Academic journal article Michigan Law Review

The Great American Tax Novel

Academic journal article Michigan Law Review

The Great American Tax Novel

Article excerpt

THE GREAT AMERICAN TAX NOVEL The Pale King. By David Foster Wallace. Edited by Michael Pietsch. New York, Boston, and London: Little, Brown and Company. 2011. Pp. x, 548. $27.99.


David Foster Wallace-author of the celebrated novel Infinite Jest1 and among the most acclaimed American fiction writers of his generation- killed himself in 2008 at the age of forty-six.2 He leftin his office hundreds of pages of The Pale King, an unfinished novel set in the fictional Peoria, Illinois regional examination center ("REC") of the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS" or "the Service") in 1985.3 Although many chapters of the novel were seemingly complete, Wallace leftno indication (other than what could be gleaned from the chapters themselves) of the order of the chapters (pp. vi-vii). Michael Pietsch, who had served as the editor of Infinite Jest, assembled the chapters into a surprisingly coherent-although more or less plotless-novel, and the book was published to considerable critical acclaim in early 2011.4

As assembled by Pietsch, The Pale King focuses on a dozen or so income tax examiners-including a fictional David Foster Wallace-working at the Peoria REC. The examiner's job is to decide whether income tax returns (selected for the examiner's consideration by computers) should be referred for audit (Chapter Twenty-Seven). The novel describes how the featured employees came to work for "the Service," as it is generally referred to by its employees (p. 244), and how they deal with the boredom of their jobs, as well as their attitudes toward the Service and toward the tax system itself. Although some of the chapters can stand on their own as selfcontained stories, the book as a whole has no real plot. Some of Wallace's notes, included by Pietsch as "Notes and Asides" at the end of the book, suggest Wallace had plans for an overarching plot, based on a power struggle between IRS traditionalists favoring the continued use of human examiners and reformers wanting to replace human examiners with computers,5 but only a few hints of this conflict appear in the published novel. It is possible that even a completed version of The Pale King would have been essentially plotless. As Pietsch points out in his "Editor's Note," one of Wallace's notes describes the book as "a series of setups for things to happen but nothing ever happens."6

If the unfinished novel lacks a plot, it certainly does not lack themes. Three of the major themes, all of which are themes not commonly explored in fiction (to put it mildly), are the philosophies of tax administration, taxpaying as a civic responsibility, and boredom in the workplace. Cultural commentary on the income tax is, of course, nothing new. There have been, for example, close to 100 tax-related radio and television sitcom episodes from the 1940s to the present,7 and about twice that many tax-related New Yorker cartoons from 1925 to the present.8 To the best of my knowledge, however, the income tax has never received anything comparable to the sustained attention from a major artist that it has now received in The Pale King.9 To anyone interested in the cultural significance of the federal income tax, the book's publication is a unique and remarkable event.

Like the tax-related sitcoms and cartoons, The Pale King owes its existence to the character of the federal income tax as a return-based mass tax. Because the vast majority of adult Americans are required to file a federal income tax return each year, the income tax captures the public's attention- for better or worse-to an extent unmatched by any other tax. For most households, the burden of the federal payroll tax is greater than the burden of the federal income tax.10 Nevertheless, in popular culture the income tax is very much the tax because of the taxpayer involvement mandated by the return-filing requirement. It is no accident that Wallace set his novel in a facility for the administration of the income tax, rather than in a facility focused on the payroll tax. …

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