David Foster Wallace’s Tax Classes
The author hardly pulled these abstruse accounting complexities from thin air. Last week, after speaking at the David Foster Wallace Symposium at the University of Texas at Austin, I looked at Wallace’s own accounting-class notes with this new excerpt in mind. (Wallace attended tax courses as research for “The Pale King”; those notes make up a part of his archive, which is housed at the university’s Harry Ransom Center.) These papers, which are mostly related to in-class lectures and problem-set solutions, occasionally became a place for Wallace to observe his classmates, who were taking the classes for credit toward a degree. “ACCOUNTING STUDENTS ARE INCREDIBLY ORGANIZED NOTE-TAKERS,” reads one jotting that found its way into “The Pale King.”
That same page of Wallace’s notebook also contains what looks like a plea regarding the author’s own boredom: “God please help me—Pain, captain.” The mood suggested here is evoked by another unnamed examiner in the Hovatter scene, who at one point “made as if to cover her ears and asked whether please might they be spared listening to this all again.” Submitting to the grind of tax scholarship wasn’t merely a method by which Wallace tried to empathize with the more distractible I.R.S. agents, though. He was also working to understand tax dodges. “An avoidance scheme, perhaps?” Syvlanshine asks the lunch crowd in the new paperback scene, regarding Hovatter’s proposed year-long TV-watching project. “Passive losses?” he then adds, as a reference to a type of deduction that can be used to offset passive gains—but which results in a penalty if abused. During a class that Wallace described in his notes as a “Scam-Fest,” he scribbled the phrase: “PASSIVE a big word for IRS.”
- Last week, after speaking at the David Foster Wallace Symposium at the University of Texas at Austin, Seth Colter Walls looked at Wallace’s accounting-class notes
. Four “previously unpublished scenes” accompany the paperback edition of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, “The Pale King,” which arrives in bookstores this week.