David Foster Wallace: “The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax” (Madras Press, 2013)

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.

Previously Published Excerpts from The Pale King

I’ve finally read the several excerpts of The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s uncompleted and posthumously published novel, that have been published over the past several years and are available online. I’ve had them bookmarked for weeks but I’m so intimidated by all things DFW I’ve just avoided them. I shouldn’t have: they’re quite wonderful. The book is available now from the you-know-whos, though your Local Fiercely Independent and Struggling and In Need of Support Bookseller may not have it available until the official release date of April 15.

“Backbone” was published just this past March in The New Yorker and I discussed it here then, so I’ll skip over that quickly, only noting it was about a boy who wanted to kiss himself all over. His name was never given. The reading of “Three Fragments from a Longer Thing” includes “Backbone” as fragments one and three. The second fragment concerns one Leonard Stesek, a boy so caring and generous he is universally hated by his peers, a boy who sends out 316 invitations to his birthday party and has nine attendees, “not counting parents and LPNs of the incapacitated.”

“All That” published in The New Yorker 12/14/2009:

“This is why it is that adults and even parents can, unwittingly, be cruel: they cannot imagine doubt’s complete absence….This was the year, at five or six, that I learned the meaning of ‘reverence,’ which, as I understand it, is the natural attitude to take toward magical, unverifiable phenomena, the same way that ‘respect’ and ‘obedience’ describe the attitude one takes toward observable physical phenomena, such as gravity or money.”

This refers to the magic the boy’s parents assured him was in his toy cement mixer: it would rotate only when he wasn’t looking. But it goes a lot deeper than that, doesn’t it? Maybe that’s what growing up means: it’s when you start to evaluate what your parents say, looking for truth. He devises many ways to catch the drum rotating, but none of them work. The magic was not the rotation, but that it knew it was being observed.

He describes Talk Time – a very organized fifteen minutes at bedtime, no stories or singing, just talking, three nights with Dad and four with Mom. Dad’s an academic, not tenured yet, they live in a rented house. Dad tells of trying to outsmart the tooth fairy or find the easter bunny. Dad’s an atheist. The boy admits he would’ve been disappointed to find the drum rotated; he would cry at talk time, but not because he couldn’t see the drum rotate; because he couldn’t ask the right questions. His parents felt bad, but so did he: he was in a different world. Thus he became interested in religion, to the point where he eventually went to seminary.

He heard voices until age 13. He never thought he was ill, because they always said good things. One voice argued that it didn’t matter if he thought the voices were real or were parts of himself. He didn’t care much. They were like parents, revered and trusted, not-equal, but also children, so they understood the world he lived in. He describes ecstasy (of a juicy apple or a summer day) as so intense it is almost painful.

His religious impulse was further intensified by multiple watching (with his head upon his father’s knees) a 1950’s WWI movie where a lieutenant ponders justification of war and killing and finally throws himself on a grenade in the enemy trench and thus dies, leaving the soldiers under his command to debate whether he was a hero or a traitor.

As I understand it from reading The Howling Fantods, a nearly encyclopedic site dedicated to all things DFW, this excerpt is not in The Pale King.

“Wiggle Room” published in The New Yorker 03/09/09.

This contains my first encounter with anything IRS related (I read these completely out of published order). What throws me here is the lingo. Chalks. Wigglers. Tinglers. Rotes. To wit: “…sat at his Tingle table in his chalk’s row in the rotes group’s wiggle room…” I’m not sure if these are people, places, things, actions, concepts. But they somehow fit into the stunningly boring job of verifying tax returns. As do exercises (clench the buttocks, think of a beach for ten seconds). By the end of the first page, I’m bored. Seriously bored. I can sympathize with Lane Dean Jr., who smells his pinky, covered by a rubber (yes, I know about those) and looks at a picture of his son. But since there are only three pages, I keep going. I pick up some clarity as I go. Wigglers are people. The tax employees. I suppose they’re called wigglers because they wiggle out of boredom. Or from buttock-clenching. And another person (sort of) appears, a strange person with some kind of eye problem. One eye is dilated. Did he say that out loud? Pause to consider etymology of… I’m not sure at first: Dilate? Bore? Hallucination? No, here it is, Bore. And then the hallucination is gone, and the story is over.

