Book Review: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

The_Pale_KingI bought this book a few years ago but delayed reading it until this Spring. Maybe I was afraid of thinking about the trauma of his suicide while reading it. I shouldn’t have worried. There are autobiographical elements in here I assume…He has a semi-absurd character with a dramatic sweating disorder, which I’m guessing from the opening line of his Kenyon graduation speech he sometimes also suffered from. But he’s not dwelling in an obvious way on suicidal ideation. On the contrary he seems to be mulling cures for depression, through a kind of learned meditative technique for life.

The recurring theme of The Pale King is boredom, and maintaining a kind of alert concentration throughout that boredom.

My guess is he picked the location of an IRS examination office in flat, empty, off-the-highway Peoria, Illinois as an extreme setting for testing his ideas, but also for testing himself. Is he a good enough writer to make even that topic (boredom) and that setting (an IRS examiner’s office) still scintillating writing? Of course he can. He’s freaking David Foster Wallace. During the week of filing another year’s worth of taxes, I recommend reading a great novel about IRS examiners.

David Foster Wallace is among my top three all time favorite authors,1 so I’m not surprised I enjoyed The Pale King  so much.

On one page Wallace plays the straight man, describing incredibly detailed inner thoughts of a character, or the minutiae of a scene in hyper-realism. And in the next page he switches it up by introducing an absurdity, like a tax reviewer who levitates right out of his chair when concentrating hard enough, or an IRS building with an entire front-entrance facade designed to look like a 1040 tax form.

David_Foster_WallaceJust like with Infinite Jest, he fractures the narrative – jumping time, location, perspective, and characters without warning. If you link Wallace’s fractal together to figure out who all the narrators and character are, that’s fine, but not necessary to enjoy this on your first read-through. A few essays ran earlier in the New Yorker and stand alone as individual chapters.

Some of his chapters are unforgettable. The nerd examiner and the unbearably pretty girl at the post-work bar, she with the tragic love story and he with the levitating powers of concentration. The absurd goody two-shoes who as a child drove everyone completely bonkers. The centerfold chapter with the never-ending “how I became an IRS examiner” childhood story of trauma and slackerism, nearly a complete novel in itself full of family psychological drama and insights. The sweating man trying to avoid triggering his sweat response. The infinite-mirror-meta-story of an IRS trainee named “David Foster Wallace” who arrives at the Peoria office, only to suffer a mixed up-identity with another more senior IRS examiner David Wallace, blended with an “author’s forward” by “David Foster Wallace” to claim all of the story is “true.” Typical post-post-post-modern DFW bullshit but totally enjoyable from my perspective, complete with diversionary and diverting footnotes as rabbit-holes.

That famous graduation speech in fact from 2005 captures some of what I think he’s trying to do in The Pale King. How do we maintain a meditative (Buddhist?) attentiveness, even while surrounded by deadening bureaucracy or deadening inputs from normal adult life?

Clearly he didn’t have answers in his own life. But he suggested a sort of path for us to try to follow. He couldn’t do it. But we can keep trying.

Please see related posts:

All Bankers Anonymous Book Review In One Place


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  1. Peter Matthiessen and Nabokov thanks for asking

You Prepare Your Own Taxes?!?

crazy tax manYou prepare your own taxes?!?

Are you insane?

I ran into a friend at the local coffee place recently.

She made the mistake of mentioning that her husband prepares their household taxes, by himself.

“What?  Is he insane?”

“I know, seriously, I keep telling him not to.”

Dear friend, don’t do this to yourself.

I would no more do my own personal taxes than I would hand-sew my wife’s wedding dress, do her hair and makeup just before the ceremony, and then administer the vows for the both of us.  Because I might, just might, make a mistake along the way.

I would rather rebuild the household toilet, sewage and drainage system and connect it to the city system, while everyone was living there, than do my own personal taxes.  I mean, what could go wrong?

I would no more prepare the infamous fugu sashimi for my friends and relatives than attempt my own taxes.


Who writes the tax code?

The income tax code consists of hundreds of specialty provisions written by and for relatively narrow interests who know how to maximize their advantages.[1]  Trying to navigate this even half-way intelligently makes no sense for a non-specialist.[2]

Now, I’m no Steve Forbes[3], but I too long for the day when taxes are so simple we can all prepare them ourselves, for free, in a couple of minutes.

I don’t expect comprehensive overhaul of the tax code, however, will be Obama’s legacy – it doesn’t seem his style, and he’s got nobody on the other side of the aisle who would risk giving him that legacy opportunity – but, boy do we need it.

Until that tax simplification and overhaul however, I’m not doing my own taxes.


Is there any time its ok to do your own taxes?

My personal finance students wanted to know this.  Yes, if you are a student with, say, less than $5,000 in income, I’ll endorse your do-it-yourself approach.  But if you’re a working adult with a regular salary, you can’t afford the risk of doing this yourself.


What about using tax-preparation software?

Stop.  Just hire someone.


What about using one of those pop-up stores like H&R Block or Jackson Hewitt?

Well, now you’ve upgraded the DIY approach to working with someone who received 1 weeks’ worth of training, and used the same tax-preparation software you could have bought off the shelf.

Also, their business model has always been about short-term and sub-prime lending, making tax-refund anticipation loans.  I mean, what could possibly go wrong?


But isn’t it costly to hire a tax preparer?

No, wrong question.

Right question: Isn’t it costly not to hire a tax preparer?   Answer: yes.

First, there’s the high probability you will pay too much in taxes.  In one year, many taxpayers will save more than the cost charged by their tax preparer.  Over many years, I suspect, the advice of a professional will save you from paying many times their professional cost, in taxes.

Second, there’s the possibility you will make a mistake and not pay enough in taxes. The IRS is a big nasty bully when it doesn’t get paid enough.  You don’t want to risk any chance of not paying the IRS what it wants.[4]

So, in sum:  Save yourself money.  Save yourself time.  Go to a professional.

Happy tax week, everyone.


Please see related post: 2012 IRA Contribution Infographic

[1] Who are the narrow-interest people who write the tax code?  As Lawrence Lessig brilliantly points out in this must-watch Ted talk, just 0.05% of people matter when it comes to selecting people who run for Congress.  There’s a high correlation between those 0.05% and people who can privately benefit from narrow provisions in a tax code.

[2] Do you want to really know who writes tax codes?  Max Baucus’ former senatorial aides, that’s who.  Senator Baucus is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.  His former aides go on to lucrative tax lobbying gigs in record numbers.  A picture is worth a thousand words here, of which senatorial aides go on to become tax lobbyists.  Baucus, you win.

[3] Flat-tax guy.  Everyone pays the same % on income or corporate profits.  Terrible idea.  But our present overly complicated system almost makes Forbes’ terrible simplicity seem sane by comparison.

[4] There’s a third reason why it pays to hire a tax preparer – it opens up the world of wealth-creation possibilities.  If you want to open or expand a business you’ll eventually need to borrow money from a bank, which will depend greatly on your taxes when reviewing your application.  Banks like to see you pay taxes properly, because it shows income as well as the ability to track and pay your obligations.  They’re not impressed by poorly prepared taxes.


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