‘We’re the Government, Its Worst Face,’ David Foster Wallace on the IRS

In his unfinished novel, 'The Pale King,' David Foster Wallace describes the humdrum lives of several IRS examiners, while simultaneously showcasing the absurdity of bureaucracy

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Gary Hannabarger / Corbis

David Foster Wallace photographed in his hometown of Bloomington, Ill.

Were David Foster Wallace alive today, it’s a good bet that he would have had both great interest and insight into this week’s scandal at the IRS. Before Wallace’s 2008 suicide, the author spent nearly a decade working on his ultimately unfinished novel The Pale King, a mammoth, disjointed work describing the lives of several IRS examiners at the Peoria, Ill., regional examination center during the 1980s.

Wallace researched the novel exhaustively, going as far as to take advanced accounting courses to inform his writing. But it’s obvious Wallace spent a lot of time researching the history of the IRS, as well, as he included fictionalized versions of several scandals — like a 1985 incident in Philadelphia, in which examiners were caught destroying unprocessed tax returns — into his narrative.

(MORE: The IRS Was Wrong — but Many Political Groups Should Not Be Tax-Exempt)

The reasons Wallace chose the IRS as his subject are manifold. One of the main themes of the book is boredom, and what better way to address the topic of boredom than by writing about a bunch of accountants? But The Pale King is also a novel about civics, and the responsibility ordinary citizens have to one another and their government. Wallace believed modern culture had conditioned us to act selfishly and relinquish the responsibility we have toward our fellow man to the government. In one passage, an IRS worker expounds on this idea:

We’re the government, its worst face — the rapacious creditor, the stern parent … They hate the government — we’re the most convenient incarnation of what they hate. There’s something very curious though, about the hatred. The government is the people, leaving aside various complications, but we slit it off and pretend it’s not us; we pretend it’s some threatening Other bent on taking our freedoms, taking our money and redistributing it … with the curious thing being that we hate it for appearing to usurp the very civic functions we’ve ceded to it.

This paradox — that government is simultaneously something of our collective creation and a force in and of itself capable of oppression — should be familiar to us all. In a way, it’s this contradiction that drives our perceptions of this most recent scandal, in which the IRS was caught discriminating against conservative organizations applying for tax-exempt status. Conservatives are more likely to see only the side of government that seems a rapacious creditor, and therefore want to radically limit its scope. Liberals, on the other hand, lay blame at the feet of those who seek to underfund government — which has the potential to be a representation of our collective will. If the IRS simply had the manpower to properly do its job, they say, the shortcuts that led to this scandal never would have happened.

(MORE: The IRS Mess — and the GOP’s Campaign to Paralyze Washington)

Wallace goes on to emphasize how this conflict between individualism and the collective lies at the heart of the democratic experiment itself. The IRS worker continues:

It was 1840 or ’41 that de Tocqueville published his book about Americans, and he says somewhere that one thing about democracies and their individualism is that they by their very nature corrode the citizen’s sense of true community … of having real true fellow citizens whose interests and concerns were the same as his. This is a kind of ghastly irony, if you think about it, since a form of government engineered to produce equality makes its citizens so individualistic and self-absorbed they end up as solipsists, navel-gazers.

Solipsism — throughout all of Wallace’s fiction — is the great danger of modern life. Our economy thrives on marketing that puffs us up and regales us with stories of our importance — indeed our centrality to everything. Buy this, and you’ll set yourself apart, you’ll achieve the singularity that has always been owed you. At the same time, an advanced technological society like our own requires organization and cooperation on a vast scale. To retain our illusion of individualism we create bureaucracies that work behind the scenes to organize the labor required to maintain modern civilization. We’re rugged individualists, trying to escape oppressive corporate forces and the government. Then we go to work each day to make sure these institutions continue to thrive.

(MORE: The Real IRS Scandal)

One of the most powerful sections in The Pale King describes the coming-of-age of IRS examiner Chris Fogle. As a youth, Fogle is a prodigal son, who spends his father’s money on drugs and a series of unsuccessful university stints. But his life is changed when he encounters a mysterious accounting professor who delivers a speech describing how accountants are actually the true heroes of our time:

‘Gentlemen, here is a truth: Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism … By which,’ he said, ‘I mean true heroism, not heroism as you might know it from films or the tales of childhood. You are now nearly at childhood’s end; you are ready for the truth’s weight, to bear it. The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. Gentlemen, 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 receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested … True heroism is you, alone, in a designated workspace. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world. Just you and the job, at your desk. You and the return, you and the cash-flow data, you and the inventory protocol, you and the depreciation schedules, you and the numbers.’

In The Pale King, Wallace exalted the accountants that make the IRS tick while simultaneously showing the inherent absurdity of bureaucracy. Unlike the postmodern authors of the ’60s and ’70s, for whom bureaucracy was perhaps the greatest evil, Wallace offers redemption for those who seek meaning in the tedious drudgery of modern life. And we see, through television shows like the just-concluded The Office, that there is a place now in our culture for this project. Since the vast majority of us are somehow involved in bureaucratic ventures, we must either find some significance within these institutions (while still laughing at their farcical aspects), or write off huge swaths of our lives as meaningless.

Wallace has always dwelled on these contradictions and double binds that make life so complex. As recent events have proven, making a bureaucracy function fairly and efficiently is a daunting task. But that, Wallace would argue, is what civic responsibility is about. No amount of tax cuts and government downsizing is going to change the fact that government — in some shape or form — is necessary. How you do the tedious job of making it work is the hard part.

MORE: The Taxman Cometh: New IRS Scandal Echoes a Long History of Political Harassment