for an accounting career than for freelance writing, which is disorderly and wholly without axiom," he wrote. So if you're one of the many Wallace devotees who plan to spend your weekend reading The Pale King , spare a moment and give thanks that, rather than abandoning novels for accounting, he decided to write about it instead.

Update, Apr. 15: Schuessler's last name was misspelled in this sentence.

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Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.


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