Posts Tagged ‘David Foster Wallace’

Book Links 10/17/12

October 17, 2012

Yet another  Holden Caulfield link. This is from Jen Doll at The Atlantic. It starts off about the recent book recently bought by Amy Einhorn Books before venturing over to whether we still care about the character of Caulfield, then back to the likelihood of the Salinger estate filing a lawsuit to kill the book. It wasn’t my favorite book in high school, and I was unable to get through a re-reading of it. However, one of the noted criticisms in the article, from some current high schooler, that he can’t care about “some rich kid with a free weekend in New York” is really the bottom of the barrel when it comes to high school lit crit. I think a better question regarding Caulfield’s relevance might be the social maturity of high schoolers now compared to then. Whether they actually are more socially mature or if they’re just better at faking it I’m not sure, but society has certainly shifted a bit over the past fifty years.

Jobs you don’t want? Apparently one of them might be cataloging David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

Emily Witt at The Cut delves into why adults are reading teen lit. I think she’s hit on something true that it is a bit of escapism, and trying to push another weird middle grade on us (somewhere between teen lit and adult lit it seems) isn’t going to have the same pull.

Book Links 9-13-12

September 13, 2012

A good article from the Irish Times about the importance of ebooks. What stood out to me, maybe because it was the last bit of the article, were the stats listed at the end – especially the bit about how once someone owns a kindle, they buy 4X as many books from Amazon as they did before. Considering Harper Collins expects 50% of their sales to come from ebooks within the next 18 months, and how much of the book business flows through Amazon and their hawking of their kindle, the importance of the anti-trust case becomes clearer. It could directly  affect where the power flows in the publishing industry and how the business will go forward.

From galleycat, Harper Voyager is accepting unagented manuscripts for a bit.

From Publisher’s Weekly, someone made a map for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.  I love the obsessiveness of it. and I know I’m not doing it justice so check it out and see it for yourself.

Consider The Lobster (collected essays) – David Foster Wallace

April 16, 2010

I swore off DFW material but I couldn’t help myself. I had finished Oblivion, I had Consider the Lobster sitting there, waiting. I picked it up and I started reading it and I was hooked. I’m not sure what can be said about a collection of essays except that when an essay about an awards banquet for porn movies is the least interesting essay and the most interesting is a 60 page review of a dictionary that turns into a synopsis of a language war between prescriptivists and descriptivists, you know you have something special.

The elephant in the collection, though, is probably “Up, Simba!” It was an article originally commissioned by Rolling Stone for Wallace to go out on the campaign trail and find out what the whole John McCain thing was about way back in 2000 when he was upsetting the W political applecart.Now, why Rolling Stone would look at anything Wallace has ever written and thought that he would return with something that is, first, what they had in envisioned from the outset and, second, of a reasonable length, is beyond me.  The thing is huge. At the time Wallace was told that to publish it as is it would likely take ALL print space in the magazine. All of it. Which meant it had to be heavily edited.  I have no idea what ended up in the magazine but this piece, the whole piece, paints a very odd portrait of McCain as not only a maverick but of an occasionally far right magnet. Some of the things he supported from being very pro-gun to, bizarrely considering the era, vehemently anti-drugs (as in, wasn’t that war an 80s thing?) he had all of the hallmarks of a great GOP candidate. It’s something where his lack of popularity with the GOP can only be explained by how it has become so rabidly marginalized in its views. It also spoke to how frightening he should have been to the left but that he had such a weird aura about him that he was a genuinely interesting candidate from the middle – despite his clear leanings towards the right. In the end, it’s still about as interesting as the porn awards essay but it’s also Wallace at his best, finding a way to step back and take a look at something that is at the same time reflective and insightful while also distanced enough to convey a genuine openness to interpretation. It’s an essay that welcomes the reader in and asks them to take part, a trait that is shared throughout the collection.

A quick websearch turned up the following link for the full text for the essay Consider the Lobster (via It’s as good of a place as any to start to see if you would be interested in the rest of the collection and how can anyone pass up a free essay questioning the morality in killing any animal for food?

