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Trickle-down citizenship: taxes and civic responsibility in David Foster Wallace's The Pale King.

The Pale King is conspicuous in David Foster Wallace's oeuvre in being the only one of his three novels not set in the future. Whereas he set The Broom of the System in a cartoonish 1990s America almost indistinguishable from the mid-eighties world of the novel's creation, and Infinite Jest in a post-millennial America imagined from the vantage point of the actual early nineties, both novels take place in a fully replete alternative reality that seems to have branched off from the reader's world and pursued its own quirky, though plausible, path. This playfully proleptic strategy frees Wallace to exaggerate and alter the details and contours of our workaday world for the purposes of comic and thematic emphasis. As a result, both novels achieve an almost ahistorical and, at times, even spectral quality that, whether intended by Wallace or not, sometimes obscures the historical contingency of their signature themes. Conversely, The Pale King takes place in a carefully reconstructed historical past, with May 1985 through June 1986 carved out as of primary interest, as this marks the thirteen months during which one David Wallace allegedly worked for the Internal Revenue Service as a lowly G-9 in the Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois. In very deliberate ways, Wallace portrays the IRS as this novel's alternative reality. In a paragraph-long section early in the novel, the third-person narrator describes the IRS as a "parallel world, both connected to and independent of this one, operating under its own physics and imperatives of cause" (Pale King 86).

This dramatic shift in approach feeds directly into what I wish to submit is one of The Pale King's more striking agendas. More so than any of his other major works, The Pale King wrestles directly with matters of real world politics and--here we have one of the novel's key words--civics, while the philosophical and ethical issues it engages are grounded firmly in a series of concrete historical particulars that Wallace rightly identifies as key to understanding what Salon journalist Steve Kornacki, in an internet postmortem posted on the colossally stupid "debt ceiling debate" of summer 2011, identified as "the hopeless politics" of our current political era. The Pale King zeroes in specifically and relentlessly on the Reagan tax cuts of 1981 and the subsequent ascendancy in American political discourse of so-called "supply side economics" as a pivotal and damning moment in postwar American civics history, and it builds its elaborate inquiry into taxes, bureaucratic heroism, and civic responsibility atop this decisive event that, in the words of Dewitt Glendenning, might very well "bring us down as a country" and signal the "end of the democratic experiment" (Pale King 132). These concerns all converge with dramatic force in IRS agent Chris Fogle's lengthy account of his surprise conversion from 1970s "wastoid" to devoted IRS "wiggler." Fogle's monologue operates as a quasi-religious narrative grounded in the work of American pragmatist William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, as well as a focused dramatization of the novel's more diffuse analysis of post-Reagan conceptions of taxes and civic responsibility.

One would not necessarily know any of this from a cursory reading of the voluminous press that greeted the novel's spring 2011 publication. Most of the book's initial reviewers described the book primarily as an IRS novel about boredom. Some of this blindness to one of the book's central concerns may be inadvertently credited to Michael Pietsch, who undertook the Herculean task of compiling the published book from Wallace's copious drafts and notes. Nowhere in his introduction does he touch upon the novel's political concerns. Rather, he argues that "David set out to write a novel about some of the hardest subjects in the world--sadness and boredom--and to make that exploration nothing less than dramatic, funny, and deeply moving" (ix-x). To be sure, this description of Wallace's primary purpose limns seamlessly with the unfortunate popular conception of Wallace as a technically dazzling and intellectually sophisticated writer of self-help narratives designed to "save us" from solipsism, loneliness, addiction, and so on, an image calcified by the book publication of his Kenyon graduation speech, This is Water. But a brief glance through the "Notes and Asides" included at the end of the published text of The Pale King clearly confirms that the novel was to have what Wallace describes as "2 Broad arcs," which he describes thusly:

1. Paying attention, boredom, ADD, Machines vs. people at performing mindless jobs.

2. Being individual vs. being part of larger things--paying taxes, being "lone gun" in IRS vs. team player. (Pale King 545)

This second "broad arc"--which the novel treats as unavoidably political--has thus far received very scant attention, perhaps because Wallace is not generally thought of as a political novelist, per se, at least not in the same way that, for instance, the Jonathans Franzen and Safron Foer are regarded. And yet, Wallace's shift to more politically engaged work can be traced back directly to his 2003 Rolling Stone article on the John McCain campaign, a condensed version of which, titled "Up, Simba," he would later collect in Consider the Lobster alongside such other politically motivated pieces as "The View from Mrs. Thompson's," about the 9-11 attacks, and "Host," Wallace's devastating portrait of right-wing radio personality John Ziegler, who has since gone on to make an obsequious documentary about Sarah Palin. Around this same time--that is, November 2003--Wallace, in an interview in The Believer, weighed in passionately about his disgust with the country's rigidly partisan political discourse, singling out in particular the then-current bloodbath between Bill O'Reilly and now Minnesota Senator Al Franken. He went on to ask,

