Rollicking postmodern romp, by the late cult-favorite novelist and essayist Wallace (with help from an editor), through the bowels of the IRS.
Leave it to Wallace (Infinite Jest, 1996, etc.) to find fascination in the workings of a tax audit. Yet, with its mock-Arthurian title, his novel explores the minds and mores of the little men in the gray flannel suits, or at least their modern gray-souled counterparts. The story of the making of the novel is at least as interesting as the book itself: It was assembled, writes editor Michael Pietsch, from “a green duffel bag and two Trader Joe’s bags heavy with manuscripts,” working from multiple drafts and notes and various other clues, but with no certainty that Wallace intended the book to have its current, somewhat lumpy shape. Neither would Wallace, obsessive perfectionist, allowed some of the sloppinesses and redundancies in the present version to stand. Thus it deserves its title-page rubric “An Unfinished Novel,” and thus it should be thought of less as the last word by the late writer—and certainly more manuscripts will be extracted from the vaults and published—than as a glimpse into his mind at work. And what a mind: Wallace was nothing if not thorough, and his tale of accountant Claude Sylvanshine, heroic traveler on bad commuter airlines and dogged reader of spreadsheets, is full of details, facts and factoids assembled over years of study and rumination. There’s something of the author, perhaps, in Claude, but then there’s something of him in the other characters, too, and it would be a mistake to read this as roman à clef. All of Wallace’s intellectual interests come through: the notes and asides, the linguistic brilliance, the fact piled atop fact, the excurses into entropy and, yes, autobiography (“Like many Americans,” reads one note, “I’ve been sued...Litigation is no fun, and it’s worth one’s time and trouble to try to head it off in advance whenever possible.”) Does it add up to a story? Not always. But there are many moments of great beauty, as with this small passage: “Drinion looks at her steadily for a moment. His face, which is a bit oily, tends to shine in the fluorescence of the Examination areas, though less so in the windows’ indirect light, the shade of which indicates that clouds have piled up overhead, though this is just Meredith Rand’s impression, and one not wholly conscious.”
Unfinished or no, it’s worth reading this long, partly shaped novel just to get at its best moments, and to ponder what Wallace, that excellent writer, would have done with the book had he had time to finish it himself.