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace – Book Review

March 24, 2010

Alright, the journey is over, Oblivion has been read and I can finally sum it up. First this has been an experience for me. The idea of going through a collection of short stories and reviewing each story while saving a review for the collection as a whole until the end has been illuminating. I found that was giving more thought to the stories as I went, that I was looking at how they were fitting together to form a coherent collection and, in the process of this, I think I got more out of the individual stories. Whereas before I may have missed a point or theme, reviewing each story was helpful in acting as roadsigns for finding different paths to take in each work.

What stood out the most for me was Foster exploring the concept of the narrator and the narrator’s reliability. What Foster does that is somewhat different from other authors is that he finds ways to undermine the narrators in his stories without necessarily making the narrators dishonest. In Mr. Squishy the various eyes we see the story through are proven time and time again to be unable to accurately portray all that is going on. The idea that what we are given are perceptions of what is happening rather than a factual account is contnually reinforced.

This brand of unreliability is explored again in Another Pioneer where we are given a story as told by someone who is hearing it re-told which, in fact, is also a re-telling and on and on and on. The story is told by way of the children’s game of telephone where a rather simple message is relayed through twenty or thirty people and becomes a complex jumble by the end.

With Oblivion we learn at the end that all that preceded it was a dream, again absolving the narrator of being labeled as purposefully unreliable – doubly true when we realize that the narrator wasn’t the narrator at all but just a figment of the dream the actual narrator used to filter her story.

With Good Old Neon we are given a narrator who is openly honest about how distrustful he is but this very openness makes you want to trust him about his deceitfulness. After all, why would he lie about his natural inclination to lie about everything? Other than it would fall perfectly within his nature to lie about it. So is the story we’re told also a lie meant to fit with what we, as readers, would want to hear?

Finally, there is The Suffering Channel which has the most distanced look at a process of skewing narration to fit expectations. Essentially a story about a guy who, literally, craps art work, a magazine attempts to find a way to make it “fit” their image and the expectations of their readers. While the people working at the magazine might not be pushing for outright lies in their coverage of the artful defecator, they are at least bordering on dishonesty as they shift to portray him in a favorable light.

Where does this leave Incarnations of Burned Children? It is the shortest story with the least ambiguity regarding the narrator. Over a few short pages the story is told in almost a misty dreamlike way as a father and mother react to their child being scalded by a pot of boiling water that has fallen on it. Aside from possible negligence by the mother, who we are led to believe was “watching” the child at the time of the accident, we are not given any reason to doubt the veracity of the account.

But every other story in the collection deals with a possible inherent unreliability of narration. Are we meant to assume a certain unreliability to the narration of Incarnations of Burned Children? After all, the mother is shown in a very unflattering (and stereotypical) light in the story while the father is also stereotypically the figure of action and decision and all in all favorable – aside from overlooking the fact that his child’s diaper is soaked with boiling hot water and the child’s genitalia is possibly forever mutilated.

Or is Wallace making another comment with having this story be the least ambiguous in narration?  Another fairly straightforward tale is Philosophy and The Mirror Nature about a man who has a spider fetish and must go with his mother everywhere to ward off her being attacked in public because of being horribly disfigured from a cosmetic surgery to remove crow’s feet.  There certainly appears to be a significance to the fact that the two stories dealing most directly with how a family reacts (and supports itself/eachother) in the face of disfigurement or tragedy appear to have the most reliability.  Is there something about the family dynamic in the face of tragedy that calls for an inherent reliability or, at the very least, honesty? The other stories all deal with story arcs that are either unrelated to the family or are relatively trivial by nature (such as a husband’s snoring interrupting his wife’s sleep).

And when Wallace is talking about the narrator is he also talking about our own perceptions and the reliability of our own thoughts? In The Soul Is Not a Smithy we are shown a man trying to recollect the events of a day when his substitute teacher went nuts and had to be gunned down by the cops but the majority of the facts from that day are given to us by sources outside of the narrator’s memory. We are shown a person constructing his “version” of things from the versions supplied to him from others while, in some way, passing the version off as his own.