How can any of this possibly help me, the average citizen, deliberate about whom to choose to decide my country's macroeconomic policy, or how even to conceive for myself what that policy's outlines should be...? Questions like these are all massively complicated, and much of the complication is not sexy, and well over 90 percent of political commentary now simply abets the uncomplicatedly sexy delusion that one side is Right and Just and the other Wrong and Dangerous. Which is of course a pleasant delusion, in a way--as is the belief that every last person you're in conflict with is an asshole--but it's childish, and totally unconducive to hard thought, give and take, compromise, or the ability of grown-ups to function as any kind of community. ("Interview" 87)

Although there is no way of knowing how deep Wallace was in his composition of The Pale King when he made this statement, he nevertheless seems to be speaking very much in the language of the novel, primarily in his questions about "macroeconomic" policy and his description of this fundamental issue as "massively complicated" and "not sexy." The Pale King directly seeks to address this massively complicated and not sexy issue in a way that does not devolve to the childish delusion he outlines above.

Part of the elusiveness of the novel's political underpinnings is no doubt deliberate. In the justly celebrated "Author's Foreword," Wallace's persona describes the changes in the IRS that grew out of the 1981 Reagan tax cuts--changes, he goes on to emphasize, "that today directly affect the way citizens' tax obligations are determined and enforced" (83)--as having been almost universally overlooked, even though these changes occurred in the bright light of full and open disclosure. The cause of this public blindness, he goes on to argue, arises directly out of the very nature of tax policy itself: "The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes," he proclaims, "is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull" (83). Note, for instance, the re-use of the word "massively" from the interview passage above. This dullness, David Wallace concludes, sits at the heart of what be calls "one of the great and terrible PR discoveries in modern democracy, which is that if sensitive issues of governance can be made sufficiently dull and arcane, there will be no need for officials to hide or dissemble, because no one not directly involved will pay enough attention to cause trouble" (84). Similarly, the novel's treatment of the Reagan tax cuts, both their origins and their consequences, is arcane and, at times, dull, and has also been largely overlooked by many of the book's initial readers, even though the material is right there in front of our faces.

The 1981 tax cuts are the impetus behind one of the novel's central plot devices, namely the mysterious and probably fictional "Spackman Initiative," the clearest description of which is provided by Kenneth ["Type of Thing Ken"] Hindle in his excerpted video Interview included in [section]14. Without naming Reagan directly, Hindle explains the background of the Initiative as arising directly from "the incoming administration's ... belief that marginal tax rates could be lowered, especially in the top brackets, without causing a catastrophic loss of revenue," because, according to the theory being promulgated at the time--i.e., "trickle-down economics" in Reagan's nomenclature, "voodoo economics" in the words of his rival and later Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush--"lower marginal rates would spur investment and increased productivity, type of thing, and there would be a rising tide that would cause an increase in the tax base that would more than offset the decrease in marginal rates" (107). Of course, that is not what happened. As one character remarks in response to yet another articulation of Reagan's "trickle-down" explanation, "Even a child could see the contradiction in that" (148). What happened, instead, was the largest federal budget deficit in history. Journalist Jonathan Chait, in The Big Con, a fascinating takedown of trickle-down economics and its pervasive and corrosive effect on macroeconomic policy since Reagan's first term, about which more anon, quotes David Stockman, Reagan's own budget director, as admitting, on record, "By 1982, I knew the Reagan Revolution was impossible." Stockman goes on to admit that the Administration needed to address the massive budget deficits created by the cut--and concurrent increases in military spending--in order to "reduc[e] the size of the nation's fiscal disaster" (qtd. in Chait 33).

In The Pale King, one of the ways the Administration addressed this disaster was to change the culture of the IRS in accordance with ideas laid out in a policy paper written between 1969 and 1970 by the mysterious Spackman. Spackman argued that "increasing the efficiency with which the Service enforced the tax code would provably increase net revenues to the US Treasury without any corresponding change in the code or a raising in the marginal rates" (109-10), the final option being, in Hindle's terms, politically and ideologically "unacceptable" to the new Administration. As a direct result of implementing the Spackman Initiative, the IRS, in Wallace's depiction, transforms from an institutional bureaucracy once regarded as "the nation's beating heart," or more specifically "the heart ... of these United States as a team, each income earner chipping in to share resources and embody the principles that make our nation great" (101), and into "a business--a going, for-profit concern type of thing"--with the profits here being "revenues" collected through aggressive and targeted audits. Put another way, the Initiative launched a "struggle," as the character David Wallace puts it, "between traditional or 'conservative'"--the latter term glossed in a footnote to mean "confusingly, classically liberal"--"officials who saw tax and its administration as an arena of social justice and civic virtue, on the one hand, and those more progressive, 'pragmatic' policymakers who prized the market model, efficiency, and maximum return on the investment of the Service's annual budget" (82-83). Even more confusingly--a confusion Wallace invites for important thematic reasons, as will be shown--the "conservative" officials above might be viewed as more in line with current progressive advocates for higher marginal tax rates at the top end, with the "progressive" policymakers corresponding with today's supply-side, free market, tax-cut advocates, not to mention the militantly misinformed members of the House of Representative's Tea Party caucus, the whole of whom actively sought to force a default on the nation's debt obligations rather than concede to the merest, most insignificant increase in tax revenue.

