The Book Bench: David Foster Wallace’s Tax Classes : The New Yorker
Four “previously unpublished scenes” accompany the paperback edition of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, “The Pale King,” which arrives in bookstores this week. Three of them are nice for any Wallace fan to read and keep, but are not essential to our understanding of the novel about a group of I.R.S. agents working in Peoria in the nineteen-eighties. The last literary “bonus track,” though, is a keeper. And, at fourteen pages, it’s also the longest new piece of unpublished Wallace fiction to emerge since “The Pale King” itself.
In this excerpt, Claude Sylvanshine, a “special assistant” to a Human Resources Systems Deputy, observes and lightly interacts with a group of low-level rote examiners who are on a lunch break. Though Sylvanshine appears at several junctures in the novel, most of the other characters in the scene do not. In addition to being hilarious, the conversation at this lunch table is a device that Wallace uses to riff on a variety of the novel’s concerns. In the scene, readers are introduced to an examiner with the last name of Hovatter, who is practicing a form of “ascetic frugality” in his personal life, so that he can afford to take off a full year of work. His stated, presumptive purpose is to watch “every last second of television broadcast in the month of May 1986.”
What at first seems mathematically straightforward—twelve cable channels on offer, multiplied by twenty-four hours of watching each signal in its daily entirety, thus equalling a year of marathon at-home viewing—is quickly complicated by the gaggle of tax assessors at the lunch table. How will Hovatter record all of May’s television programs? How many VCRs will be required? How often will tapes need to be changed—and can Hovatter budget the seconds needed to change and archive every VHS cassette against his schedule of actually needing to watch television? The forecasting becomes a fearsome zone of accounting contention, with some of the lunch-hour hangers-on becoming visibly upset by realities that the group has failed to consider.