Monday, March 28, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Little Expressionless Animals"

From Girl With Curious Hair (1989). Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 97.

[In honor of David Foster Wallace's pending, posthumous novel, The Pale King, I'll be spending the weeks until then re-reading his short stories. Read a lengthy excerpt of this story in The Paris Review.]

Griffin whispers and the shiny man rises. "Merv posits that this force, ladies, gentleman, is the capacity of facts to transcend their internal factual limitations and become, in and of themselves, meaning, feeling. This girl not only kicks facts in the ass. this girl informs trivia with import. She makes it human, something with the power to emote, evoke, induce, cathart. She gives the game the simultaneous transparency and mystery all of us in the industry have groped for, for decades. A sort of union of contestantorial head, heart, gut, buzzer finger. She is, or can become, the game show incarnate. She is a mystery."

Actually probably definitely maybe one of my favorite stories of Wallace's, and that quote above helps to capture the essence of what he does here, and in all of his writing (essays included). He takes mere facts, poignant observations about the world, what have you, and gives it import. He is a man obsessed, from his tennis and mathematical and philosophical days, with limitations, and the ways in which we might step outside and escape them. It is no surprise that Julie Smith and Faye Goddard, the central lovers of this story, one a three-year Jeopardy winner (take that, Ken Jennings) and the other a question researcher for the show, both love the straightedge: "It makes worlds. I could make a world out of lines. A sort of jagged magic." These are women who have been trapped, the latter in a literal house of glass, but who are looking for a way to transcend or escape their fears. And over the course of this story -- which jumps from 1976 to 1970 to 1988, where we know Julie will be unseated by her autistic brother, before going back to connect the dots -- we will come to understand, to realize along with them, the ways in which they have been caught up and shaped by events that they could not control. 

For Julie, it's the opening paragraph, which details her abandonment -- after years of being locked in the various rooms of her house, with nothing except for her purloined copies of the encyclopedic LaPlace's Data Guide and her silent brother to keep her company: 

Two small children are brought out of the car by a young woman with a loose face. A man at the wheel of the car stares straight ahead. The children are silent and have very white skin. The woman carries a grocery bag full of something heavy. her face hangs loose over the bag. She brings the bag and the white children to a wooden fencepost, by the field, by the highway. the children's hands, which are small, are placed on the wooden post. The woman tells the children to touch the post until the car returns. She gets in the car and the car leaves. There is a cow in the field near the fence. The children touch the post. The wind blows. Lots of cars go by. They stay that way all day.

For Faye, it's what happens to her mother at, what we will later learn, was the film Son of Flubber

A man sits behind the woman. He leans forward. his hands enter the woman's hair. he plays with the woman's hair, in the darkness. the cartoon's reflected light makes faces in the audience flicker: the woman's eyes are bright with fear. She sits absolute still. The man plays with her red hair. The child does not look over at the woman. The theater's cartoons, previews of coming attractions, and feature presentation last almost three hours.

A running theme later in the story will be a half-game, half-tragedy played between these two women, in which they make up stories explaining why they've turned to lesbianism, and part of the trick/prison is the way in which Wallace masks these reasons, a sleight-of-hand he also affects with Julie's inability to answer any question relating to animals, all of which he neatly ties together (along with the title of the story) when Julie's final lesbian origin story returns to that post, that emptiness, that staring, expressionless cow.

Surprisingly -- nor not really, to those who are fans of Wallace -- this story is also tremendously funny. The depiction of the sinister Griffin and his unctuous yes man is handled in a neatly comic fashion, as is the representation of a feud between Trebek and Sajak, the decay of fellow game-show host Bert Convy, and the behind-the-scenes secrets of Jeopardy (which tapes multiple slots in a single day, which doesn't always put people on the show based on their audition scores). For bonus points, not only does Faye's mother, Dee, work for the show, but so does Faye's ex-stepfather's wife Janet, a woman who takes extra-special pleasure in destructively driving Dee to drink, in spite of and because of their many similarities. The lack of/need for empathy, as always, plays a driving role in Wallace's work; the use of a game show and the special inside-outside relationship of television with which to establish the decay of this American necessity is a particularly fitting one.

So far as complexity goes, this is a pretty readable Wallace story, full of short, direct sentences; if there's anything tricky here, it's simply the time-leaping narrative. Even here, however, Wallace fills his fiction with tangents and digressions, exploring the human condition with each opportunity he gets, be it in the comedic therapy sessions Trebek is undergoing or in the crushingly bleak scenarios Julie and Faye dream up (the structure of which will, I believe, someday inform Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) -- particularly a twisted love story in which a girl falls for a popular, beautiful, and above all serious boy: "You fall for the boy completely. The intensity of your love creates what you could call an organic situation: a body can't walk without legs; legs can't walk without a body. He becomes your body."

Without spoiling the story, it is not that the boy becomes tired of her body, nor that she starts to love him less -- it is the sinking feeling that in a relationship of this sort, "there's not much you, at the precise moment you're feeling most complete." Such paradoxically existential plights will later litter the pages of Infinite Jest, and you can see Wallace's complex poetry begin to assert itself here: "Your love springs from your incompleteness, but also reduces you to another's prosthetic attachment, calcified by the Medusa's gaze of his need." This is a story about facts. It is a story about limitations. It is a story about needs. It is, above all, a damn fine love story.

Fun Fact #1: the pull-quote on the cover of my copy of this collection is from T. Coraghessan Boyle, one of the most reliable modern (yet classic) short story writers, who says DFW "turns the short story upside down and inside out, making the adjectives 'inventive,' 'unique,' and 'original,' seem blase."

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