The David Foster Wallace Tax

DFW’s (reissued) final novella considers the IRS

The novella Something To Do With Paying Attention is for David Foster Wallace completists, but then, you can say that about a lot of what he wrote. People tend to find reading his work to be stimulating or a punishment. Or maybe a stimulating punishment.

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I know plenty of intelligent readers who just can’t get into Wallace. The critic Kyle Smith, in a review of the 2015 movie The End of the Tour, said that he found Wallace’s writing to be “baggy, pretentious, and borderline sociopathic in its lack of interest in the reader.” That description jibes with many people’s feeling that when Wallace sat down to write, he engaged in a kind of mental and verbal diarrhea, and he sent the end product out there into the world not caring a bit whether those who spent money on his verbosity enjoyed or appreciated or could even begin to make sense of the work on any level.

While Wallace’s fiction and essays may be reader-unfriendly and not always fun to read in a conventional way, some of us appreciate the iconoclasm and intellectual energy of a writer who doesn’t talk down to readers and is so difficult to classify. You would expect no less from an author with interests as diverse as tennis, mathematical logic, Boolean algebra, the question of free will, television, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, David Lynch, Quebec separatism, and the postmodernist literary universe of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.

Something To Do With Paying Attention
‘Something To Do With Paying Attention’ by David Foster Wallace.

Wallace may always have his haters, but astute readers will find that Wallace’s work is not so opaque for those who have a bit of patience, and Something To Do With Paying Attention is a case in point. This 152-page novella is technically a reissue of a portion of the unfinished novel The Pale King that Wallace reportedly had considered having published on its own.

The narrator of this short work takes courses in tax law with a view to enlisting in “the Service,” or what most of us know as the IRS. It’s not an obvious place for a bright young man to seek to gain entry. Indeed it is hard to think of the IRS as anything other than a place that actively discourages and does its best to stifle creativity.

But the narrator, who is bright and self-analytical to a fault, thinks of himself as a “wastoid,” a term for slacker or goof-off, and has a relationship with his dad as complicated as that which emerges in Kafka’s short story “The Judgment” and in that writer’s letter to his own father. The IRS might be the path to a decent or at least conventionally respectable career.

The narrator describes in detail all the layers of red tape that applicants must push through and the reams of forms they must fill out in the process of applying. The latter include questionnaires that largely or entirely overlap, leaving the narrator at a loss to grasp why it is necessary to sign all of them instead of getting the task done with a quick stroke of his pen. A questionnaire hidden all the way at the end of the pile of forms, poses, in the narrator’s eyes, a trap for those in too much hurry or without the preternatural patience and attention to detail that a career in the IRS demands.

Though it may be a hierarchy of the detail-oriented, pretty much anyone can at least apply for a job at the IRS. Wallace provides a wry account of homeless people coming to a facility in Chicago to eat the cookies and drink the coffee, and a vision of one of those homeless lying in a cardboard box somewhere in the frigid city, setting one page of the voluminous application on fire after another.

Humor aside, Wallace painstakingly details the descriptions of the inner workings of the IRS and the calculations that guide its myriad processes of review and enforcement action. The bureaucracy is, to use a grossly overused term, Kafkaesque. It’s the domain of forces too absorbed in their own necessity to deign to make concessions to anyone. Wallace conveys his bafflement at the irony that the Service will escalate a case to an enforcement action even though the evader or cheater who ends up in jail has little prospect, so long as they lock him up, of ever having the income to make things right. Good luck pursuing an appeal through the nebulous bureaucracy of the Service.

But the larger irony of this novella lies in its contrasting of the obsessive, fanatical concern for order and deference on the part of citizens, and for tracking and levying taxes on everything they do down to the tiniest and most insignificant income-generating activity, with the disorder of a cosmos where the most horrific things happen without warning or cause. The middle part of the book (spoiler alert!) describes at length a ghastly incident in which the narrator’s father, acting on a primal urge to enter a train before the doors slide shut, runs up the platform and gets his arm stuck between the doors. He cannot remove it as the train begins to move and picks up speed.

The father loses his life in pretty much the most unexpected, unnecessary, idiotic way you can imagine. Needless to say, this arbitrary development has consequences for the narrator’s family and its filing status. Consider the book’s title for a moment. The most sprawling, hermetic, self-important bureaucracy on the planet can never resolve the contradictions at the root of its existence, the relentless and mundane application of sedulous attention and scrutiny to the activities and status of people in a world where chance and luck impinge and the heads of households die because they stick their arm out at the wrong time.

With its interest in the oxymoronic nature of systems made up of and devoted to the inhabitants of an arbitrary universe, Something To Do With Paying Attention calls to mind Sartre’s play Les Mains Sales. In that play, the members of the communist party in the nation of Illyria (Yugoslavia by another name) grow so enmeshed in webs of personal animosity that they lie, manipulate, and murder one another. The irony is that believers in a supposedly scientific theory purporting to explain historical developments according to a set of rigid historical laws and principles act on motives such as rage, jealousy, spite, insecurity, status anxiety, unrequited love, and the wish to best others by fair or foul means.

Their motives, in other words, have no place at all in a rational scheme of things. The plot moves along when someone in a given situation acts totally differently from how someone else’s subjective judgment would lead him or her to act, and so much is up to chance and luck, not historical law. How does Hugo Barine come to shoot the party secretary, Hoederer, and alter the course of history? Put simply, he happened to walk in on him in the arms of his girlfriend.

Something To Do With Paying Attention may not win over people who were never enthusiastic about Wallace’s work, but it memorably illuminates the existentialist roots of the postmodernist literary project.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

One thought on “The David Foster Wallace Tax

  • April 19, 2022 at 10:16 am

    A brilliant analysis of a somewhat obscure work of David Foster Wallace.


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