From what I understand, I’m supposed to explain how I arrived at this career. Where I came from, so to speak, and what the Service means to me….
I was pretty much of a wastoid. Essentially, I had no motivation, which my father referred to as “initiative.” Also, I remember that everything at that time was very fuzzy and abstract. I took a lot of psychology and political science, literature. Classes where everything was fuzzy and abstract and open to interpretation and then those interpretations were open to still more interpretations.… The whole thing was just going through the motions; it didn’t mean anything – even the whole point of the classes themselves was that nothing meant anything, that everything was abstract and endlessly interpretable.
Leave it to David Foster Wallace to make tax accounting interesting.
I feel like I’ve read a fair portion of The Pale King in excerpts and stories, though in fact these are only a small fraction of the book’s 500+ pages. I have trouble approaching Wallace’s work (intimidation, you know, and some other things), but I’m always happy to encounter it when it’s thrust on me; thus I was pleased that this long excerpt was included in this year’s quartet of teeny-tiny book releases from Madras Press.
I don’t think my father loved his job with the city, but on the other hand, I’m not sure he ever asked himself major questions like, ‘Do I like my job?… ‘ He had a family to support, this was his job, he got up every day and did it, end of story, everything else is just self-indulgent nonsense. That may actually have been the lifetime sum-total of his thinking on the matter. He essentially said ‘Whatever’ to his lot in life, but obviously in a very different way from the way in which the directionless wastoids of my generation said ‘Whatever’.
For those familiar with the novel, The Howling Fantods reports it’s ” arguably one of the most polished sections of The Pale King… the Chris Fogel chapter.” That name isn’t given in the first-person excerpt, so I’ll take it on faith. The Howling Fantods wouldn’t steer us wrong.
We follow Fogel, a self-admitted “wastoid,” from his unfocused adolescence and scattershot college education to the moment he finds his calling in tax accountancy. If that sounds strange, that’s the magic of the story – it’s completely believable. You can almost see the light glowing, the angels’ voices singing, when he realizes, having stumbled into the wrong classroom to fake his way through another exam in a subject he doesn’t care about, he unexpectedly encounters wisdom he can assimilate via a literal and metaphorical substitute father. Literally, a Jesuit father, substituting as the teacher of the final Advanced Tax class in which Fogel has no business (he’s in the right room in the wrong building).
The substitute continued, ‘To experience commitment as the loss of options, a type of death, the death of childhood’s limitless possibility, of the flattery of choice without duress – this will happen, mark me. Childhood’s end. The first of many deaths. Hesitation is natural. Doubt is natural…. I wish to inform you that the accounting profession to which you aspire is, in fact, heroic. Please note that I have said “inform” and not “opine” or “allege” or “posit”. The truth is that what you soon go home to your carols and toddies and books and CPA examination and preparation guides to stand on the cusp of is – heroism.… Enduring tedium over real-time in a confined space is what real courage is.… Welcome to the world of reality – there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth – actual heroism received no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.’
This would not be anywhere near as dramatic, of course, had we not earlier learned the circumstances of his actual father’s death by subway. I already knew from having read the earlier (and unrelated) “Incarnations of Burned Children” how devastatingly Wallace can write a horrific scene in a relatively objective style, so that I don’t realize until it’s over that I was holding my breath. It’s quite amazing. Horrific, but amazing. Literally, the train wreck you can’t help but watch. And then, there’s the aftermath, which is even worse.
The manufacturer’s specification for the doors’ pneumatic systems did not adequately explain how the doors could close with such force that a healthy adult male could not withdraw his arm, which meant that the manufacturer’s claim that my father – perhaps out of panic, or because of injury to his arm – failed to take reasonable action to extricate his arm was difficult to refute.
Following his inspiration in the wrong class, Fogel pulls out all the stops to enter an IRS training program, the first obstacle being a binder full of “low-toner Xerox” instructions, regulations, and requirements due in twenty-four hours, the second being a snowstorm. It almost makes you sympathetic towards the IRS.
As a story, it can seem meandering, but much of the meandering is engaging in itself – the foot sign, the Christian roommate, the Obetrol experience. Oh, and the feminist bookstore Fogel’s mom and friend set up. If that sounds like something out of “Portlandia,” well, yeah. I found the second read much more cohesive than the first, since I had a sense of where things were going, and how what seemed like digressions would fit into the whole.
‘Gentlemen, you are called to account.’
As always, net proceeds from Madras Press editions go to a non-profit selected by the author (or in this case, his estate). Granada House, where Wallace spent time in recovery (fictionalized in Infinite Jest), is the beneficiary of this volume.