The IRS as fodder for David Foster Wallace and me

image In my little overview of D.C. fiction, I quoted Jeffrey Charis-Carlson, a specialist in this area: "It takes a great novel to make bureaucracy interesting." But how about writing about individual bureaucrats? That’s what I did with the love interest of Jonathan Stone, my reporter protagonist in The Solomon Scandals. Margo Danielson is a young GS-7, an Oberlin grad, a medieval studies major stuck at that most déclassé of agencies, the scandal-wracked General Services Administration, the headquarters of which appears in the left photo.

For the main tenant of Seymour Solomon‘s rickety building, where Margo herself works for the GSA, I chose another agency with a humdrum mission, the Internal Revenue Service, about which we’ll all be thinking plenty as April 15 looms. "Just briefly," I write, "I imagined the bureaucracy punishing Solomon not for the collapse but for violating the sanctity of tax forms."

image Well, along come some fresh hints that the federal bureaucracy, or at least the IRS, just might turn out to be more fashionable than I counted on. None other than the late David Foster Wallace, one of the stars of contemporary American fiction, as well as the topic of a just-published New Yorker profile, has written about life in an Illinois office of the IRS. And to go by an excerpt, he hasn’t spared us any bureaucratic details:

"Lane Dean, Jr., with his green rubber pinkie finger, sat at his Tingle table in his chalk’s row in the rotes group’s wiggle room and did two more returns, then another one, then flexed his buttocks and held to a count of ten and imagined a warm pretty beach with mellow surf, as instructed in orientation the previous month. Then he did two more returns, checked the clock real quick, then two more, then bore down and did three in a row, then flexed and visualized and bore way down and did four without looking up once, except to put the completed files and memos in the two…"

image In Moby-Dick, Melville piled up details on details about whaling, and maybe Wallace, in his own way, has gotten away with passages like the above. No Great White, alas. But inside-such-and-such’s-head is Wallace’s forte, and his bureaucrats, like Captain Ahab, go on chases—not of whales, but of deadbeat taxpayers. Fingers crossed.

The Solomon Scandals is a different book from Wallace’s unfinished IRS novel of several hundred thousand words (titled The Pale King, set in the 1980s and expected to appear in 2010 from Little, Brown & Company). I wrote about D.C. as a white-collar factory town. But to keep the pace up, I avoided an account of any bureaucrat’s job except as perceived by an outsider, Jonathan Stone. Rather, Scandals is an intimate look at Stone’s work and delves into his head, not the bureaucrats’.

Along the way, however, you’ll run across some grubby GSA forms (PDF alert)—genuine documents of the kinds that figured in my actual investigation of Sen. Abe Ribicoff. Despite the congressionally related ban in the forms, Ribicoff was a secret investor in a CIA-occupied building in Arlington, Virginia. Perhaps Wallace’s exploration of bureaucratic life can add to the timeliness of Scandals. As described in James Fallows’ comments to Twilight Times Press, Scandals "broadens the cast of the standard Washington novel beyond spymasters and politicians to include real estate barons and federal contract officers."

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David Rothman

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