So while Wallace continually presents us unreliable narrator after unreliable narrator, is he also bringing into question our own ability to construct the narrations of our lives? It seems to me that Wallace might be saying that we are all inherently unreliable but for moments where reliability (or thought) isn’t an issue, moments where we just act without consideration for appearance or where appearance takes a clear backseat to the necessity of a situation.  There are moments in life where spinning a story is simply inappropriate and, what Wallace seems to be suggesting, is that these are such moments.

Mr. Squishy

The Soul is Not a Smithy

Incarnations of Burned Children

Another Pioneer

Good Old Neon

Philosophy and The Mirror Nature


The Suffering Channel

Assorted David Foster Wallace Material

The Suffering Channel – Story Review

March 17, 2010

The bulk of the story is just talking about shit. Literally. Brint Molke is an artist on the brink of reluctant celebrity (or infamy) for producing works of art out of his ow shit. The twist is that he doesn’t take his crap and mold it into anything or fling it paintins. Instead, his body just seems to produce shit that is aesthetically pleasing and strongly resembling other works of art/people/objects. For example, as part of authenticating his “abilities” one of the figures he is to reproduce is Marylin Monroe’s iconoclastic image of her standing over a steam vent, attempting to hold her dress down while smiling a smile of envious delight.

This special ability of Brint Moltke is being covered by a “salaryman” named Skip Atwater who writes for a feature in Style magazine called What in the World. (WITH).  He is also supposed to cover a fledgling cable channel called The Suffering Channel which broadcasts, 24/7/365, images of, yes, suffering. Skip himself is a bit of a rube who simultaneously takes pride in his work while searching for exterior buts of motivation and reassurance that his work matters.

Meanwhile, Style magazine seems to be entirely staffed and ran by interns. Which makes Skip possibly the only paid worker we encounter from Style. Whenever the office world of Style is focused on, it always seemed as if it was a less hyper-competitive version of the world in Bret Ellis’s “American Psycho.” Skirts, blouses, bikes and heels get as much page space as dialog and inner office politics. While no one whips out competing business cards, there is still a definite air of personal competition when someone wearing a pair of silk hose that is”so delicate it can only be worn once” is mentioned.

The counterweight to Brint Moltke’s reluctance to step into the spotlight and Skip Atwater’s insecurities, is Brint’s large wife, Amber Moltke. Amber Moltke’s size is continually focused upon and even made into a bizarrely sexual force, especially as she simultaneously cripples a rental car while mauling the less than socially gifted Skip Atwater.  Not only is she physically indulgent, she is fame hungry in a way that is tunnel-visioned and predatory in a way that I’ve only seen approximated by “reality show” contestants as they fight and claw to either stay on the island or in the locked compound.

Against all of this is the reality that none of this will matter and that this article will very likely not be released and the majority of the people at Style will soon be dead. Style’s headquarters are in the world trade center. The date for completing this issue of style is September 10.  We know that on September 11, the towers will be gone and nothing much will be remaining. So all of this work, this conniving, this positioning, is for nothing.

Which seems to be the central thrust of this story. In the end, everything is ultimately for nothing and that the majority of our work will not have any long lasting appeal in the face of greater, more powerful events in human history. So as Amber Moltke shoves her embarassed, near reclusive husband before the cameras, quite possibly doing great emotional harm to him, we already know that nothing will come of it. Despite her repeatedly confessing to Skip that she believes her husband was horribly abused as a child and that this abuse affects him to the present, she willfully pushes  the story forward regardless of what affects it will have on him.

Meanwhile, the Styl e Magazine office hums along with a fascination of the superficial (such as one intern’s bicycle being of competition level and weighing only 8 pounds, allowing her to heft it easily and haul it into the building rather than leaving it padlocked on the street where it would no doubt be stolen) also leaves you with little sympathy for what you know their future will be and how their efforts to churn out their magazine full of thinly disguised tabloid news will be ultimately fruitless.

Even Brint Moltke offers little reason for sympathy as he is essentially forced on a death march towards a public bowel movement to prove the artistic ability of digestive system. At some point, he is just too pathetic to care about, as he sits dumbly while his wife negotiates away his dignity.

If anyone is deserving of sympathy it might be Skip Atwater who is just as bruised by his upbringing as Brint Moltke apparently is but has still managed to carve out a bit of a life for himself while also trying to convince himself that what he does is good for anything beyond that paycheck.