Brief but relevant autobiographical interpolation: in fall 1986, not long after David Wallace was allegedly wrapping up his stint as a wiggler at the Peoria Regional Examination Center, I happened to read his short story, "Late Night," later collected in Girl with Curious Hair as "My Appearance," in the pages of my roommate's copy of Playboy magazine, emphasis here on "roommate's copy." At the end of the story was an entry form for the magazine's annual "College Fiction Contest," which I subsequently entered. Alice Turner, the fiction editor there and one of Wallace's earliest literary advocates, awarded my story a Third Place prize. On the strength of this recommendation, two years later I sent Ms. Turner another story, which she accepted for publication, and for which I was paid the highest lee I have ever been paid for a single piece of writing, the whole of which I included under "Wages and Tips" in my subsequent year's 1040 tax form, a major screw-up on my part, I quickly learned, as I was supposed to have reckoned this money as self-employment income under the auspices of the 1099. In short, I was audited.

Although the Spackman Initiative appears to be a fanciful invention, Wallace is on very solid ground in his treatment of the Reagan tax cuts of 1981 as Year Zero of our current political morass. In fact--another true story--as I was writing the previous sentence on my laptop--the day of composition being August 15, 2011--an email popped into my inbox from the New York Times, linking to an editorial by billionaire investor Warren Buffett titled "Stop Coddling the Super-Rich." In it Buffett advocates quixotically for a return to high marginal tax rates for the nation's top earners (A21). The very fact that someone like Buffett feels compelled to take to the pages of the New York Times to make such a plea--a plea that formed the centerpiece of the Obama Administration's successful 2012 campaign for the presidency--attests to the bewildering but also occult power that Reagan's trickle-down economic debacle still exerts over our political landscape, this despite the fact that the theory, so called, has been resoundingly refuted, over and over again, for thirty years. And yet, a massive majority of the Republican party--as well as many in the Democratic party--continue to believe, or claim to believe, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, that lowering the marginal tax rates for the super-wealthy results in job creation and increased tax revenues overall, and that, conversely, increases in tax rates for the wealthy result in job loss and lower revenues.

Chait provides a fascinating account--perhaps apocryphal--of how supply-side theory took over the Republican party, an account that, in many ways, sounds like a scene from a David Foster Wallace novel. The theory was the brainchild of a disgraced economist from the Nixon era named Arthur Laffer who, around the same time that Spackman was writing his soon-to-be influential white paper, began arguing that "it was possible to simultaneously expand the economy and tamp down inflation by cutting taxes, especially the high tax rates faced by upper-income earners" (Chait 14). He illustrated his counter-intuitive theory via a simple graph that has since become known as--and here the truth is better than the fiction--"the Laffer Curve." According to Chait, Laffer first outlined the Curve on a cocktail napkin while explaining his theory, over lunch, to then Chief of Staff for the Ford Administration, Dick Cheney. The Curve purported to show that

If the government sets a tax rate of zero, it will receive no revenue. And if the government sets a tax rate of 100 percent, the government will also receive zero tax revenue, since nobody will have any reason to earn any income. Between these two points--zero taxes and zero revenue, 100 percent taxes and zero revenue--Laffer's curve drew an arc. The arc suggested that at higher levels of taxation, reducing the tax rate would produce more revenue for the government. (Chait 15)

One of the clear virtues of the Laffer Curve, and a key factor in its success as a piece of political rhetoric, is its simplicity, a quality that Hindle also attributes to the Spackman Initiative: "At root," Hindle explains, "the paper's proposal was said to be very simple and, of course the current executive"--this would be Reagan--"approves of simplicity, arguably because this administration is somewhat of a reaction type of thing, or backlash, against the complex social engineering of the Great Society, which was a very different era for tax policy and administration" (109). In other words, complexity, which requires attention and threatens boredom, is antithetical to both the Laffer Curve and the Spackman Initiative. Conversely--and this point is key--complexity is absolutely essential to the governing ethics of The Pale King, a fact that should dispel another popular notion of Wallace as a writer whose "principle goal," according to Hubert Dreyfuss and Sean Dorrance Kelly in their deeply offensive exploitation of Wallace's suicide, "is to resuscitate the truths living within ... cliches" (37). The simplicity of the Laffer Curve certainly appealed to Dick Cheney, who, Chait reports, was instantly converted, right there, at the lunch table. And "convert" is precisely the term used not only by Chait but by many of the country's most virulent supply-siders, such as Irving Kristol, who is quoted as saying, "It was [Laffer advocate] Jude [Wanniski] who introduced me to Jack Kemp, a young congressman and recent convert. It was Jack Kemp who, almost single-handedly, converted Ronald Reagan" (qtd. in Chait 16). The language of "conversion" helps, I think, to explain the current thinking among members of the Republican party, for whom there is apparently no situation--not a war, not a massive, crushing national debt--that might justify raising taxes. As columnist Paul Wehner put it in a 2011 piece published in Commentary, "If taxes cannot be raised under any circumstance--then we have veered from economic policy to religious catechism."

