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Sunday Book Review
David Foster Wallace and the Literary Tax Accountant
Published: April 14, 2011
Edmund Wilson was the leading literary critic of his generation. He was also an accomplished tax delinquent. From 1946 to 1955, Wilson did not file any income tax returns. Taxes were withheld from his salary at The New Yorker, but the proceeds from his best-selling novel “Memoirs of Hecate County” and other freelance work went to pay for his two divorces, three children and various houses. The Internal Revenue Service eventually caught up with him, hitting him with some $68,000 in back taxes and penalties. Even after his death in 1972, his wife was still dealing with the paperwork.
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Wilson’s friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would later blame the mess on a “drunken lawyer.” But in “The Cold War and the Income Tax,” a blistering polemic published in 1963, Wilson saw more sinister forces at work. His own ordeal, he argued, was just one example of the “high tide of taxation” that was engulfing ordinary citizens and feeding our “frantic” nuclear rivalry with the Soviet Union. He was particularly irate about I.R.S. rules on deductions, which he deemed insensitive to writers. “It is difficult, at my time of life, to think of anything that I do or anywhere that I go which could not be called a business expense,” he wrote, sounding less like a lifelong man of the left than like Ron Paul. “It is an insufferable impertinence of the federal government to ask why I have entertained my guests or why I have chosen to travel — to say nothing of how many times I have been married, whom I have voted for and whether or not I buy my dog a bed.”
One wonders what Wilson would have made of “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace​’s posthumous novel about I.R.S. agents battling extreme boredom at a regional examination center in Peoria, Ill., in the mid-1980s. He certainly would have been baffled by Wallace’s obedient taxpayer behavior. Wallace’s own interest in the I.R.S., he wrote in a 2005 letter, was “utterly divorced from my own taxes, which I pay promptly and fully like an Eagle Scout.” Having no dog bed in the fight, he pursued tax arcana with an exuberantly obsessive relish that belied the novel’s premise that the I.R.S. was the most boring subject on earth. In 1997, a year after the publication of his mammoth novel “Infinite Jest,” Wallace enrolled in accounting classes at Illinois State University and began plowing through shelves of technical literature, transcribing notes on tax scams, criteria for audit and the problem of “agent terrorism” into a series of notebooks.
He also carried on lively correspondence with tax lawyers and C.P.A.’s, peppering them with questions about the Tax Reform Act of 1986, compliance studies, I.R.S. office furniture, and an exotic tax shelter called “the Silver Butterfly.” Their replies, now held in the Wallace archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, evoke some of the big themes of the novel, and suggest that the philosophical Jesuit accounting professor who “converts” a character to a career in “the Service” may not be a wild invention. Consider the following letter to Wallace, written by one Stephen Lacy, who sounds like a figure from “The Pale King” but turns out to be a very real accountant in Evanston, Ill.
“Our tax system, as it currently exists, faces challenges,” Lacy wrote, before offering a “philosophical analogy”: “Imagine someone who wants to have a purely realistic and Aristotelian outlook and metaphysic and wants to avoid thinking of how some of the radical insights of Gödel, Wittgenstein, Davidson, Derrida and Deleuze might chip away at his system. The complexity of language and its nature of being contradictory and deconstructing are there all the time. . . . Sooner or later this person’s world view will have major problems. Our tax system wants to be a ‘modernist’ enterprise in an increasingly ‘postmodernist’ world.”
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Jennifer Schuessler is an editor at the Book Review.
A version of this article appeared in print on April 17, 2011, on page BR27 of the Sunday Book Review.
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