In the end, Wallace seems to be saying that we need to focus our lives less on the pointless shit and find what is truly purposeful for our existence. In the end, all of the Style Magazine-esque stuff is short lived and brushed from the world by larger, more powerful forces. By forces that do have some sort of meaning and purpose behind them, regardless of whether or not we agree or condone the purpose or the force, and that only things guided by purpose leave any significant traces upon our reality.

Oblivion – Story Review

March 15, 2010

The end leaves you wondering why you read the whole story. While such an ending was a humorous way of conluding a Bob Newhart series, it didn’t work so well for explaining away the biggest moment in the history of Dallas. It doesn’t do a whole lot for this story, either. Finding out all of what preceded was just a dream by the wife rings out as a hollow ending, an attempt to be cute in a book almost entirely devoid of cuteness. On the one hand, it opens up the possibility of the dream being a look into some unconscious feelings towards the marriage.

We are led to believe that the husband has, in some way, been consciously sleeping, perhaps faking his snoring, on some weird subconcious level while actually asleep, to irritate his wife. The bulk of the story is told in the clubhouse at a golf club by the husband to his father-in-law, which seems like an odd choice for a confidant when you’re essentially saying his daughter is nuts and is making their marriage a living hell by her incessant complaining about his snoring.

Honestly, if that’s as far as the story went before the woman wakes up and its revealed that this whole mess was really just a dream, there wouldn’t be much more to write about. What might save the story from falling into its clichéd ending is the little twist revealed just before the turn where you are given a hint that, at some level, the husband is purposefully snoring while asleep, something that should be impossible. This possibility is given an extra little push by a moment in the video from the sleep clinic that shows him slyly opening one eye to look at his still sleeping wife while he is snoring.

Now, by itself this certainly lends a creepy aspect to the husband that may not have been entirely there before. If he is somehow willing himself to snore while in deep sleep, and is weirdly subconsciously/consciously watching his wife to see if he’s effective, it raises a disturbing question over how strong the human subconscious is and how much control is really can assert over  a person’s actions. But what happens when we realize that this is all a creation of his wife’s unconscious mind?

Also, how reliable now is the narrator for the previous story? Finding out that it was all a dream throws the reliability of the narrator into serious question as the very notion of a dream lends a certain fog of uncertainty to it. All readers know that dreams are not reality but can work as representations of something about reality. So now we can no longer honestly look at the majority of the story as any sort of fact but only as some sort of representation of fact. Much of this collection has centered on stories that have passed through a number of filters and we are left to decide what has been filtered out, what has been allowed to pass and why. Part of what this story comes down to must essentially fit into this theme that rears itself in the  majority of the other stories.

Speaking of filters, this story passes through at least three. One is her husband’s, who is the narrator for the bulk of the story. The second is, obviously, Hope’s subconscious mind that we find has constructed the events entirely, and the third is the almost entirely unseen (aside from a few lines of dialog at the end) conscious Hope. At some point, it becomes crucial to figure out the meaning of the story in how it must relate to the conscious Hope’s world,f or her world is the only world that is mitigated by unreality. It’s the only world that’s “real” but the only picture we can draw from it now is from inferences made from the dream world told through the imagined lens of her husband.

Part of me does not believe the story works because it simply doesn’t give us enough information we can concretely say is True. I feel it is entirely safe to say that Hope’s dream must in some way be representational of Hope’s reality but we can’t judge how representational it is or of what it might be representing. At the same time, I would be hesitant to say that determining how/what the dream represents is what matters to Wallace in this story. Perhaps the exploration of narrator and time is what Wallace is looking to explore and the lack of information to encourage a reading of representation/reality is purposeful.  It might be Wallace’s way  of focusing our attention on what he wants it focused on. Rather than having a better story, Wallace may have been pushing for a clearer point.

Philosophy and the Mirror Nature – Story Review

March 14, 2010

I’m not sure what to make of the story. Even though it’s short, especially by Wallace standards, he packs a lot of information into it. A son and mother are suing a cosmetic surgeon for a botched surgery to remove crow’s feet that permanently ricters the woman’s face into a look of abject terror. Meanwhile, we also learn the son is on probation for not taking proper precautions in keeping poisonous spiders in his garage, something discovered by a kidfalling through the roof and into the glass enclosures that were housing the spiders.