Incidentally, recent Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who between 1988 and 1992 worked as a lawyer at the IRS Office of Chief Counsel in St. Paul, Minnesota, routinely lists Arthur Laffer as the primary intellectual architect of her own economic policy (Rizza 60). (1)

Yet inasmuch as the novel is very clear and specific in designating the historical budget deficits following the 1981 tax cuts as the impetus for the Spackman Initiative, Wallace, as already evidenced above in his slippery use of the terms "conservative" and "progressive," takes great pains to contextualize the rise of Reaganomics in a way that skirts a simplistic partisan dialectic. The two places where Wallace lays out his own analysis as to how the American electorate became "primed"--another key word in the novel--for the supply-side seam can be found in [section] 19, which details the elevator debate about civics between Glendenning, Drinion, and others, and [section]22, which consists of Chris Fogle's remarkable monologue.

[section]19 lays out a fascinating, nuanced, and, in the end, quintessentially Wallace-esque analysis of the effect of the 1960s counterculture on the psyche of the American electorate that led to the conservative triumph of the Reagan-Bush era. The [section] consists of a roundtable debate datable to spring and/ or summer 1980 and organized without dialogue tags (2)--a technique Wallace adopted from William Gaddis and which has been a feature of his novels from the very beginning of his career--with the primary voice belonging to DeWitt Glendenning, whom the existing material paints as, overall, a positive figure. David Wallace, in [section]43, declares that he "didn't know a person at the Post who didn't like and admire DeWitt Glendenning" (433), while an interesting entry in the notes indicates that Glendenning, an "Old School IRS-as-Civics believer," was to be pitted against Merrill Lehr, who, by inventing something called Automated Collection Systems, seeks to replace "human Examiners with computers" in order to transform the IRS into a "corporate entity" as opposed to "a moral one" (543). As such, Glendenning, who announces himself in this [section] as a conservative who "voted for Ford" and who will "likely vote for Bush or maybe Reagan and ... feel solid about [his] vote" (134), should be considered a positive figure, the bulk of whose views Wallace appears to advocate. As one of the characters points out, the term "conservative" must not automatically be considered a putdown in the context of the novel's political engagement. "There are all kinds of conservatives," the speaker observes, "depending on what it is they want to conserve" (132), a line that calls to mind Wallace's famous and perhaps overly fetishized call, in "E Unibus Pluram," for a new breed of literary "anti-rebels" who have the "childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles" (81).

In fact, this section of The Pale King in many ways replays, and deliberately updates and expands, Wallace's youthful analysis of how television successfully co-opted, and hence diluted, the techniques and strategies of literary postmodernism. In both that essay and the oft-quoted interview with Larry McCaffery that preceded the essay's original appearance in the summer 1993 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wallace associates the revolutionary strategies of post-World War II postmodernism--defined in "E Unibus Pluram" as "involution," "absurdity," "sardonic fatigue," "iconoclasm," and "rebellion" (64)--with the 1960s countercultural movement. He describes his generation's relationship to this long-term rebellion as "a bit like the way you feel when you're in high school and your parents go on a trip and you throw a party.... For while it's great, free and freeing.... But then time passes, and the party gets louder and louder, ... and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house" ("Interview," McCaffery 150). The "civics" debate in The Pale King directly reprises this description of the 1960s as a "free and freeing" period that eventually inspired a childish desire for parental authority. Yet whereas in both "E Unibus Pluram" and its accompanying interview Wallace contextualizes that desire in terms that invoke Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence, in The Pale King's updating of this analysis of postwar culture Wallace confronts directly the very real political rebellions and concurrent expansion of rights and opportunities of the 1960s and the insidious way that corporations co-opted this rebellious impulse for the purposes of marketing, much the same way Wallace analyzed how television successfully seized upon and atrophied the hypocrisy-exploding power of postmodern self-reflexivity.

Glendenning begins the debate by contrasting "civics" with "selfishness," the very same terms that form the fulcrum of the novel's second "broad arc." Glendenning worries aloud that Americans in the year 1980 no longer "think of [them]selves as citizens--parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities" (130). He goes on to assert that this conception of citizenship directly informs both the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, which he describes as "an incredible moral and imaginative achievement" (133). The Founding Fathers, Glendenning opines, "were geniuses of civic virtue" (133) who "assumed their descendents would be like them--rational, honorable, civic-minded" (134). Although Wallace is careful to complicate Glendenning's portrait of the Founders with pointed interruptions by various other speakers regarding Jefferson's hypocrisy on the manner of slavery and the Founders' original decision to enfranchise only wealthy landed educated males and so on, Glendenning's core point remains. Starting in the sixties, Glendenning continues, we as Americans stopped thinking "of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities" (136). This change occurred partly because "here was a whole generation where most of them now for the first time questioned authority and said that their individual moral beliefs about the [Vietnam] war outweighed their duty to go fight if their duly elected representatives told them to," to which one of the other speakers amends, "In other words that their highest actual duty was to themselves" (132).