Good People published in The New Yorker 02/05/07

Lane Dean Jr., 19, before he went to work in the Wiggle Room, sits beside girlfriend Sherri, 20, and debates with himself over her impending abortion. They are students in junior college, he in Accounting and Business, she in Nursing. Lane’s grandfather was an insurance man. They are both religious, though he is beginning to have doubts. He is at war with himself. She has an appointment to have the abortion, and he is not sure it’s the right thing, but he isn’t sure he has the courage to tell her he isn’t sure.

The Compliance Branch published in Harpers, 02/08:

“There are some small children you can tell are going to grow up to be frightening adults; this infant was frightening now.”

The first person narrator is in the Audit Group; his manager, Gary Yeagle, has an infant son whom he brings to work sometimes. The narrator has an audit appeal, which requires he trade places temporarily with Mr. Yeager, and thus is in Mr. Yeagle’s office with the baby. He is startled to hear the baby clear his throat, twice, and then to demand, “Well?” At that point he realizes he is subordinate to this infant who is not yet walking.

Irrelevant Bob from The New Yorker, March 9 2009.

Online only, slides of 2 pages of a typed manuscript with notes, plus art by wife Karen Green. I found the text very difficult to read visually, but it seems to concern a man whose memory is malfunctioning, trapping him in the present – though he seems to recall quite a bit of his life in the 70’s in Chicago, including dropping out of college several times and his mother being supportive while his father was disappointed.

So those are the bits and pieces I’ve discovered so far. Perhaps they will diminish the intimidation factor to the point where I’ll be able to approach the book; however, knowing I’ve read, what, maybe 12 pages of a 600 page book isn’t going to do me much good. But they’ve all been good excerpts (ok, “Wiggle Room” wasn’t my cup of tea, and I’ve been given to understand from the PW review that there are stretches of boredom and tedium in this novel about, um, dealing with boredom and tedium); now that I have a running start, maybe I’ll give it a shot.

David Foster Wallace: “Backbone” from The New Yorker, 03/07/11

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

I have a very brief and very strange history with David Foster Wallace. No, I never met him, it’s not that. But I checked Infinite Jest out of the library on the recommendation of a friend (a story in itself, but I’m not going there) and when I was on Page 6, news of his suicide broke. I didn’t read any further; I just couldn’t, though I always figured I’d pick it up again sometime. But time passed and that didn’t happen. A couple of years later, I was sitting on the bench outside the supermarket with my organic herb salad and my multigrain bread and my Betty Crocker Milk Chocolate Frosting-in-a-Can (because a foolish consistency and all that) reading New Sudden Fiction and happened upon “Incarnations of Burned Children” which had me sobbing, other bus patrons asking if I needed help, and I just shook my head and tried to think about baseball. I’ve been afraid of him, and in awe of him, ever since.

So this week’s New Yorker story, “Backbone,” had me nervous. I read it anyway. It’s another excerpt from the forthcoming “The Pale King” and is available online. And in fact you can hear David Foster Wallace read it as two fragments, separated by the fragment about Leonard’s 11th Birthday Blowout Bash which I swear I’ve read somewhere but can’t remember where, at the Lannan Foundation website. Along with… “Incarnations of Burned Children.” This recording was astonishing to me for several reasons. First, he sounds so normal. I always thought of him as a raving madman, a sort of literary Charlie Sheen, or maybe more accurately Mozart from Amadeus on a bad day. But he sounds exactly like any articulate, young writer might sound. This just made me feel sadder, somehow. I was also surprised as the audience chuckled and laughed as he read the “Backbone” fragments (it plays from minute 1 to 13, then again after Leonard’s birthday from minute 24 to 30; the short story, which he prefaces with warnings about how disturbing it is, takes up the last six minutes). I thought of “Backbone” as strange and, of course there’s a humorous element, but it isn’t something I’d laugh at, it’s more of a sad humor.

The plot is stated in the opening paragraph: Boy wants to be able to press his lips to every part of his body. Why? Shrug. Maybe something about being totally accessible to himself. He injures himself during an early attempt to reach his lateral malleolus, and gets some helpful information from the friendly neighborhood chiropractor. His father is absorbed in his own affairs – literally, since he has an aversion to breaking off an affair once started, but grows bored rather quickly, so he amasses many paramours.

