“I knew, sitting there, that I might be a real nihilist, that it wasn’t always just a hip pose. That I drifted and quit because nothing meant anything, no one choice was really better. That I was, in a way, too free, or that this kind of freedom wasn’t actually real — I was free to choose “whatever” because it didn’t really matter. But that this, too, was because of something I chose — I had somehow chosen to have nothing matter.”
What series of events can turn a directionless, nihilistic, college student, who proudly sports one side burn, into a serious accountant at the IRS, America’s least bohemia-friendly institution?
That’s the question David Foster Wallace explores in his coming-of-age novella Something to Do With Paying Attention, which is actually also a section of his unfinished novel, The Pale King.
I happened to read this while reading the Closing of the American Mind, which keenly diagnoses the American meaning crisis on college campuses in the 70s as one of nihilism, so it was cool to see an actual character going through his own nihilistic phase while getting a generalized summary of it from a philosopher and social critic.
I also found the narrator’s college self alarmingly relatable to my college self, who was also pretty aimless and known for skipping classes and shirking duty whenever weed, sleep, video games, or parties were the other option.
Major Takeaways: Nihilism is a Choice, & IRS Agents are Me & You
The overall message I took away from this book is that America has created a society where the majority of people feel like their lives, and especially jobs, are meaningless, but that we still have a choice to invest even the most mundane of jobs with enough meaning to make us feel like our lives are worth living, and important, even if it comes across as delusional to the average onlooker.
To illustrate, the scene that sticks with me the most was when the narrator recounts his experience of accidentally sitting in on an advanced accounting class, a class that had a surprisingly profound effect on him.
The substitute professor ends the class with an inspiring summation where he, addressing a room of attentive students, lays out his argument for why working in accounting perfectly exemplifies today’s version of heroism — the ability to concentrate on frustrating, tedious, repetitive, boring work without praise for years on end.
Overly romantic and rather depressing? To most, yes.
Inspiring? To the narrator it is. He goes off and buys some accounting textbooks and applies to a program at the IRS.
This demonstrates the complexity of human nature, how people react to the same stimuli in a whole bunch of ways. My friend Willie made a good point that the book humanizes IRS agents, making you see that they’re people just like you, with reasons for doing the work they do.
The same should be done more frequently for the careers we think “why?” to when someone tells us their job. Or the careers we might have a stigma against (cops, divorce lawyers, etc.,) , or even an unglamorous job like working at McDonalds, which happens to be a good way to make money while doing honest work — helping someone get some delicious fast food.
What I Loved & Why
Here are the parts of the book I loved the most. Just some notes about why I loved them:
His Description of the Experience Known as Obetrolling (38-43)
- It’s a unique experience well described – Obetrolling, similar to Ritalin, and the power it gave him, Doubling (being hyperaware of his awareness).
- I liked how he had names for Obetrolling and Doubling – made him seem like a playful college kid.
- Reminds me a lot of my meditation experiences, and being aware of the behavior of my mind.
- The things he noticed about the nature of his awareness are so interesting to me, like how “heartbeat wants to say out of awareness, like a rock start avoiding the limelight.”
Telling the Story of His Father’s Death (62 – 70)
- A significant event well placed – although the narrator doesn’t explain his father’s demise as being one of the major reasons for him deciding to find direction and join the IRS, I can tell that it is. It makes his choice more believable.
- Hilariously described – his cold detached tone, like that of an accountant, while describing his father’s rather zany way of passing, with shopping bags flying up in the air, produces the effect of humor.
- Relatable – I think anyone who’s ridden on a crowded subway has had the fear of getting stuck in the door. Because the death is connected to a fear we all have, it’s more impactful, and even hard to read at times.
His Disgust With his Past Wastoid Self
- It’s funny and relatable to hear the narrator speak with embarrassment and a tinge of disgust about his college self and bad habits.
- I like coming of age stories where the narrator is a matured version of the protagonist, such as David Copperfield. I guess this is perhaps because the narrator can speak with both warmth and hostility towards his former self, and that makes for interesting and moving analyses and descriptions.
- Applying the term wastoid to his college self seems perfect to me and makes me laugh. I’m going to start using it as a way to playfully insult, Bostonians know it as chirp, my friends.
There’s a lot else I love about this book, like his warm analysis of his father’s personality and his younger self’s mistaken view of his father, but I don’t have time to write all of them. Go read the book and I’m sure you’ll find your own gems.
The Author’s Significant Techniques & Choices
These are just some of the biggest writerly choices and techniques that stood out to me while I was reading, and what they can teach us about writing.
Show The Reader the End Result Early
Some of the best novels begin by telling you an absurd or unexpected outcome for a character and then spend the rest of the novel showing you how the character go there.
There might not be a whole lot of suspense when you an author chooses this route — the reader knows what happens in the end — but the mystery, the how of the matter, provides more than enough fuel for your curiosity if the end is odd enough.
In many cases, the outcome is something unfortunate, like an untimely death or an unwanted divorce.
In this case, David Faster Wallace gives us a narrator who is an accountant in the IRS, what he refers to as the Service, and I found that outcome almost as odd and exciting as anything else he could’ve said, because really, I have no idea whatsoever what could inspire someone to go through such a career.
The outcome became even more shocking as I learned about this character — a lazy, directionless, tv-watching, drug-using, wastoid (this is how the narrator describes his past college self).
This really hooked me. Honestly, with so little knowledge about the IRS except for my prejudices against it as tedious and boring work, a story of an average person becoming an agent would’ve gripped me. But this distance between the two made for even stronger of a pull on my curiosity.
I had to ask, “how the hell does this guy, the opposite of the IRS employee — rigid, organized, precise, business-like — become one of them?” I had to turn the pages to find out.
Give the Narrator a Relatable Self-Consciousness
I noticed a funny self-consciousness about Wallace’s writing, or at least the main character’s narration.
The narrator was always saying things like “I’m not sure I’m explaining this right,” even when he totally was (DFW has a knack for nailing descriptions of the vaguest of emotions and sensations).
Why DFW chose to give the narrator this tick of self-doubt I’m not sure, but the effect it had on me was that I believed this character was a real person. It just seems like something a real person would do when recounting a story in person to an interviewer.
It also made me sympathize with the narrator, perhaps because self-doubt is such a relatable trait.
Choose a Stigmatized Job People Haven’t Read Much About
I wonder what motivated DFW to choose IRS work as his protagonist’s career, and as much of the subject of the book.
Perhaps it was to explore the crisis of mundanity that he was curious about? Maybe, like me, he was curious about why, aside from financial reasons, anyone would go into such a line of work.
Whatever his reasons, the result of this choice was a gripping read. Knowing absolutely nothing about the work of an accountant or IRS agent, or the IRS’s aims and worldview, this was intriguing to me, especially since the institution is on top of mind for a few days every April when I rush to file my taxes.
Who Should Read it?
Everyone should read it, duh!
But if I had to specify a type I’d say anyone struggling with choosing a direction in life, or their next big move. Or anyone who likes dark humor and cutting analyses of hipsters. Or anyone who was a wastoid in their past, or is now (we’re all wastoids sometimes), and wants to laugh at themself, something we all need from time to time.
Grab a copy of Something to Do With Paying Attention.