Sunday , April 15, 2018 - 5:00 AM
CHICAGO — This year, we get two extra days to file our taxes. Due to a combination of April 15 landing on a Sunday and Emancipation Day in the nation's capital on Monday, the deadline is the 17th.
It's the end of a long slog for those whose tax season starts in the middle of January, when the tedium of receipt-sorting, document scanning and account reviewing begins — and then goes on and on for months. Taxes are, as they say, the only other life certainty besides death.
Boredom used to be a certainty as well, but having a tiny megacomputer in every hand seems to have mostly eliminated a lack of having something to do in the small cracks of downtime our busy lives afford us.
There's been a resurgence of interest in boredom as of late, with prominent researchers and sociologists positing that a surrender to boredom can bring about heightened creativity, deepened spirituality and more intrinsic motivation.
Maybe. But I mention these theories only as a set-up to discuss my all-time favorite book about taxes and boredom: "The Pale King," by David Foster Wallace.
This exquisite novel was released posthumously on Tax Day in 2011. It is, in the words of Lawrence Zelenak — an academic tax lawyer and former temporary employee of the Internal Revenue Service — "The Great American Tax Novel."
If you're wondering what exactly "The Pale King" is about, well, here's Zelenak's crystalizing description:
"The book devotes a significant percentage of its pages to detailed explanations and discussions of tax civics, tax policy and tax administration, and it is every bit as serious about those topics as 'Moby-Dick' is about whaling. 'The Pale King' is not merely set in a tax-administration facility; it is also, in very significant part, about taxes and tax administration. It is a 'Moby-Dick' of taxes, aiming to educate its readers about a highly specialized field of endeavor, and using that field of endeavor to explore some of the profoundest themes."
Those themes include, but are certainly not limited to, the boredom of white-collar office work, the crazy idiosyncrasies of weirdo co-workers, the infuriating bureaucracy of government agencies and the ways in which we trick our minds into tolerating all the things in life that we'd rather avoid.
If that sounds difficult to swallow, be assured: It's absolutely not. For a certain type of reader — the kind who savors deluges of ultra-specific details about offbeat topics — "The Pale King" is the most narratively fascinating book about the internal nature of boredom that has ever been written. (If I'm wrong about this, please email me, because you'll be introducing me to a book I desperately want to read.)
As with most of Foster Wallace's stories, there are numerous interconnected and vaguely related vignettes that come together into something far greater than the sum of the parts.
We meet a young couple navigating an accidental pregnancy and a man with "Random Fact Intuition," a type of psychic ability typified by "sudden flashes of insight or awareness that are structurally similar to but usually far more tedious and quotidian than the dramatically relevant foreknowledge we normally conceive as ESP or precognition."
There are creepy babies, a dude whose verbal tic inserts the phrase "type of thing" into almost every sentence, a woman who uses the ability to hold her eyes open for unbelievable lengths of time to evade an assault, a man who can focus so acutely he levitates, a hilarious office bromance and an unsettling company picnic where the entire crowd is accidentally drugged with acid.
The book's charms are endless. But with them come some profound questions about what life events cause us to really grow up and become adults, the moral and financial responsibilities of citizenship, and, ultimately, what we, as participants in a democracy, owe each other.
Yes, you must perform some feats of endurance — there are a lot of truly arcane references to sections and sub-sections of the tax code. But this is all part of contemplating what it means to work a job that elicits the kind of daily monotony in which "the strain of trying to remain alert and punctilious in the face of extreme boredom can reach levels at which certain types of hallucination routinely occur."
"The Pale King" itself is hallucinatory, making you feel, by turns, uncomfortably alive and then as torpid as can be expected in a world constantly assaulting us with attention-grabbing distractions. Pick it up. (But only after you finish your taxes.)
Esther Cepeda's email address is email@example.com.
(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group
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