The Soul is not a Smithy – Story Review

The Soul is not a Smithy (TSS) is a story of multiple story lines that do not so much converge as overlap one another.  In a way, it is very similar to the story that preceeds it, Mr. Squishy. Where Mr. Squishy is layered in the knowledge of the true workings of the of office and how everyone in the office interacts with each other, TSS is layered in time frames for each individual story. One story is about the narrator’s childhood when he and three other children are “held hostage” in their fourth grade class when a teacher had a psychotic episode and they didn’t realize they should run when when the rest of the students fled. Another story is a story the narrator creates for himself while staring out the windows of the classroom involving a fictive girl named Ruth who loses her job. Yet another story line is the story of the narrator as an adult trying to recount the events of the day he and three others were held hostage.

A feeling that emerges with reading Wallace is that the story may not necessarily matter.  This is something I’ve been moderately against in the past. Writing a story to prove a point seems like a hollow endeavour to me. The story suffers as it is buried beneath the weight of trying to prove a point, to espouse a theory, to argue an idea. Who I most often mention in regards to this is Ayn Rand – someone whose work I have enjoyed but have ultimately been left feeling a bit unfulfilled by.

With Wallace, and his extreme structuring, the idea before story might be brought the closest I have seen it taken to a successful marriage with it story without sacrificing the primary purpose of the work to the story.

With this collection in particular and with Wallace in general, I’ve read a lot mentioning his exploration of horror or terror. I mentioned it in the review of the first story, Mr. Squishy. But what becomes a larger theme with TSS, and which becomes a larger component of Mr. Squishy in retrospect, is how it deals with time and memory through structure. The narrator of TSS has clear problems with time and its organization, something that may have become worse with age as the need to organize time and events becomes more complex.

The lack of complexity for this organization as a child is revealed in the narrator’s day dreaming in the classroom as the substitute teacher quickly unravels in front of the chalk board. Looking through the window panes, the young narrator breaks his day dream up into comic book style panels for each pane of glass, and he takes this separate story tangents and builds them up with the use of other panels, creating a complex mosaic of imagery broken by each edge of each window pane-  just as each panel in a comic strip is broken apart in a conventional comic. Throughout the narrative of the day dream, the young narrator never becomes lost, and this “story” is the thing the older narrator seems to recall most clearly.

Where the narrative fractures is where the older narrator has had to rely on outside resources to construct what was happening in the classroom apart from his day dream.  In effect, someone was coloring between the panels of the story constructed by the young narrator and the old narrator is having to go in and figure out how to combine the worlds created by his younger self and the world “created” by the accounts of people who had been witness to the event happening around the young narrator.

So what does this say about memory and our construction of it? Well, I think the idea that the memories we are most sure about are the ones constructed most solidly from within ourselves shouldn’t be dismissed. In other words, it’s the idea that our memories, and hence the definition for ourselves, is necessarily a self-made construct. And perhaps this is the true process of growing up. The ability to create your own narrative structure.

The problem with the narrator is that what has become the climax of his formation of a person is something that he has no real first hand knowledge of. In effect, his adult existence has been built upon a house of cards arranged from the collected detritus of the memories of others. It is a disassociation the narrator would also feel towards his father, who comes home in a perpetual funk. This disassociation breeds within the narrator a fear of growing older, of coming to suffer from whatever it is that his father suffers from.

Which brings us back around to time and its link to memory. Time is, essentially, a mental construct. We measure it, as best we can, through whatever cycles are occuring around us but that’s like treating a disease’s symptoms rather than treating the disease. Time itself  is more a construct of our anxieties than anything. As a child, the narrator was essentially outside of the time loop for a moments, as all children are. But he was conscious of time in a way that made him recognize that something was wrong with how his father behaved and to associate this, in some way, with growing older.

I get the feeling that the psychotic break in the classroom, while the narrator was “outside of time” has a more significant connection with how he views his father. And that there is a lesson there about the dangers of opportunities and time missed and the repercussions it can have down the road.


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4 Responses to “The Soul is not a Smithy – Story Review”

  1. Oblivion by David Foster Wallace – Book Review « Loose Leaf Bound Says:

    […] The Soul is Not a Smithy […]

  2. Karo Says:

    I also think there is a connection between the teacher’s psychotic breakdown and the father’s quiet despair. Both might be men broken by the system. (of course it would be less banal than it sounds when I say it, but something in that line)

    The teacher writes “kill them” and someone wonders, if it might be read as an appeal to the children. “them” could refer to whatever turned the father into this empty shell, this hollow man and the teacher into this psychotic wreck.

    What I find very interesting are your thoughts about the ways in which David Foster Wallace handle narrative. It’s true that it sometimes takes a backseat in his literature, but for entirely different reasons than let’s say in a novel by Ayn Rand. If someone like Rand doesn’t serve the plot, it’s because she’s more interested in getting across her ideology. But apart from that, she usually follows narrative conventions. You can simply skip the sermons and end with pretty entertaining, easily digestible pulp fiction.

    I never feel that David Foster Wallace sacrifices plot to ideas. There’s no particular truth he wants to preach. I wouldn’t say he writes about ideas. He tries to reach for something on a more deeper level than ideas. As detached and cerebral his prose may be – he often manages to evoke a visceral reaction (at least with me).

    I think he problematizes plot in a more profound way than someone like Rand (who actually doesn’t problematizes it at all, who just sees it as an ends to other means), because fitting things in a narrative framework is a distortion, it’s a pretension of order that can never fully do justice to experience, it can never capture everything.

  3. gamesyz Says:

    it’s better to make translation of your site, it’s hard to understand for non english speaker : (

  4. marth Says:

    is he associating the psychotic break in the classroom with the undercurrent of despair in his father, though his father never breaks – also why does the child spontaneously “learn” to read at age 10, does that mean he figured out how to decipher the commonly shared systems of narrative that we create for ourselves and so kind of join society?

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