Glendenning's problem is not with the Vietnam protests per se. It lies with the way corporations learned to transform real rebellion into a fashionable pose that could be used to market products. As he explains, "Whatever led to it becoming actually fashionable to protest a war opened the door to what's going to bring us down as a country" (132), namely, an end to the belief that good citizenship entails shared sacrifice. That view has been replaced by "individual citizens" adopting "a corporate attitude. That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves. That unless it's illegal or there are direct practical consequences for ourselves, any activity is OK" (136). The danger here lies precisely in treating corporations as if they were people, since corporations "can't vote or serve in combat," they "don't learn the Pledge of allegiance," and they "don't have souls." Rather, they "are machines for producing profit" and a way to "allow for individual reward without individual obligation" (136).

Mere days after I reread this [section] for the purposes of writing this paper, 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, at a campaign stop in Iowa, declared, "Corporations are people, my friend" (Parker A16).

Anyway, as a result of this shift in the conception of citizenship, Glendenning and his fellow-debaters agree that Americans now expect the government to take care of the civic functions that used to be everyone's shared responsibility, a shift in perspective that puts the government in the role of the parent of children who cannot take care of themselves, "with all the ambivalent love-hate-need-defy charges that surround the parent-figure in the mind of the adolescent ... in its twin desire for both authoritarian structure and the end of parental hegemony" (146-47). And the aspect of civic life where this dynamic "gets revealed in the starkest of terms" is taxation. According to one of the speakers, taxation will also be the place where then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan will focus his campaign pitch, primarily by setting up the IRS "as the blackhatted rapacious Big Brother he secretly needs" (148) in order to portray himself as an outsider and a rebel. The IRS, in other words, will become the enemy: the national symbol of the government as repressive parent that individualist Americans need to defy.

Final real life interpolation: a week after I wrote that last paragraph, Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann declared on the stump that the reason she agreed to join the IRS was because "the first rule of war is 'know your enemy'" (Sargent).

At one point in the dialogue, Glendenning admits, "[I]t's probably part of my naivete that I don't want to put the issue in political terms when it's probably irreducibly political" (136), a view I imagine Wallace shared. But there is no getting around it: the issue is irreducibly political, and it is to Wallace's credit that he chose not to shy away from this fact. That being said, Wallace was not a political scientist; he was a novelist, and the job of the novelist is to express abstract ideas, including "irreducibly political" ones, in concrete and dramatic form, and the place where he does this most effectively in The Pale King is in Chris Fogle's monologue, which Michael Pietsch wisely placed more or less immediately after Glendenning's civics debate, a move that permits close readers to recognize and appreciate the clear and surely intentional echoes in vocabulary, imagery, and theme that link the two [section]s.

Throughout his lengthy account of his dissolute college career in the late 1970s, Fogle repeatedly refers to himself as a "wastoid" and "the worst kind of nihilist--the kind who isn't even aware he's a nihilist" (154). Wholly without "initiative"--that word again--he simply drifts from one empty enthusiasm to the next, his tepid rebellions against the so-called establishment consisting entirely of consumer choices and pointless drug use. As he puts it, "I was like a piece of paper on the street in the wind, thinking, 'Now I think I'll blow this way, now I think I'll blow that way'" (154). The image directly invokes an earlier passage from the civics debate [section], in which one of the characters quotes de Tocqueville as regarding "the democratic citizen's nature to be like a leaf that doesn't believe in the tree it's part of" (141). To this another character amends, "Not even on a tree but more like leaves on the ground in the wind, blown this way and that by the wind, and each time a gust blows it the citizen says, 'Now I choose to blow this way; this is my decision'" (142). Fogle, who, like Wallace, generationally sits at the cusp between the baby boomers and Generation X, is set in direct contrast with his clean-cut father, a child of the Depression and a member of the "Silent Generation" whom Fogle regards as "a robot and a slave to conformity" and "one hundred-percent conventional establishment, and totally on the other side of the generation gap" (167). Conversely, Fogle's mother, who has left the family to pursue her own enlightenment as a 1970s feminist with a same-sex lover, is presented as his spiritual ally, as someone who is "changing and growing up right there with me, both on my side of the generation gap" (166).

