Cornel Bonca and Lee Konstantinou each offer a perspective in The LA Review of Books. Bonca:
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 these days.) I’m more than a little sensitive to this because, from 1980 till 1984, when I was a very young man, I worked for the IRS as a revenue officer — I was the guy who knocked on people’s doors, flashed my Treasury Department credentials, and demanded full and immediate payment, including penalties and interest, for delinquent 1040s, 941s, and 1120s. I was the guy who filed tax liens, levied people’s wages and bank accounts, seized people’s homes and assets when they refused to pay up. I mention this only because The Pale King deals with the IRS during a period (the late 1970s until the mid 1980s) which almost exactly coincides with my woeful tenure there, and I can verify that, however fictionalized Wallace’s IRS is, and however he gets things wrong — new IRS employees didn’t have to change their Social Security numbers to ones beginning with a 9; there was no such thing as the Spackman Initiative (more on this later), etc. — he’s spot on about the spirit of the place.
The spirit of the place was spiritless. The Pale King’s IRS employees have faces the color of “wet lead.” They spend their 15-minute breaks staring at clocks ticking them back to the bondage of their desks. In one only slightly over-the-top segment, we read about an IRS guy who dies at his desk — and nobody notices for four days. This is an IRS that’s unrelentingly, remorselessly boring and unspeakably bureaucratized, heedless of the basic need of its employees: to exact from their work some small measure of human satisfaction.
Bureaucracy’s boredom emerges as one of the novel’s primary concerns, though to say The Pale King is “about” boredom is about as enlightening as to say that Infinite Jest is about addiction. Bureaucracy is the territory, and Wallace goes at it from multiple directions, always avoiding the well-worn path. He piles on the insufferable language of bureaucracy, flirting with the imitative fallacy — describing boredom by being boring — and it’s a strategy that not every reader will appreciate. He refrains from taking the Fight Club route, which is to claim that the only escape from boredom is sensational violence. He also eschews the Warhol trap, which sees boredom as this really interesting aesthetic that the artist studies from his fortress of irony. No, Wallace’s take on boredom is frankly ethical and existential — he reconsiders what boring work does to people’s souls in ways that hearken back to the great “business” or “office” narratives of the last century…