The bulk (entirety?) of the story takes place through narration by the Son as he rides with his mother on the bus, has him talking about  how he goes with her to protect his mother while carrying a briefcase with little breathing holds tacked into it because he also brings some of his black widow spiders with him.

In a way it explores the horror of disfigurement. The result of the botched surgery on the mother’s face causes such discomfort in those who see her that the son has to literally protect her on the street and find the best possible seat on the bus for shielding his mother’s face from other passengers. But Wallace doesn’t focus on the ostracizing aspects of the disfigurements. It would have been the most natural, and easiest, path for the story to take but the only way the mother is touched on is a tower of different ways of saying she looks terrible and the affect this malformity has on those who see her. The bulk of the story is her son saying (and showing) how much he is willing to care for her and for his spiders, while attempting to absolve himself of any blame in regards of the incident regarding said spiders and how the black widow is actually a timid coward, especially in comparison to the recluse spider.  IN fact, the Son is almost motherly towards the spider, doting on them and praising them as if they were his children. Meanwhile, we’re ot given any reason to believe he has been praised at all by anyone. He is clearly helpful towards his mother but I don’t believe he ever mentions her noting his kindness.   She just seems to go with him out of necessity of the situation. And despite his occasional mentions of looking out for her due to the extreme of public reactions to her appearance, it seems he is just as unemotionally paired with her as he must be with her due to his probation because of charges brought against him when the kid fell through the garage and into his spider cages.

With the help of this class wiki (or maybe it’s just a message board system, not sure on the difference) I was keyed in on a possible connection to a philosphical take to the story with a similarly named paper from 1979: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by Richard Rorty. unforunately, much like the person who made the post at the wiki (or message board), I’m unable to tease out much of a meaning in the connection, either. This makes me wonder if there is a connection, though, considering Wallace’s background, I assume there has to be.

What I do sense is a certain hopelessness to the Son character. He takes actions of his own, namely his collection of Black Widow spiders, but he doesn’t seem to have much control over what is actually happening in his life. A kid crawling across his garage, an intruder as it were, falls into his spiders and manages to get the Son in legal trouble over it. The legal trouble ties him to his mother who is forced into greater dependency on him because of a horribly botched cosmetic surgery that left her permanently looking like the woman in the shower scene from Psycho.

And maybe this is where the only real connection lies to the Rorty work. From what I’ve been able to gather, Rorty’s paper is largely a call for philosophy to deal with problems in a real way that ignores pointless argument for a view of the bigger picture. in effect, if something works, that’s what matters. Not what color the shirt is of someone taking part. with the life of the son, there are few extraneous matters. He is constantly dealing with what needs to be dealt with how they need to be dealt with. In effect, he is finding what works and focusing on it rather than a bunch of ancillary things that don’t have any connection to the ends he is trying to make meet.

Assorted David Foster Wallace Material

March 13, 2010

Alright, to go with the litany of Wallace review goodness I have been going on and on about lately (such as my reviews of Incarnations of Burned Children and Good Old Neon) I’m looking around seenig what I can find of Wallace related stuff recently posted to the Interwebs.

Flavorwire has an awesome posting, with a few very interesting (and entertaining) images in mentioning that Wallace’s personal archives have been obtained by the Harry Ransom Center at UT-Austin. Seeing the loads of notes Wallace apparently filled margins and blank pages with in the books he read, I can’t help but feel a little inferior. Or just odd. Most people I know usually write something in the margins as they read, little notes and what not, but for whatever reason I could never bring myself to do it. There’s just something about writing inside of a book that was imprinted upon at a very early age as being very very wrong. Is it actually wrong? Probably not. But I’ve never been able to shake that programming.

Then there is the David Foster Wallace Audio Project, a website hoping to collect every audio recording Wallace has done. Notice, this is everything that isn’t for sale elsewhere, so if you’re looking for a free audiobook of Lobster, you’re going to have to look elsewhere 🙂

The Awl has posted the earliest example of Wallace’s signature, on a poem he did when he was 6 that was about Vikings. Honestly, it’s cute. And his large vocabulary was already becoming evident. Kinda scary to think of a kid that young being able to write that poem.