Wallace pointedly portrays Fogle's transformation from wastoid to IRS agent as a conversion experience, even a religious one, and this conversion is the exact obverse of the conversions to Laffer economics that changed Dick Cheney, Jack Kemp, and Ronald Reagan. Wallace sources his treatment of this conversion back to American pragmatic philosopher William James, the title of whose essay "The Moral Equivalent of War" is projected onto an AN screen in the accounting class into which Fogle accidentally stumbles late in his narrative. In a letter to Miss Frances R. Morse, James explained that in The Varieties of Religious Experience he sought to "defend (against all prejudices of my 'class') 'experience' against 'philosophy' as being the real backbone of the world's religious life" ("Experience and Religion" 740-41). Granting that "the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd," he endeavors to analyze what religious experience actually feels like and to affirm its positive function in human life. As such, James defines religion to mean "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine" ("Circumscription of the [Religious] Topic" 744). Moreover, religion is "a serious state of mind" whose "universal message" is that "All is not vanity in this Universe, whatever the appearances may suggest" (748). As for the divine, James defines that loaded concept as any "such primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest" (749). Given the context, I am particularly grateful to Mr. James for that final word. In a nod forward to the later essay already referenced, James even compares the religious life to that of a soldier in a war:
   A life is manly, stoical, moral, or philosophical, we say, in
   proportion as it is less swayed by personal considerations and more
   by objective ends that call for energy, even though that energy
   brings personal loss and pain. This is the good side of war, in so
   far as it calls for 'volunteers.' And for morality, life is a war,
   and the service of the highest is a sort of cosmic patriotism which
   also calls for volunteers. (754)

This war imagery will return later in Fogle's narrative. Finally, in the conclusion to The Varieties, James asserts that, as an outgrowth of the religious experience, one may experience "a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical attachment or"--and here is a phrase that speaks very directly to Chris Fogle's own experience--"of appeal to earnestness and heroism" (759).

Fogle's "conversion" from wastoid to tax assessor corresponds directly to the Jamesian formula, even to the extent of borrowing some of James's own language. But the conversion is not instantaneous. Rather, Fogle is "primed" for the conversion by two earlier episodes in his narrative, much as his roommate's Christian girlfriend, in her conversion narrative, was "primed" to take a minister's vague pronouncements as directed precisely at her. As Fogle explains in a passage that has an unavoidable Jamesian ring,
   I think the truth is probably that enormous, sudden, dramatic,
   unexpected life-changing experiences are not translatable or
   explainable to anyone else, and this is because they really are
   unique and particular.... This is because their power isn't just a
   result of the experience itself, but also of the circumstance in
   which it hits you, of everything in your previous life experience
   which has led up to it and made you exactly who and what you are
   when the experience hits you. (214)

So although Wallace wants us to understand that Fogle's conversion arrives as a product of his twenty years as a '70s wastoid and nihilist "wandering aimlessly in the psychological desert of our younger generation's decadence and materialism and so on and so forth" (211), he does have Fogle single out two key moments that "prime" him for this sudden, dramatic, and unexpected life-changing experience. Significantly, both involve his father.

In the first episode, Fogle's father returns home early from a business trip to find Chris and his friends splayed out in the living room after a three-day debauch, with bongs and beer cans strewn about. Consciously or not, Wallace here directly dramatizes the scene he laid for Larry McCaffery back in 1993, which I have already cited, wherein his generation of writers is likened to a bunch of kids in high school who have thrown a party while the parents are gone, only to feel, after a day or two, like they want the parents "to come back and restore some fucking order." Further evidence to support this linkage comes from Fogle himself, who remembers this shameful episode as "being the worst confirmation of the worst kind of generation-gap stereotype and parental disgust for their decadent, wastoid kids" (170). In this passage, as in dozens of others, Wallace invites us to view Fogle as representative of that generation of "decadent, wastoid kids"--Wallace's own generation, in other words--and the father as a walking embodiment of the preceding generation, who are described as "high-strung and tightly controlled." In this sense, then, the Fogle monologue is not just a conversion narrative but a generational study. Fogle's decadence, directionlessness, and nihilism also serve as objective correlatives for Glendenning's generational analysis of the decline in civic engagement. In his own representative role, the father, surveying the wreckage of his living room, raises his arm in mock despair and quotes the famous line from Shelley's Ozymandias, "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair," thus echoing not only Glendenning's sense that the current state of American self-interested individualism might "bring us down as a country" but also Glendenning's magnanimous sense that, though from an older generation, he, too, must take some blame for the crummy state of things.

Obviously, the father's violent death on a train platform constitutes the second key "priming" event, for it is after that horrific episode that Fogle endeavors to buckle down and, in the wake of numerous transfers and shifts of major, complete his college degree. The scene itself is grisly enough: while trying to board a train, the father shoots out an arm to stop the doors from closing, only to find himself trapped by the clamped doors as the train begins moving and accelerating along the platform. Fogle is partly to blame, because his "directionless" "dawdling" as he and his father rush to the train has made them late. But the father, while jostling through the agitated Christmas-season crowd, also falls victim to general herd anxiety about missing trains, which Fogle connects back to "primal, prehistoric fears that you would somehow miss getting to eat your fair share of the tribe's kill, or be caught out alone in the veldt's tall grass as night falls" (199). Again, consciously or not--and here I vote for consciously--this latter passage echoes an earlier passage from the civics-debate [section] in which Glendenning describes paying taxes as similar to being stranded on a lifeboat, whereby "you have a duty to the others in the boat. A duty to yourself not to be the sort of person who waits till everybody is asleep and then eats all the food" (131).

