David Foster Wallace Takes on IRS

It’s no coincidence that the late David Foster Wallace’s new novel, The Pale King, was published on April 15. Actually, “new novel” might not be the best wording — the 560-page book, which carries the telling subtitle An Unfinished Novel, was crafted from Wallace’s papers after he committed suicide in 2008.

I’ve yet to read The Pale King, but after perusing several reviews in recent days (including Tom McCarthy’s incisive piece in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review), I have a pretty good handle on its setting: the seemingly banal inner workings of the Internal Revenue Service. —-Or as one of Wallace’s characters reportedly says in the book, “a system composed of many systems.”

Wallace’s interest in “systems” is longstanding — see his 1996 breakthrough novel Infinite Jest, a postmodern fascination that is at once intricately crafted, funny and oddly moving. (For more on Jest's complex patterns, listen to Michael Silverblatt's revealing interview with the author here.) But setting a novel within the IRS? It’s no wonder he didn’t let anyone know of its presence before his death. On the other hand, if anyone can enliven the arcane world of the IRS and accounting, it’s Wallace.

Given his difficulties in following up Infinite Jest (Wallace published a number of relatively less ambitious books ranging from nonfiction essays to short stories in the dozen years after it cemented his reputation), one wonders if he ever would have unveiled what is now known as The Pale King to the world had he lived.

No matter, it’s here. I suppose an “unfinished” Wallace novel is better than none at all.