Here’s a youtube of David Foster Wallace reading some of his work:

As you can see, his delivery is excellent. He was just an engaging reader who was easy to listen and whose work truly did seem to take on a new life when being read aloud.

Finally, here’s a google search for David Foster Wallace and the Charlie Rose Show. I was hoping to just post a couple of interview videos but after doing the search and seeing the rather larger than expected number of hits that came up, I figure it would do more good to just post the search. I’ve been in classes before where Professors have played interview clips of authors on the Charlie Rose Show and being strangely superior to Charlie Rose, as if the author is in some way slumming it to be going on an interview show and hawking his wares. And, in one of the interviews of Wallace, he does seem a bit uncomfortable with the interview but I think it might have just been a general discomfort with interviews in general. Personally, I think such things are a good forum and a positive for literature. Writers want to be of significance but part of that is putting themselves out there in the public eye in ways other than just their writing. Despite his stated reluctance for book signings, I think Wallace deserves some credit for at least putting himself out there on the interview circuit and the occasional readings throughout his life, something other prominant American writers (looking at you Pynchon) have been entirely reluctant to do unless with an animated paperbag over their heads.

The Reading

March 12, 2010

Last night I went to a poetry reading involving my g/f and a couple of other women. Apparently this month is Women’s History Month or something. I don’t mean for that to sound denigrating, I really am not sure what it is as it was only mentioned to me once, but it set the stage for who was presenting poems and for the subject matter.

I’m happy to say the whole thing went well. Kate was good. She says she was nervous but it didn’t show. The second lady I wasn’t overly thrilled with but was still good. Confident. at ease. the open mic was less successful. One woman read a poem by someone else, a poem about a woman with a hat made from iguanas. It went far too long and I couldn’t help but wonder why someone would read a poem on open mic that wasn’t there own. One woman delivered her poem particularly well, from memory, clearly accostomed to performing but it lost energy halfway through. An undergrad got up and read poems that sounded like poems written by an undergrad but he gets marks for just stepping up and doing it.

What  I again realized, though, was something I’ve realized in the past. I’m not always good at following something being spoken. My interest wavers. I lose track of what’s being said or I simply don’t bother following it from the start.

What I do pay attention to is the person. The performance. The audience. Kate looked good up there. The audience laughed at seemingly appropriate moments. Without entirely following her poems I knew she was doing well.

Strangely, the poetry I followed the best was the one that was more directly performed rather than read. She was a blonde woman, sturdy with hair that just seemed to go everywhere for a bit. She wore glasses, rectangularish with this plastic frames. Very much the student look before incorporating such quirks in smaller more focused ways for adulthood. Her poem started out and it was funny and catchy about tits on TV at the house of her guy friends but it devolved into a bit of social commentary and what not and lost its energy.

There is something about a performance that focuses my attention.

What’s doubly odd is that I can sit through a recorded reading just fine. I have been watching some David Foster Wallace readings on youtube lately and find them interesting and engaging. But they can’t be all that different from a reading attended in person. Granted, he may just have a style that I find easier to “get into” but maybe the fact that it is filtered through a screen also has something to do with it. The idea that it becomes instantly more entertaining and engaging the moment it is viewed through an additional medium rather than just with my own eyes some how making it more palatable is an interesting and also disturbing one.

Does something filtered through an entertainment medium now lend credibility, even if only subconsciously? I mean, I watch television and I can decide what I think is crap and what isn’t crap and what I want to watch and what I don’t want to watch. but is there still a thought process saying that at least since it’s on television that there must be some purpose to it? Something that makes it worth of being transported to my living room as entertainment? and what’s youtube but the world’s largest cable subscription? Granted, most of the shows are, at most, a few minutes long but still, they’re there to be decided upon whether or not they should be viewed and just being there…well, are they more legitimate for that?

and this is without going into the idea of what exactly legitimacy is. Something that I, frankly, don’t want to delve into right now and will leave for everyone to contextualize as they desire. After all, I think that once given a basic set of parameters, even loosely defined as in the rambling predecessor to this paragraph, I think a general idea of legitimacy as intended by for this piece can be approximated by everyone.