Throughout the narrative, Fogle depicts his father as the quintessential "man in the gray flannel suit," right down to the hat and the gray flannel suit, part and parcel of the novel's extended and self-conscious parody of Hollywood depictions of 1950s corporate culture, now all the rage thanks to the Mad Men television program. This is an important point to keep in mind when considering the agent of Fogle's actual conversion, the Jesuit-priest accountant professor, referred to at one point, pace James Joyce, as "the fearful Jesuit" (215). (3) Like the father, the priest is dressed not in his robe but in "an archaically conservative dark-gray suit whose boxy look might have been actual flannel" (215). Also like the father, the priest appears to be "in that amorphous ... area between forty and sixty" (217)--in other words, a member of the preceding generation.

Significantly, the first transparency the priest shows the class is a graph "representing the progressive marginal tax rate schedule for the 1976 federal income tax" (218). Wallace did not choose this graph at random, because 1976, in addition to being the year of the American Bicentennial, marked the last year in which the average--or effective--tax rate for the top 0.1% of wage earners was 60%, after which it declined to 52% in 1980 and then, after the Reagan tax cut, down to less than 40% by 1985-86, the year of the novel's setting, before reaching an all-time low of 35% in 1988. This means that the average tax being paid by top wage earners was already declining before Reagan decreased the top progressive marginal rate from 70% to 50%, and then to another all-time low of 28% for 1988-1990, before Bush, Sr., now unable to ignore the size of the debt accumulating under his watch, reneged on his "No New Taxes" and raised the marginal rate back to 31%. Bill Clinton completed the process when he raised the rate one more time to 40% in 1994, thereby, and in direct contradiction to all counter-projections by supply siders, ushering in one of the most robust economic expansions of the postwar period, an expansion that ended with Clinton balancing the federal budget and getting impeached by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives (Piketty and Saez 15-16). (4) The novel even includes a possible explanation for the decrease in effective tax rates prior to the drop in progressive marginal rates, per se, namely the alternative tax/shelters provisions of 1976, 1978, and 1980 that are being enforced by the Immersive Group to which David Wallace has been mistakenly assigned. The narrator describes these provisions "as Congress's clever way of reducing a certain group's tax burden without lowering its tax rate--one simply allowed special deductions or provisions that exempted certain portions of income from the taxable base" (335). More specifically, Wallace's group has been charged with enforcing "certain special provisions that the '76 and '80 acts had put in place to keep extremely wealthy individuals and S corps from paying, ... in effect, no tax at all" (335). But I digress.

The priest's lengthy speech--what Fogle calls his "hortation" rather than "exhortation," the curious variant perhaps linking the speech to Horatio Alger, whose Ragged Dick Fogle directly name checks--has been justly singled out and celebrated in many of the book's early reviews, with particular attention paid its pithy concluding line, "Gentleman, you are called to account" (233). Space does not permit me to paraphrase the speech in its entirety. The key passage for our purposes involves the priest's now famous definition of "heroism," which he defines as "enduring tedium over real time in a confined space" (229). As we have seen, James, too, speaks of "heroism" in his description of the religious experience, coupling it with "an appeal to earnestness." As if to underscore the Jamesian connection here, Fogle, when he hears the priest first mention "heroism," instantly recalls the reference to James's "moral equivalent of war," which he had read when he first entered the class and which he had misidentified as "biblical" (229). As with James, the specific "religiosity" of this moment is immaterial to its positive effect. Fogle, recalling his objections to the Christian girl's own conversion experience, recognizes that, in fact, the priest was addressing him least of all, since he was not even a member of the class. "Nevertheless," Fogle insists, "a feeling is a feeling, nor can you argue with results" (230).

Overnight, Fogle trades in all his '70s "commercial psychedelica," cuts his hair, and buys a "dark-gray ventless wool suit ... and bulky box-plaid jacket" (233). Serendipitously, he also learns of a new recruitment effort by the IRS to train agents in exchange for college tuition. The scene detailing his appearance at the IRS recruitment station marks the novel's most overt, and in this case, comic, engagement with James, for the IRS facility shares the same storefront with a US Air Force recruiting office. What's more, the Service, Fogle tells us, "had recently instituted a program of recruiting new contract employees in much the same way as the new volunteer armed forces" (241). Throughout Fogle's punishingly dull discussion with the IRS recruiting agent, a loudspeaker from the Air Force office next door blasts a continuous loop of the "'Off we go into the wild blue yonder' musical theme" (242). The implications are clear: Fogle's conversion to IRS agent is a Jamesian religious conversion to an entity--which Wallace refers to throughout the novel as "The Service"--that fulfills James's call, in his later essay, for a reification of martial virtues minus the bloodshed of actual war, values he outlines as "intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command." The latter phrase recalls Glendenning's remark to Fogle that "Real freedom is the freedom to obey the law" (193). It is no accident that agents in the Service refer to the national office in DC as "The Three-Personed God" (108). Tragically, the IRS that Fogle--and, later, David Wallace--joins is being systematically stripped of its Jamesian aura and turned instead into a corporation, which, contra Governor Romney, is not a person, let alone a Three-Personed God.

