Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, July 13, 2012

_The Pale King_, interim notes ii

(5) As someone who lived in Chicago in the late 1970s, I vividly remember the January 1979 blizzard that paralyzed Chicago (yet did not deter Chris Fogle from getting to his appointment with the IRS hiring officer), but do not at all recall Illinois experimenting with a progressive sales tax in 1977. Turns out Wallace made all that up, as he did the bit about IRS employees having special Social Security numbers.  This and other points germane to the history/fiction distinction I gleaned from a piece by Lawrence Zelenak in, of all places, the Michigan Law Review: 


Mr. Zelenak may also hold the distinction of being the Wallace commentator whose name sounds the most like one that could have been invented by Wallace.

(6) I've been reading Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer alongside The Pale King. Agamben begins by elaborating Carl Schmitt's idea that sovereignty is founded on the power to decide on exceptions.  For instance, Weber's idea of the state's monopoly on force--the state's ability to punish violence lies in its excepting itself from the ban on violence. The state forbids that I imprison people against their will; if I do such a thing, it will except itself from that prohibition and imprison me against my will. These exceptions (and other kinds) define sovereignty.

That taxation is the most routine, most familiar, probably dullest example--the state forbids me to appropriate some proportion of another's wealth, but excepts itself from that prohibition. Part of the strange appeal of The Pale King is its willingness to take as subject this part of our lives that is as common as dirt, as ubiquitous as dust, and unfold its arcane universe.

Chapter 21, in which someone (Glendenning?) takes advantage of a stalled elevator to lay out the philosophy of taxation, and in passing quickly and persuasively map the course of American culture since World War II, contains as elegant and succinct an encapsulation of Tocqueville's Democracy in America as I have ever come across:

"De Tocqueville's thrust is that it's in the democratic citizen's nature to be like a leaf that doesn't believe in the tree it's a part of."

(7) The sections on the previous lives of the IRS employees at the Peoria REC remind me of the similar sections that introduced the inhabitants of the halfway house in Infinite Jest, which is to say that they are as astonishingly compelling as contemporary fiction gets.  The almost hundred pages of Chapter 22 all by themselves justify the publication of The Pale King. The painful struggle of the not-all-that-educated, not-all-that-articulate Chris to tell the truth about himself and what he has come to realize... the sustained un-writerliness of his voice while nonetheless giving so fine-grained a portrait of a fictional character (new suit from Carson Pirie Scott--dead on!)... the weird dignity Wallace is thus able to lend a cliché like "play the hand you're dealt"...all this is why the novel, even though unfinished, even though it will no doubt fail to All Come Together into an Unified Aesthetic Whole, is among the best fiction I have read in these past few years.

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