Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace \ (More) Short Shorts (Exclusively) from "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men"
If you're writing a very short story, it may be because you don't have much to say, but that doesn't mean you can't at least say it creatively, as Wallace does in one of his odder classics, "Datum Centurio." The "story" is written as an entry from Leckie & Webster's Connotationally Gender-Specific Lexicon of Contemporary Usage © 2096, one that's looking specifically at the third definition of the noun form of "date." He offers us two forms, one for a "soft date" (in which one "voluntarily submit[s] one's nucleotide configurations and other Procreativity Designators to an agency empowered by law to identify an optimal female neurogenetic complement for the purposes of Procreative Genital Interface") and one for a "hard date," which involves "the creation and/or use of a Virtual Female Sensory Array," and is derived from "hardware date."
In tracing the history and usage of this future term, Wallace explains that as our culture grows more emotionally distant (or "hard"), we will require the antonymic "soft" term in order to connote tender sentiments. There's some clever stuff in here, too, about the divide between the predominantly male-centric view of the purposes of a 20th C "date" and the supposedly female one: "(B) the unilateral pursuit of an immediate vigorous, and uncodified episode of genital interface without regard to neurogenetic compatibility or soft offspring or even a telephone call the next day." This is where Wallace's technical prose comes in handy, for it forces us to really look and consider our actual terms and uses (and purposes) for the language we use today, when we throw "fuck" around without anything behind it, and perhaps already cheapen the idea of dating. This is, like much of Wallace's fiction at this phase, cautionary, and in this case, the warning is loud and clear. [72/100]
Where Wallace's least successful stories run into problems, then, is in writing a story in which the whole point revolves around the intellectual thought of not having much to say, or, in this case, "Signifying Nothing." Here, a first-person narrator recalls what led to the estrangement from and reparation with his parents: as he was moving out at the age of 19, he recalled a moment where, as a young child, his father "waggled his dick" in front of him for several minutes. It's not an innocent memory, but it's not an especially harmful one, either: the narrator isn't scarred by it, and knows that nothing ever came of it, but, confused by it, confronts his father. The father, however, acknowledges this with a look of embarrassment -- not for himself, but for his son, the sort of look you might give "you were at a large, fancy, and coat-and-tie dinner or track banquet with your father, and if, like, you all of a sudden got up on the banquet table and bent down and took a shit right there on the table, in front of everybody at the dinner--this would be the look your father would be giving you as you did it (took a shit)." This enrages the son, who cuts off all ties for nearly a year until at last considering that, this being a random occurrence (the dick-waggling) that's been suppressed for so long, perhaps the father doesn't remember it, which would somewhat explain his unbelieving reaction.
In essence, the story is asking us what really matters -- i.e., is of significance. Which, if in fact any, of our memories shape us and actually hold meaning? But we get into tricky waters here, for in order for this story (or any story) to be worth reading, then we must assume that everything does matter, does hold influence and significance, and is something we can learn from. Is Wallace trying to convince us of this through the route of reverse-psychology? I'm left unaffected, especially after recalling Wallace's non-fictional Signifying Rappers, which obsesses over finding meaning in what might otherwise be throwaway lyrics. [19/100]
And the hardest for last: "Suicide as a Sort of Present." It's hard to read anything from Wallace that directly references suicide these days, particularly a story that's filled with clinical descriptions of self-loathing. (I don't imagine that rereading "The Depressed Person" is going to be much of a picnic.) In any case, the story here refers to a dangerous spiral that begins with "a mother who had a very hard time indeed, emotionally, inside," a mother who despite never being physically abused, "had some very heavy psychic shit laid on her as a little girl," the result of which made her view "everything in life with apprehension, as if every occasion and opportunity were some sort of dreadfully important exam for which she had been too lazy or stupid to prepare properly." In this vicious cycle of depression, she recognizes that this pressure is entirely internal, which makes her loathe herself even more; this, in turn, makes herself push herself even harder to succeed, which makes her friends see her as incredibly "bright, attractive, popular, impressive," which, in turn, only makes the pressure even more of an internal thing.
This becomes an even harsher sentence when she actually becomes a mother, for she holds her child up to those same impossible expectations, and cannot help but see the child's poor behavior as a reflection/extension of herself. And yet, she's caught in a trap, because "no good mother can loathe her child or abuse it or wish it harm in any way," and so no matter what the son does, she can only love him more. This, of course, doesn't have overly positive effects on the uncontrolled son, who, because of the mother's unconditional love, sees her as the only positive thing in "a world of psychic shit." Which leads to the final line, and the callback to the title itself: "She could not, of course, express any of this [loathing]. And so the son -- desperate, as are all children, to repay the perfect love we may expect only of mothers -- expressed it all for her." This one's cautionary, too, in the sense of "impossible expectations" and all, but it's tragic, too, knowing what we know of Wallace, in that awareness alone isn't a solution. [34/100]