For one of Wallace’s characters in The Pale King, “If you know the position a person takes on taxes, you can determine [his] whole philosophy.” Released on April 15 (fitting for a book about IRS employees), Wallace’s last novel is a book about concentration, and the people and situations that threaten to disrupt it. Set in the 1980s, before computers were widely used by businesses, the employees (“wigglers”) of the Peoria IRS Regional Examination Center located on Self-Storage Parkway sit at Tingle tables (named after the IRS employee who invented them in 1961 for sorting the piles of tax returns) evaluating tax returns for audit potential.
The chapters’ focus alternates between work at the REC and the employees’ personal lives, including how they came to work at the IRS. As a boy, Leonard Stecyk is an insufferable do-gooder whose proposal to reorganize the coat and boot storage system in his homeroom class drives his teacher to go on medical leave. Another unnamed boy makes it a goal to press his lips to every square inch of his body. His self-devised training regimen results in regular visits to the chiropractor and warps the muscles around his mouth so that he looks as though he’s constantly smiling. Disfiguring acne, excessive sweating, and an unplanned pregnancy also make an appearance.
However, for some characters, adult life holds worse fates. Wallace is a master of detail, and the book is filled with his uncanny ability to name all the numbers, codes, routines, and tiny absurdities that, when compounded over months and years, grind us down. Employees have nicknames like “Second Knuckle” Bob McKenzie or Chahla “The Iranian Crisis” Neti-Neti. Frederick Blumquist has a heart attack at his desk on a Tuesday, and no one notices until the office cleaner comes in on Saturday; Blumquist’s ghost haunts the building. The audit group manager, Gary Manshardt, brings his infant son to work; the baby is described by a rattled subordinate as having “roughly as much face as a whale does.” The “wrist-bitingly attractive” Meredith Rand has married the former ward attendant at the psychiatric hospital where she was sent at seventeen to receive treatment for being a cutter. Although Claude Sylvanshine is a fact psychic and can learn details about a person’s life just by looking at him or her, he is undone by his anxieties as he travels to take the CPA exam. There is a character named David Foster Wallace, who is mistaken for a higher-ranking David Wallace due to a computer glitch and given special treatment during his orientation. At the annual picnic, someone slips something into the iced tea dispenser and chaos ensues.
The Pale King is a messy, wide-ranging book, full of big ideas and unresolved threads. It’s mentioned in a note that “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle knows a string of numbers which, when uttered, allow him to experience total concentration, but we never see this knowledge in action. Shane “Mr. X” Drinion can levitate a few inches when he’s in a state of intense concentration. There are large-scale changes being proposed to the tax code that threaten to alter the direction of the agency.
While we can only speculate about what The Pale King could have been, the book generously offers moments of grace that cut through the tedium of living. The moments of transcendence in The Pale King surprise you when your guard is up, like in the middle of a section consisting of descriptions of different REC employees each turning a page: “Every love story is a ghost story.” I read this on the subway and immediately looked up, then was self-conscious, wondering whether anyone had noticed. Wallace had pulled me out of his world and back into my own. The last word of the book is you. After being allowed into these lives created by Wallace, the ending feels like a gift, like being delivered back to yourself, only better.