Of course, there is no way to know how Wallace might have brought these themes to their full fruition in the finished novel. Although it is true that many of the themes explored here get raised and complicated in later portions of the published manuscript, particularly in the second long "David Wallace" [section], wherein David first arrives at the Regional Examination Center, it is also true that these same concerns tend to fall away in the latter portions of the existing manuscript. Again, this fact is no doubt a product of the unfinished status of the book. That being said, I genuinely believe that Wallace was writing a book about, among other things, taxes, civics, and the current impasse over tax cuts vs. budget cuts, and that his hopes for the book were not just aesthetic but, in a very real sense of the term, political. Given the dismal state of our political discourse, and the lock-step adherence to supply-side economic policy in every wing of the Republican party, we will continue to hear a great deal of misleading talk about taxes, tax cuts, government spending, and budget deficits, and we will also hear a chorus of plangent cries from our political pundits about how we as a country need to change the way we talk about these things. With The Pale King, David Foster Wallace was trying to do just that.



Buffett, Warren. "Stop Coddling the Super Rich." New York Times 14 August 2011: A21.

Chait, Jonathan. The Big Con: Crackpot Economics and the Fleecing of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

Dreyfuss, Hubert, and Sean Dorrance Kelly. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. New York: Free P, 2011.

James, William. "Circumscription of the [Religious] Topic." The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition. Ed. John J. McDermott. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1977: 741-58.

--. "Experience and Religion: A Comment." The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition. Ed. John J. McDermott. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1977: 740-41.

--. "The Moral Equivalent of War." The Writings of William James : A Comprehensive Edition. Ed. John J. McDermott. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1977: 660-71.

Kornacki, Steve. "The Market Meltdown and the Hopeless Politics of 2011." Online. 9 August 2011.

Lizza, Ryan. "Leap of Faith: The Making of a Republican Front-Runner." The New Yorker 15 & 22 August 2011: 60.

Parker, Ashley. "'Corporations Are People,' Romney 'Fells Iowa Hecklers Angry Over His Tax Policy." New York Times. 12 August 2011: A16.

Pietsch, Michael. "Editor's Note." The Pale King. By David Foster Wallace. New York: Little, Brown, 2011. v-x.

Piketty, Thomas, and Emmanuel Saez. "How Progressive is the U.S. Federal Tax System? A Historical and International Perspective." Journal of Economic Perspectives 21.1 (2007): 3-24.

Sargent, Greg. "The Plum Line: Bachmann on why she worked for the IRS: 'First rule of war is "know your enemy.'" Washington Post online. 18 August 2011.

Wallace, David Foster. "An Interview with David Foster Wallace." By Larry McCaffery. Review of Contemporary Fiction 13.2 (1993): 127-50.

--. "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction." A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997: 21-82. --. "Interview with David Foster Wallace." The Believer 1.8 (2003): 85-93.

--. The Pale King. Boston: Little, Brown, 2011.

Wehner, Peter. "The GOP's Philosophical Straightjacket." Commentary online. 12 August 2011.


(1) Rizza goes on to reveal that he talked to six of Bachmann's former colleagues, three of whom still work there, and all of whom said that "Bachmann was not on the job long enough to gain much experience." As Bachmann had two children during her four-year stint, she spent much of her time at the IRS office on maternity leave. "Basically, the rest of us that were here were handling Michele's inventory," complained one colleague, while another said, "She was an attorney here, but she was never here" (60). Only one of her cases went to court, specifically a 1992 suit brought against a Chippewa Indian who failed to report three years of income from Youth Project, Inc., a community-organization nonprofit dedicated to "social justice and peace." Cue Glenn Beck here on the issue of "social justice."

(2) With one curious exception: on 139 a first-person narrator intrudes. Because the episode seems to be taking place in early 1980--as Glendenning and others all theorize about the possibility of a Reagan presidency, though at this time George Bush also appears to be in the running--the first-person speaker cannot be David Wallace. Conversely, Shane Drinion, whose nickname is X, or Mr. X (for "Mr. Excitement"), is present, and seems to be the clearest candidate for this first-person narrator, as his interpolations correspond to those he makes during Meredith Rand's lengthy account of her stay at Zeller.

(3) Perhaps not coincidentally, Fogle's mother's new live in lover is named Joyce.

(4) See especially Panel B of Figure 3. For a listing of the progressive marginal tax rates from 1976 1994, see <>.
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Author:Boswell, Marshall
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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