Originally published in Girl With Curious Hair. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 22.
[Continuing the countdown to whenever my copy of The Pale King arrives from Shipping Limbo.]
An odd semi-history of a story that doesn't feel like Wallace at all, mainly because so much of the story is spent dealing, in a straightforward fashion, with a sidelong depiction of the actual Lyndon B. Johnson, through the eyes of an invented, gay confidant, David Boyd. There's no identification of which supposed aphorisms in this story were actually used in later speeches, nor is there any distinction between actual news quotes and made-up "transcriptions" regarding the curious relationship between Boyd and LBJ; as a result, this story is likelier to have a greater effect on those who knew the man (and for whom this could be seen as a "peeling back of the curtain"), as opposed to someone like me, who is coming into this story with a character-based handicap. Complicating things, or perhaps complicated by one's lack of familiarity, is the downright cryptic final section, in which Boyd visits Lady Bird at Lyndon's deathbed, and the two share words on love, distance, loneliness, and their husbands, with some allusions being made to Lyndon's sexuality through the disease he, Boyd, and Boyd's husband, a Haitian named Duverger, all share (and which is probably AIDS).
What makes this feel a less like Wallace is the specificity of context. It's not that Wallace isn't a detailed writer (consider his architectural descriptions or the medical/technical preciseness of things), so much as he usually leaves some things about his characters to be open, you know, predicated on the whole empathy issue that I keep pushing. Little about this story is open: it's mired somewhere between fact and fiction, and our only ture in-road is the fictional Boyd -- and he's the man we learn the least about (married, then not, and why?); as for Lyndon himself, he is often described through the lens of a caricature, and his big speeches are, I assume, meant to mirror or mock the man's actual policies, such as when he confides in Boyd that -- in response to his lack of connection with the youth -- maybe people need to suffer a little, and that all of his domestic programs are actually holding them back from becoming Americans.
But I digress, talking on tangents like Lyndon and Lady Bird: I'm utterly thrown by the ending of the story, which suddenly reverts to one of Wallace's Big Ideas, but in a hard to grasp monologue:
"Love is simply a word. It joins separate things. Lyndon and I, though you would disagree, agree that we do not properly love one another anymore. Because we ceased long ago to be enough apart for a 'love' to span any distance. Lyndon says he shall cherish the day when love and right and wrong and responsibility, when these words, he says, are understood by you youths of America to be nothing but arrangements of distance.... Lyndon is being haunted by his own conception of distance, David. His hatred of being alone, physically alone, no matter atop what--the area of his hatred in which your own devoted services have been so invaluable to us--his hatred of being alone is a consequence of what his memoir will call his great intellectual concept: the distance at which we see each other, arrange each other, love. That love, he will say, is a federal highway, lines putting communities, that move and exist at great distance, in touch. My husband has stated publicly that America, too, his own America, that he loves enough to conceal deaths for, is to be understood in terms of distance."
This ending, so complex and apart -- distant, if you will -- from the rest of the story, ironically makes it harder to love, it's a break in the careful reasoning with which Wallace has painstakingly approached the rest of the story, with all its historical facts and details (presented as such, even if not actually true). Moreover, at this point Wallace chooses to amp up the gross details of certain things, with David puking, repeatedly, over himself, and recollecting the ways in which LBJ would piss into a metal trash can in the Oval Office, reluctant to leave it, elements that are literal distortions from the actual events that we've followed so far (LBJ's second, secret coronary; the aftermath of the assassination of JFK). Even if I'm reading it right -- that here's the requisite suffering that Wallace is pitching as necessary toward us being human (if not American) -- it comes in such a sudden rush that it's missing the pacing and distance that would give it loving connections. Instead, these ideas overlap and cancel out one another; I'm lost in the shuffle, though admiring of the effort.