“The Pale King” Revisited

“Abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy. For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting.”
― David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

Tax season is upon us. Already, forms are arriving in the mail, and disgruntled citizens hunker down to upload their life into a series of pieces of paper, each line cutting a sharp divide of money, measuring our life in money, and property, and things the government can measure. Once upon a time, a very famous author tried to write about the tax code, and then, he committed  suicide before it could be done. It is an incomplete thing, and collapses as it is read along. It begins brilliantly, of course, and there are competing storylines and avenues running, but then the gaps break out and the girders beneath the whorls expose the gaps between the threads of narrative.


““Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

Some crows come overhead then, three or four, not a murder, on the wing, silent with intent, corn-bound for the pasture’s wire beyond which one horse smells at the other’s behind, the lead horse’s tail obligingly lifted. Your shoes’ brand incised in the dew. An alfalfa breeze. Socks’ burrs. Dry scratching inside a culvert. Rusted wire and tilted posts more a symbol of restraint than a fence per se. NO HUNTING. The shush of the interstate off past the windbreak. The pasture’s crows standing at angles, turning up patties to get at the worms underneath, the shapes of the worms incised in the overturned dung and baked by the sun all day until hardened, there to stay, tiny vacant lines in rows and inset curls that do not close because head never quite touches tail. Read these.”

The backbreaking labor of filing paperwork in a tax office is on full display. Accounting is a dull subject to approach for fiction, but without accountants, what world would we live within? One where no one knew what was working or not working, who was a safe investment and who was not. A massed tangle of bad choices and good choices, and no one sorting them all out. Certainly, no one paying their taxes. The novel tries to approach that fabric of dullness, that weedy field that holds the soil of the country in place, and tries to bring beauty and wisdom into the huge, machine of faceless and soulless bureaucracy. It mostly works. The episodes set inside the tax center, where the author actually worked for a brief period of time, are like a capsule of a harrowing, Kafka-esque nightmare simultaneous to feeling absolutely and completely real. The bureaucracy lives, and breathes, and people spend their whole lives and creativity in this kind of tedium that breaks everyone it touches, eventually. The book suggests that the great work of life, the great courage, is finding a road through the tedium. True courage is embracing the dull. To do so is to master life.

The characters that push through in long, broken sections seem to be the kind of men books are never written about. In particular, the accountant who looks upon his son, his son who is not apparently ready to be an adult and not apparently making choices that make sense to the precise mind and habits of a lifelong accountant, echoes in the memory with a kind of knowledge that a whole generation of fathers who paid their dues and built a life of virtue and dull work that look upon their children who seem to have no direction in their life. He is such a proud and compelling man, more interesting than the child that narrates their life together. It is an argument for the world where the fabric of society is best represented by the sort of everyday people that artists come around to simultaneously provide a voice for and leave behind for a life of the arts.

Like a country at odds with itself, it begins so beautifully, but drifts apart into a death it has chosen for itself. Reading the dissolution of the text, it gets harder and harder to follow as we know we are approaching not only the death throes of a book that died too soon, but the death of the author who tried to write about the tax code, who tried and tried, for years. It is tax season, and the fabric of stuff, of life, is falling apart.

Categories: Book Reviews

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