David Foster Wallace loved tax law, a new paper finds

The late writer called tax “the biggest game of chess in the world”

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The Independent Online

David Foster Wallace would have enjoyed picking through the small print of the Budget yesterday, according to a paper published in the Pittsburgh Tax Review.

Wallace thought tax was the ultimate drudgery and imagined characters struggling with the work– such as the US Internal Revenue Service worker in The Pale King who sits dead at his desk for three days before anyone notices.

He wrote to his friend Jonathan Franzen in 2007 that tax law was “erotically interesting”. “[T]ax law is like the world’s biggest game of chess with all sorts of weird conundrums about ethics and civics and consent of the governed built in,” he said.

Even after he was published, he enrolled in Illinois State University to study tax for three years, rather than moving to New York like many celebrated writers. Arthur J. Cockfield, author of the paper, sees this obsession as part of Wallace’s Maslowian perspective of life, in which, after fulfilling our own basic needs, we start to look to help others escape the prison of the self and find fulfilment. In other words: the sacrifice of the drudgery of tax was an individual’s great contribution to society.

Cockfield also reflects on this drudgery as inspiring a kind of mindfulness. Some of the characters in the Pale King become obsessed with minute details, such as the tax worker who becomes enthralled while minding a baby, or the auditor who meditates intently.

Wallace talked about mindfulness in a commencement speech that he gave in 1999 called ‘This Is Water’:

“[t]he really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day...”

Cockfield describes his delight in Wallace’s understanding of his trade. “To work in tax—to be an ‘information cowboy’—is to feel underappreciated by the poor souls who do not care or understand how important this work is (or at least, that’s the story we like to tell ourselves),” he says towards the end of the paper. “Somehow Wallace saw into the possibility for grandeur and even heroism in the outwardly banal and mundane world of tax accounting.”