AT A MEMORIAL GATHERING held for David Foster Wallace at New York University a couple of months after his suicide in September 2008, his friend Jonathan Franzen recalled the talks he and Wallace used to have about fiction writing: why they did it, how to do it better, and, in a culture increasingly dismissive of serious fiction, what good it did anybody anyway. Whatever their disagreements — and they could be a combative, competitive pair; have a look at Franzen's famously ill-advised meditation in The New Yorker, "Farther Away," where he speculates that Wallace's suicide was partly "a career move" — they agreed on one thing. Fiction was a way to speak the secrets of contemporary life that kept people distant from one another, afraid and alone. It was, Franzen said, "a way out of loneliness."
It seemed like a homely formulation for two supremely ambitious writers who in the past were wont to throw down bold manifestoes about the state of their art like Wallace's "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," first published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, or Franzen's famous 1996 Harper's essay, "Perchance to Dream." But they'd both come to be convinced that the novel was one of the few places where it might be possible to listen to the manifold mysteries within and around us, where some protective circle could be drawn around a reader's consciousness, where real subjectivity could still thrive. Both these grateful sons of postmodern master Don DeLillo have suggested that if you listen hard enough to America's torrent of media and consumer madness — the "white noise" — you hear above it, below it, and even in it the sounds of fragile people negotiating a whole lot of cultural lunacy, frantically distracting themselves from their fears of mortality, and furiously trying to break through to one another, to connect.
In The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen brought his enormous talent to bear on delineating such desperate characters. But Wallace goes a step further, using fiction as a site where he enacts that desperation at the level of voice and style. The obsessive pressure of fictions like "The Depressed Person" and "Good Old Neon" don't merely represent the hell of locked-in solitude: they're clearly Wallace's own wails from within his prison-house. The very attempt to escape and connect is probably what established such an intimate bond between him and his readers. (It's a bond that I think is unrivaled in American fiction since the glory days of J.D. Salinger, whose fiction, especially the late Glass stories, Wallace's work more than passably resembles in its combination of vulnerable charm, narrative virtuosity, and transparent reaching out to an ideal reader.) What Wallace's works say over and over again is this: you're not alone; don't worry, I feel this too. Or, as Wallace puts it on the first page of his slyly hilarious, uncannily moving The Pale King, the novel he left unfinished at his death, "We are all of us brothers."
All of which may seem like an unduly heavyweight way to introduce a novel about the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS is, for most people, a fear-laden joke: just speak the initials at any public gathering and watch the smiles rise. (Why do we smile? Guilt and anxiety. Guilt at how we've, um, misrepresented our 1040s in the past. Anxiety that they'll come after us one of thes...