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David Foster Wallace’s “The Compliance Branch”
“The Compliance Branch”, a fictional piece written by David Foster Wallace, was published in Harper’s Magazine’s February 2008 edition. The story is an excerpt from The Pale King, the novel Wallace spent several years working on prior to his death in September 2008. The incomplete novel, which will be published posthumously by Little, Brown in 2010, is about transcending boredom to uncover bliss.
In March 2009, Little, Brown issued a press release stating that the book is:
“Set at an IRS tax-return processing center in Illinois in the mid 1980s, THE PALE KING is the story of a crew of entry-level processors, “wigglers” in IRS jargon (for their similarity to newly hatched tadpoles), and their attempts to do their job in the face of soul-crushing tedium and bureaucratic malevolence. The novel’s main character, David Wallace, is newly arrived at this job and learning from all around him amid epic institutional confusion…It is David Wallace’s effort to weave a novel out of life’s dark matter: boredom, banality, the ‘irrelevant complexity’ of everyday life, all the maddening stuff that stands between us and the rest of the world and through which we have to travel to arrive at joy.”
“The Compliance Branch,” just 2,000 words, is a dark, absurdly funny story of an IRS agent whose assuredness in the workplace is disturbed by his Group Manager’s infant son. The manager, much to the distress of the narrator, is granted special permission to regularly bring his baby into the office.
The boy, who is referred to strictly as “the infant,” carries an expression and demeanor that is always menacing. The narrator says, the “infant I can describe only as fierce. Its expression is fierce; its demeanor is fierce; its gaze over bottle or pacifier or finger—fierce, intimidating, aggressive.”
The narrator, most likely bored with the tedium of working as a “wiggler,” spends a vast amount of time, indirectly studying the infant as he radiates authority from his baby carrier, forces his father to hold him in a “posture of classic oppression,” and abstains from blinking, fussing, or even playing with brightly colored developmental toys.
The infants’ main occupation is intimidating IRS auditors. The narrator says, the infant “would gaze at the GS-6 auditor fiercely, with a combination of intensity and disdain, rather as if it were hungry and the GS-6 were food but not quite the right kind. There are some small children who you can tell are going to grow up to be frightening adults; this infant was frightening now.”
There comes a day in the office when the narrator has one of his audits appealed. To the displeasure of the narrator, he is forced to watch the infant, while the Group Manager, acting as one of the rotating District Level-One Appeals Officers, meets with the aggrieved taxpayers.
Once in the manager's office, the narrator refuses to look straight at the infant. He'll occasionally throw sideways glances, but remains steadfast in his unwillingness to touch, smile, or in anyway interact with the baby.
After several minutes, the infant gets the narrator’s attention when he clears his throat, deliberately sets aside his teething ring, and folds his “hands adultly together.” The infant, clearly too young to say anything but dada and mama, expectantly looks at the auditor for a long moment before saying, “Well.” Amazed, the shocked auditor automatically responds, “Excuse me?”
For several long moments the baby and the auditor stare, arms clasped, at one another. When the auditor choices not to clear his throat for fear of appearing impertinent, he knows that he is under the infant’s command. The auditor says, “it was in that literally endless expectant interval that I came to see that I deferred to the infant, respected it, granted it full authority, and …I was, thenceforth, this tiny white frightening thing’s to command, its instrument or tool.”
The moment the narrator denies his natural instinct due to fear, he recognizes that he has fallen in line with the conformity of the IRS. By subjugating himself to this fierce, managerial infant, the narrator loses his self-will and becomes a member of the compliance branch.
Wallace, David Foster. “The Compliance Branch”. Harper’s Magazine. February 2008. 7 August 2009. <http://www.harpers.org/archive/2008/09/hbc-90003557>
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