Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR"

From Girl With Curious Hair (1989). Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 91.

[The Pale King will be released in 17 days. I'll be re-reading Wallace's short stories until then.]

Though many of Wallace's ideas recur -- and you'll see thematically similar stuff to this story as we pass to Oblivion -- the mode of each story is fresh; knowing what's going to happen, he seems to be saying, doesn't make the need to hear it or seeing the how and why of it and less important. So yes, while the title basically describes the entire story -- in which the junior, newly divorced Account Representative and the senior, still married Vice President in Charge of Overseas Production, leave their Building after a late night -- it also hints that there is far more to this story than the actual event itself. No, what this story speaks to is the extreme circumstances that must occur in order to bring two people together, or as Wallace puts it with his mathematical elegance: "There were between these last two executives to leave the Building the sorts of similarities enjoyed by parallel lines." People as parallel lines -- similar, but never intersecting: the thought is devastating, especially considering the similar, quiet pains each one is filled with:

He was preparing to feel that male and special feeling associated with the conversational imperative faced by any two men with some professional connection who meet in nighttime across an otherwise empty and silent but fragilely silent underground space far below the tall and vaguely pulsing site of a long and weary day for both: the obligation of conversation without the conversational prerequisites of intimacy or interests or concerns to share. They shared pain, though of course neither knew.

This is a good time to talk about the uses of complexity, which, when I introduce DFW to friends, is generally the main thing they complain about. First, consider the way the lengths of the two sentences above work together as you read them: the first pushes, prods, and soldiers on, pushing and repeating a technical description -- "conversational imperative" -- in such a fashion that we can no longer take it as a given. (And seriously, have you ever tried to explain some of the "very basic" things that Wallace is forced to describe in oh-so-many-words? Part of the reason he waxes on is because nobody talks about these mundane things, even though they're a vital part of who we, human animals, are.) Second, watch the way the short and direct second sentence crystallizes, in part, because it comes after such a strenuous first sentence. You work very hard through something mentally elusive, trying to grasp at it; your mind is then more malleable for the theoretical punchline or redirect of the very next thing to be said clearly. (Consider shaggy dog stories.) In this case, it's "They shared pain," which is a given that we might not be as receptive to were DFW to lead with it. Note the subconscious indicators leading us to empathize: the descriptions of silence and emptiness rather than the labeling of loneliness. He knows we will not feel as much for these men if he has to tell us what we should feel for them; instead, he pushes the familiar sensation of working late; instead, he attributes feelings and sensations to the Building itself, which is "fragilely silent" and "vaguely pulsing": more than just a thing that takes up space.

Now the title makes more sense, now the flow of information seems clearer: it's in delving behind the act, behind the moment, that gets us starting to invest, when we turn from a passive series of plot points to an active attempt to connect the dots. Empathy comes from taking an interest; now the question is, is near-death or mortal circumstances the only thing that can still make us take an interest, stranger to stranger? After all, until the Vice President in Charge of Overseas Production (and look how impersonal the repeated use of the full title is) begins to spasm -- which Wallace describes in half-time as a sort of violent pirouette -- the Account Representative is "composing a carefully casual face, narrowing salutatory options toward a sort of landlocked 'Halloo' that contained already an acknowledgment of distance and an easy willingness to preserve same." Save for a few very open people -- and probably even with them, at some point -- we all do this, because we have been raised (and celebrated to be) private individuals, and will now spend the rest of our lives battling back to close the space between us and at least a small circle of similarly-treading-water friends and lovers.

And battle is what happens here, for if a pirouette can be described savagely, then so too can the intimate and gentle/rough act of CPR. This man, who moments ago was invested in preserving his composure, his distance, is now fully invested in the Samaritan act of saving a life -- and for what it's worth, he learned CPR from his now ex-wife, so his marriage has, at this point, at least been for something. As occurs in many a Wallace story, though, the ending isn't necessarily hopeful. Two levels below the surface, in their elite subterranean garage, the Account Representative calls and calls for help that may never come, as we cut to two lovers walking the streets above, "hearing no real difference in the city's constant nighttime traffic's hiss and sigh." Is this, then, a cautionary tale for all of us similarly striving junior Account Representatives, passed along to us by the older Vice Presidents in Charge of Overseas Production? Be careful what material things we value?

It's open-ended in that regard, but I'll cling to the hope of the very final line: "Bent to what two lives required, below everything, he called for help again and again." I'll cling to what two lives require: help.

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