Mother is never directly mentioned; I am not sure if she exists or not, if she died, left, or is just there and is completely ignored. Father married at age 20 and became stifled by fidelity, and thus began his affairs. But whether Mother puts up with this, doesn’t know about it (perhaps she has her contortionist abilities as well, and has her head firmly up her ass), or has died or left, we do not know. “The family home” is referred to, as well as the father’s frequent absences (he sells motivational tapes, how interesting, since his son is highly motivated) but there’s no reference to anyone caring for the boy in his absence. How interesting.

And, what is most interesting to me, none of these people have names. Only the chiropractor has a name. The boy and his father do not. I find that interesting. There’s a lot of historical and arcane medical information sandwiched in, about pain, about contortionism, about stigmata; being a medical junkie, I appreciate that. But mostly it’s the story of this kid’s efforts to increase the reach of his lips (to 10.4 cm, which is quite a pucker – measure it!) and the flexibility of his spine and joints, so that he can accomplish this task. We travel with him until puberty at which time the excerpt ends, and we just assume there is a reason for all this – and wonder, what does he look like, how does he function physically (and emotionally and socially) as an adult? His father just figured he was very limber and took spinal hygiene seriously, the result of his early injury – how does Dad feel later on? And of course, the primary question – does the boy finally kiss his eyelids, his forehead, the top of his head? If so, how? And if not, what does that do to him?

But I guess we’ll just have to buy the book to find out. Good thing it’s coming out next month. I wonder where he’ll take me next.

Favorite Stories – “Blue”, “The Puppies”, “Incarnations of Burned Children”

“Blue” – David Brooks (Australia), from The Book of Sei. I found it in Sudden Fiction International, 1989, Robert Shapard and James Thomas, ed. I found it while sitting on the bench outside the supermarket, waiting for the bus to take me (and my Cheerios and clementines and Milky Way bars) home, and was quite embarrassed at the flood of tears it released – kind of fitting, given the subject. It’s short, a little over 1000 words. I want to read it for the next Writing Group with Sally, but I’ve tried reading it out loud several times over the past month and I get to “how terribly, terribly thirsty we had been”  just a couple of sentences from the end, and the waterworks start. It’s glorious. This reminds me I want to look for his book – he is a poet, and this was one of his first fiction pieces. He runs an academic journal now I think, I looked for him a while back.

“The Puppies” by Dean Paschal, from By the Light of the Jukebox. I found it in New Sudden Fiction, 2007, Robert Shapard and James Thomas, ed.  and again, I found it while waiting for the bus outside the grocery store.  I’ve got to stop reading these books there. They’re convenient because the stories are short, easily finished or restarted if the bus should come. But this public sobbing has got to stop. I keep hearing, “We’re gonna be dogs!” in a very particular tone of voice and it’s so adorable and then gets so sad.  There’s a little prequel about his mom and the litter of puppies that, ahem, gave birth to this story. I think it’s more powerful to read that as an afterword or as a supplement.

“Incarnations of Burned Children” by David Foster Wallace, from Oblivion: Stories. I found it in New Sudden Fiction, 2007, Robert Shapard and James Thomas, ed. Thanks to whatever Force kept me from reading this at the supermarket bus stop. This is very possibly the most horrific story I’ve ever read. And very possibly the best. It’s stayed with me for weeks now. I’m trying to figure out why, how he did this, but it’s so hard to read again – no, I don’t want to, I have to, I must, no, please, maybe it will have changed…- it almost feels like sacrelige to study it, like dissecting the Bible, should any originals ever be found. It moves from character to character – mother, father, child – and each has a unique take on what’s going on, and his/her own special horror to disclose. How something so dreadful could be so beautiful confuses me. I haven’t read anything by him since his suicide, and as I read this, I thought, gee, no wonder, he really had no choice with stuff like this in his head, I mean, this is stuff no one could live with. But of course that’s simplistic and glib, I know very well how capital-D depression works, it has nothing to do with what you’re writing. But he did have access to some amazing material. Think: what is the worst thing that could possibly happen to a person? To hurt his child by accident. What is the worst possible hurt? Fire, scalding, burns. Where is the worst possible place to be hurt? Yeah. Add in a moment of “ahh, it’s all over” halfway through, then a moment of  “is this going to be magical realism?” a moment later, and absolute cold horror in the next couple of sentences, and then it’s just waiting to see what happens at the same time the kid learns to dissociate. Pretty remarkable. I wonder how long it took him to write this, what he went through to get it on paper.