Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Pale King and the unweeded garden

I am often slow of study. Only today did it occur to me that it's entirely appropriate to publish on April 15th a novel that's set in an IRS facility. Moreover, it's very appropriate this tax season due to the fact that, though the 15th fell on a Friday this year, this year's deadline is the 18th due to the Washington, D.C. holiday. For weirdness within an allegedly coherent, even boring system is, apparently, one of this unfinished work's big subjects.

I've not read this yet (that will have to wait a little while) and I've certainly not read all the reviews, but while all sorts of modern and contemporary "systems-novelists" (think Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaddis) have been named-checked in those reviews, the link I'm surprised no one has made is with Hamlet--which, of course, is also the origin of the phrase "infinite jest." The phrase "pale king" does not appear in Shakespeare's play, but a pale king certainly does (as does a dead father in The Pale King)--and, moreover, to reveal that the outwardly-tranquil (read: boring, bureaucratic) world of Elsinore is, in fact, as corrupt as Hamlet's image of the unweeded garden hints that it is. And, as in Hamlet, a big theme of The Pale King is delayed action: this review of the novel quotes from Wallace's notes identifying its "central deal": “Realism. Monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.”

I've probably over-speculated on this novel that I have yet to read a page of, so I'll stop here for now. But by way of parting (and in celebration of tax season), I'll leave you with this pondering of an existential dilemma:

“Our tax system, as it currently exists, faces challenges,” [Evanston, Ill., accountant Stephen] Lacy wrote [to Wallace], 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.”


R. Sherman said...

The tax code started to go off the rails when the object of tax policy ceased to be about raising operating revenue and became focused on social outcomes by rewarding or punishing behaviors which society thought/thinks are good or ill. Think home mortgage deduction v. any "sin tax." Each of these policy initiatives had its own set of unintended consequences and the pols set about to "fix" those in the code. What developed was a feedback loop that has led to an extraordinarily byzantine system, where even the so-called experts can't agree on the "right" answer.

When you toss in the pols insatiable desire for power which power is defined as bestowing largess from the public coffers on a chosen "elect" and the fact that the necessity for many of the aforementioned "tweaks" have been overtaken by events, such that their original purpose is dimly remembered or forgotten completely, you get what we have now: bureaucrats mindlessly following rules that make no sense to anyone.

Too bad Franz Kafka died before he could have set a novel in it.


(This written while my secretary gets some 30 clients' tax returns in the mail.)

Cordelia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cordelia said...

And you are far too modest. This really ought to be published in something like the Times or the New York Review of Books. Would that they would find you, though I'm sure they shall after you have read the book and had a second go. But really, you've said more here, reminded a good number of reviewers (I've been reading what you've been reading) that they've ignored what is under their noses (also a feat to Foster Wallace's credit to make them forget to think of it). On the other hand, I haven't seen, I think, any references to Keats' either, and his "pale kings and princes," as if that's too easy. What do you think ?

John B. said...

Thanks to both of you for dropping by. Apologies for the delay in responding--I have been busy/out of town these past few days.

Randall, I agree with you in principle, but I'm not averse to some (well-planned) social re-engineering via the tax code because of growing income inequities.

Cordelia, you are too kind. At times, I look around and all I can see is Hamlet, so I'm hesitant to claim any special insight. That said, though, if I might risk a bit of psychoanalysis based on some other recent reading I've done about DFW's relationship to his mother, I suspect he identified more than a little, at times, with the sable-suited one. As for the Keats connection, I confess I didn't think of that, but that doesn't mean anything.