Read David Foster Wallace’s Notes From a Tax Accounting Class, Taken to Help Him Write The Pale King


Click images once to enlarge, and twice to zoom in.

There are two ways to gath­er mate­r­i­al for a book. The first is to live life to the full. Ernest Hem­ing­way fished, fought, and went to bull­fights. Her­man Melville and Charles Bukows­ki slept their way through an impres­sive por­tion of the West­ern world. Jack Ker­ouac spent years trav­el­ling before he reached the crit­i­cal moment where he was ready to write On The Road. These authors lived with a pal­pa­ble inten­si­ty, and used their expe­ri­ences as fuel for their writ­ing. Oth­ers, how­ev­er, did not rely on first­hand accounts. Elmore Leonard paid a leg­man named Gregg Sut­ter to do his research, using Sutter’s accounts of loca­tions as the scaf­fold­ing for his descrip­tions. Nathan Eng­lan­der wrote a fine­ly-tuned nov­el about the dis­ap­peared dur­ing Argentina’s Dirty War hav­ing only vis­it­ed Buenos Aires for a week. He did a lot of read­ing.

In writ­ing The Pale King, a nov­el of 1980s IRS agents stul­ti­fied by bore­dom in Peo­ria, Illi­nois, David Fos­ter Wal­lace joined the lat­ter group. Although Wal­lace had left an unfin­ished man­u­script when he com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2008, he had spent more than a decade work­ing on it. In fact, a year after the release of his opus, Infi­nite Jest, Wal­lace enrolled in account­ing class­es at Illi­nois State Uni­ver­si­ty to learn about pre­cise­ly what IRS agents did. Accord­ing to The New York Times’ Jen­nifer Schuessler, the author began “plow­ing through shelves of tech­ni­cal lit­er­a­ture, tran­scrib­ing notes on tax scams, cri­te­ria for audit and the prob­lem of ‘agent ter­ror­ism’ into a series of note­books.”

Today, we bring you two pages of his notes (click the images to enlarge). In the first, above, Wal­lace has jot­ted down a few key points about accru­al and defer­ral, along­side what is like­ly a note to self on the subject’s dif­fi­cul­ty: “A BITCH.”

In the sec­ond, below, Wal­lace writes, “‘You’re home free, you did it,’ says teacher. Account­ing is sea of dis­parate data threat­en­ing to drown us. One ‘escapes,’ ‘gets out safe­ly’ from a clos­ing cycle.” Cryp­tic? You bet. But not as cryp­tic to the untrained eye as “ACCOUNTANTS ARE THE COWBOYS OF INFORMATION,” scrawled diag­o­nal­ly across the bot­tom of the page.

For an astute inter­pre­ta­tion of these notes, I urge you to head over to The New York­er and read Seth Colter Walls’David Fos­ter Wallace’s Tax Class­es.”


Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture and sci­ence writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

David Fos­ter Wallace’s Love of Lan­guage Revealed by the Books in His Per­son­al Library

The David Fos­ter Wal­lace Audio Archive: A Lit­tle Gift For the Novelist’s 50th Birth­day

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