Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Pale King, deskwork

IRS newcomer David Wallace is “frightened and thrilled” by his first sight of tax examiners at work, silent, unmoving, wholly focused. The scene doesn’t jibe with his sense of deskwork:

I had spent massive amounts of time in libraries; I knew quite well how deskwork really was. Especially if the task at hand was dry or repetitive, or dense, or if it involved reading something that had no direct relevance to your own life and priorities, or was work that you were doing only because you had to — like for a grade, or part of a freelance assignment for pay from some lout who was off skiing. The way hard deskwork really goes is in jagged little fits and starts, brief intervals of concentration alternated with frequent trips to the men’s room, the drinking fountain, the vending machine, constant visits to the pencil sharpener, phone calls you suddenly feel are imperative to make, rapt intervals of seeing what kinds of shapes you can bend a paperclip into, & c.¹ This is because sitting still and concentrating on just one task for an extended period of time is, as a practical matter, impossible.

¹ For me, the pencil sharpener is a big one. I like a very particular sort of very sharp pencil, and some pencil sharpeners are a great deal better than others for achieving this special shape, which then is blunted and ruined after only a sentence or two, requiring a large number of sharpened pencils all lined up in a special order of age, remaining height, & c. The upshot is that nearly everyone I knew had distracting little rituals like this, of which rituals the whole point, deep down, was that they were distracting.

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (Boston: Little, Brown, 2011)
Other Pale King excerpts

[The Pale King is a novel in the form of “basically a nonfiction memoir” by former IRS examiner David Wallace, “with additional elements of reconstructive journalism, organizational psychology, elementary civics and tax theory, & c.” In the novel, the footnote number is 45.]

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