The Taxman As Literature


The Pale King (Little, Brown), a posthumously published novel that David Foster Wallace left unfinished before his 2008 suicide, is set largely in the offices of a regional branch of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Much of the book concerns a fictional 1985 reform designed to refocus IRS auditing procedures strictly on revenue collection. Wallace depicts the resulting transformation of the IRS into a profit-maximizing business as dehumanizing.

The book also serves as a powerful illustration of the tax code's brutalizing complexity. Several chapters are structured around the code, with auditors unable to understand any aspect of their own lives without considering related tax code provisions. Wallace offers a compelling picture of a tax system so far-reaching that it reflects, and complicates, every choice an individual makes. —Peter Suderman