In the end, all I’m really wondering is why I can watch a reading on youtube and be entertained and engaged and follow what is being said while not having a roughly equative experience in-person. I wonder if this is some innate or, possibly, learned shortcoming of mine of if it is something everyone has to deal with. And it’s not a problem I solely have with readings of fiction/poetry but with concerts as well. I’ve been to a few verve pipe concerts with my girlfriend and, outside of the songs I know, I’ve really had no idea what was being sung for great stretches of time but I did enjoy the music. Like a verve pipe concert, last night I didn’t always know what was going on but I did enjoy the music.

Good Old Neon – Story Review

March 10, 2010

It would be easy to make much of this story in light of David Foster Wallace’s own suicide but I’m not sure that I have it in me to draw those comparisons. They are there, clearly,  but it’s just not something that I care to explore – at least not explicitly. The idea of taking someone’s work and attempting to apply it like a blanket to an author’s life seems, at the same time, too easy and too constructionist. I say constructionist because there comes a point where you simply can’t know the artist (or perhaps anyone) well enough to come to any sort of definite conclusion. So what you end up doing is constructing something to bridge circumstances to art to life and trying to dress these bridges in a certain way that presents them as near fact. Is there a part of an artist in all of their creations? Of course. Could you represent a story like Good Old Neon as a preface to an eventual suicide note? Sure. But it seems like an ugly process to me.

Looking at the story itself, again, the narrator comes out and lets you know that he isn’t reliable. And by the end of the story, when you discover that the bulk of the story wasn’t in fact first person but a sort of omniscient third person where the actual narrator is “David Wallace” relating a story that you must assume is largely inferred of the circumstances surrounding the suicide of someone he went to high school with. So even if the narrator isn’t being literally or cognitively dishonest, you still have to remember that there is a certain quality of the telephone game to this. Similar to “Another Pioneer” where a story is presented to the reader as overheard on a long planeflight of someone in another seat relaying this story to someone else, you have to become aware of the opportunities for individual interpretation to find its way into the re-telling of the story.

Personally, I prefer to read this as a straight metafictional autobiography rather than some sort of plea for help from suicidal thoughts. Looking at this story, how it follows “Another Pioneer,” and how the theme of unreliability of the story teller is carried over, Wallace seems to, again, be riffing on the lack of reliability in all story tellers. It’s something that makes me think of Brecht and the attempt to separate the audience from the work to make them think of the work. By forcing/asking/whatevering the reader to step back from whatever world they are trying to immerse themselves in and to look and think about what is being said and why it is being said, it seems to be a plea for the reader to become more discerning about what they read. For good and for ill.

“Good Old Neon” can hold up to this detached viewing. The story that continuously wraps back around itself, adding layer to layer, as the narrator recounts a life of continuously attempting to not only tailor himself but to tailor the expectations of those around to fit some idealized notion of who he should be, to  maintain the highest possible opinion of him by everyone, is not only sufficiently complex but also sufficiently enjoyable. Part of me has to wonder how Wallace felt about the average page turner. The books that typically end up on bestseller lists, books that are ripped through by voracious readers, devoured like a gluttonous meal before being just as easily discarded so as to move on to the next bestselling smörgåsbord.  thinking of some of the books that I have read, I am not sure they would stand up to a near constant distancing.

At the same time, I would question the good of practiced distancing from everything you read. Part of the power of a piece of art is the ability to capture someone and pull them not just emotionally but psychologically into a moment, a fabricated world. forcing yourself to become immune to such pulls seems to be just as much a disservice as a positive push towards retrospection and introspection. Part of the beauty of the power of art is its ability to pull a person in and to allow for the experience of something beyond the person’s own.

Which may come back around to the narrator’s original problem, the ability to give himself over not only to himself but to others. The idea that a person is constantly attempting to manipulate every situation and interaction for the greatest possible personal benefit strikes me as being very similar to this idea of distancing from works of art, specifically literature. In the end, perhaps Wallace is saying this attempt is ultimately a hollow endeavor that leaves the individual equally as hollow.