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The soul of bureaucracy

J Jagannath  |  Mumbai 

It wasn’t just sad when 46-year-old hanged himself on the porch of his house in Claremont, California, in fall 2008. It was a blow. Here was a man who rebuilt the skyline of American literary fiction in 1996 with his 1,079-page doorstopper His journalism for various publications is equally breathtaking. is his posthumous work that has been assiduously brought together by Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown and Company and Mr Wallace’s longtime editor.

The book is essentially about agents at an IRS Regional Examination Centre in the leafy town of Peoria (Illinois) during the Reagan era. Like every slow-moving bureaucracy, here too paperwork comes to die and, over a period of time, so do the souls of humans working here. Abiding by the dictum of “if you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish”, the agents pore over the tax code’s minutiae day in and day out.

While the book talks about people in fragments, the plot tends to be unclear, though Mr Wallace’s widow Karen Green said his notebook mentioned that “an evil group within the IRS is trying to steal the secrets of an agent who is particularly gifted at maintaining a heightened state of concentration”. Lane Dean Jr, Claude Sylvanshine, David Cusk, Chris Fogle and Leonard Stecyk form the book’s dramatis personae apart from (not to be confused with the writer, as he reminds us over and over), a newly arrived trainee at IRS. Although each character sketch would qualify as a gripping novella, all of them cohere to make a page-turner. Apparently, Mr Wallace spent a year taking accounting classes to prepare himself for the book, hence the onslaught of Illinois tax code’s snippets. During the course of reading the book, I had to take two hot showers to come to terms with Mr Wallace’s fascination with trivia. Here’s what a reader has to grasp quickly: “Revenue Procedure 74-17 announces certain operating rules of the Service relating to the issuance of advance ruling letters concerning the classification of organisations formed as limited partnerships.”

Mr Wallace started writing the book around the same time he gave that perceptive commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005 where he said, “Life is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.” It’s this depression, ennui, ambivalence, whatever, that seems to have driven Mr Wallace to suicide. These are the same themes that recur in too. You have a pretty woman providing the details of her brief stay at a mental asylum to a relatively unknown colleague, a couple of agents talking about their mirthless weekend as if the Super Bowl happened in their backyard, another agent reminiscing about his dead father in the drab tone of a sports commentator and yet another who subconsciously counts the number of words that he is speaking. There’s also an elaborate description of the architecture of the run-of-the-mill IRS buildings.

Unlike and his journalism, Mr Wallace’s trademark footnotes don’t run a riot in The Pale King. But that’s hardly a quibble considering his prose, which is not for the faint-hearted, is intact. Here’s a sample of the rather graphic story of a kid who wants to “be able to press his lips to every square inch of his body”, which you might either find beguiling or enough to provoke a four-aspirin headache: “The insides of the small boy’s thighs up to the medial fork of his groin took months even to prepare for, daily hours spent cross-legged and bowed, slowly and incrementally stretching the long vertical fasciae of his back and neck, the spinalis thoracis and levator scapulae, the iliocostalis lumborum all the way to the sacrum, and the interior thigh’s dense and intransigent gracilis, pectineus, and adductor longus, which fuse below Scarpa’s triangle and transmit sickening pain through the pubis whenever their range of flexibility is exceeded.”

While reading The Pale King there were quite a few moments when I imagined how Mr Wallace could have expanded his literary tentacles if he were alive today. My reference point is where he was too busy trying to be avant-garde, post-structural and, as he told to Jonathan Franzen, “linguistically calisthenic”. While all these elements are alive and kicking in The Pale King, Mr Wallace appears more at peace with himself. In Infinite Jest, Mr Wallace was obsessed with savaging the corporate culture of America (so much so that he christened every year belonging to a certain product) but in The Pale King his X-ray focus is on baby boomers, who are fit for recruitment into the IRS after the Vietnam War.

According to Aristotle, we are what we do. According to Mr Wallace, we are what we endure. At time, however, Mr Wallace’s ontological despair tends to get wearisome. For example, chapter 25 is all about various agents turning pages in their respective files. But this is hardly a Faustian pact compared to the enchanting storytelling of which Wallace is capable.

David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown and Company
944 pages; Rs 1,120

First Published: Fri, May 13 2011. 00:58 IST