2 Books About Other People’s Money

Dear readers,

I’m surprised by how rarely I encounter money in fiction — not casual hints of its abundance (trust funds, oversaturated educations, uninterrupted sleep) or painful absence, but actual grimy bills, checks uncovered long past their 180-day lives, the siren calls of Klarna and Afterpay.

Strange, too, that so few books deal substantively with a near-universal vexation, by which I mean the tax system. Then again: To most reasonable people, taxes are a stand-in for drudgery. They are stressful. They are unfair and, at worst, insulting. (Have you filed yours yet, by the way?)

But taxes also offer ample material, it seems to me, starting with the existential questions they bring up. What is my life worth? What do I owe? What is enough?

At this point I should confess I have a perverse patience for the U.S. tax code, not least because I marvel at the obstinacy of its idiom. You mean to tell me that we have recondite, intricate rules boobytrapping our finances that require a specialized degree or a Rosetta Stone to interpret, and interpreting them incorrectly could lead to ruinous fines, prison or both?

And we’re supposed to just take this?

Plus, it’s fun to read about other people’s money. So in that spirit, here is a selection of books that grapple with these questions. One note, to pre-empt any howls of oversight: In the same boneheaded, stubborn vein that for years led me to compute my taxes by hand, I am not including the U.S. tax system’s most famous starring role in fiction, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, “The Pale King.” That book momentarily elevated the I.R.S. into a literary sensation, just as Nicholson Baker’s “Vox” did for phone sex, and plenty others have written about it. Taxes should be a little tough, and I’m not one to give myself an easy out. But I’ve always gotten a refund.


Nonfiction, 1963

Despite its grand title, this booklet, from the influential, restless, voracious literary critic, begins simply enough. Between 1946 and 1955 he did not file tax returns — not out of any moral objection or nefarious intent, but because he believed he could just deal with them later. Not so. The first lawyer he consults advises him to move abroad rather than tackle his unthinkable debt, then suffers a series of (eventually fatal) strokes before he can argue the case. Things only get worse from there.

The origins of Wilson’s crisis are recounted in a tone that will be familiar to anyone with friends who suffer from poor executive function. You can almost sympathize with his logic — he’s a writer on a shoestring income! How much could he really owe? — until he expresses indignation that the I.R.S. might expect him to give up one of his three homes to cover his debt.

In his telling, the I.R.S. might well be an especially intrusive branch of proctology: “It is an insufferable impertinence of the federal government to ask why I have entertained my guests or why I have chosen to travel — to say nothing of how many times I have been married, whom I have voted for and whether or not I buy my dog a bed.” (The agents assigned to his case didn’t appreciate his spending $6 on an animal.)

Notate bene: I did not check his math, though there are plenty of dizzying figures, nor did I confirm his understanding of tax law. And I will admit that by the latter half of this argument, when he really gets going on the Cold War and American imperialism (“The Artificial Cholera Epidemic” is one particularly alarming chapter title), he takes on the feeling of a man muttering to himself in the shower, or of a WASP alone at the bar on his fourth gin-and-bitters.

I’d like to think Wilson’s experience writing sexually explicit diaries helped make this enjoyable to read. I found it worth my time, if for no other reason than occasioning my first encounter with the concept of “psychic income.” We all might be entitled to bigger refunds than we thought.

Read if you like: public access TV programming, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” l’esprit de l’escalier
Available from: The library of a country club or a country-club prison; sundry book dealers online

This collection is organized around money: who has it, who needs it, who would debase himself to get more. Lenny, the executive producer for a soul-paralyzing show, “Anything for Money,” humiliates those who are as desperate as he once was, goading hopeful contestants to strip and say, “I am a fool,” jeering a woman too afraid to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a box crawling with roaches.

The kids of this book are memorable. Lenny’s granddaughter, who appears without notice at his mansion, is the one to pull him off his Faustian course. The sisters in “A Chick From My Dream Life” are weird, a little sexually precocious, committed ultimately to each other. You wonder what world — what precarity — Bender believes they’ll inherit.

The title story is set in 2001 New York. Two artists stare down sobering choices (Set aside creative fulfillment and go into pet portraiture? Put on a suit and get a real job?) and decide to rent their TriBeCa apartment while they’re out of state. A friend of a friend drools at the apartment’s proximity to Nobu; a magical sum is wired, and the artists can relax, a little. Days later, after the towers fall, the artists’ sublessee makes increasing, outrageous demands — she says she wants her money back, but what she really needs is recompense for having lived through the attack, a torsed relative of survivor’s guilt.

Read if you like: Suze Orman, eavesdropping, intergenerational friendship, fictional cats who advance the plot
Available from: A good bookstore or library; or the author’s website offers links to the usual online retailers

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