Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace \ Short Shorts (Mostly) from "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men"

At the tail-end of Girl with Curious Hair (ironically, just before his longest story, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way"), Wallace makes a sudden shift toward shorter fiction -- pure anecdotes or vignettes that briefly distill an idea, leaving the wrestling mainly up to the reader. And that's fine, but only when it's really intensely done: there's not enough room in these shorts for Wallace to wander or play at vagueness.

That's precisely the problem with Curious Hair's "Everything Is Green," which opens in media res after our first-person narrator, Mitch, has apparently accused his younger girlfriend, Mayfly, of cheating on him. She's denied it, but "It is for sure that she is lying. When it is the truth she will go crazy trying to get you to believe her." In their rundown trailer, Mitch confesses that "Every thing that is inside me I have gave you" and that he feels "like there is all of me going in to you and nothing of you is coming back any more." All this is fine, and familiar in tone to his previous stories "Here and There" and "Say Never," but then Wallace takes a poetic turn, has Mayfly spout this: "Look how green it all is Mitch. How can you say the things you say you feel like when everything outside is green like it is." The idea, perhaps, is that even in the face of betrayal, we should recognize that life itself goes on, unaffected, and we should find comfort in that, not sorrow, this realizing of how small we are in the world, how minute our problems are . . . even though Mitch observes, wisely, that there are plenty of things that aren't green. There's something to be said for perspective -- having it, that is -- but the point is unconvincingly made here. [6/100]

Ten years later -- though with the many, many anticonfluential short shorts of Infinite Jest under his belt -- Wallace fills his second collection, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, with many more stories of this length, albeit written in a more restrained and meditative (recursive, hypnotic, mantra-like) style. In fact, he returns to the color green, too, in the "opening" story (well, there's one on page zero, but we'll get to that), "Death Is Not the End." In a three-page sentence, we are introduced to a fifty-six-year-old American poet, his physical descriptions and current place in time constantly undercut by a series of his titles and awards (going so far as to interject footnotes), and the story itself can be seen as a struggle between that which he is and that which he will be remembered by. (Or as the subject versus the object.) To wit:

...he sat, or lay -- or perhaps most accurately just 'reclined' -- in a black Speedo swimsuit by the home's kidney-shaped pool,[1] on the pool's tile deck, in a portable deck chair whose back was now reclined four clicks to an angle of 35° w/r/t the deck's mosaic tile, at 10:20 A.M on 15 May 1995, the fourth most anthologized poet of the history of American belles lettres, near an umbrella but not in the actual shade of the umbrella...
[1]Also the first American-born poet ever in the Nobel Prize for Literature's distinguished 94-year history to receive it, the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature.

At last, the sentence ends and we break to a few shorter, concluding sentences, which speak of the "intensely green" surrounding shrubbery, and the "very nearly wholly silent" setting, which is "not like anything else in the world in either appearance or suggestion," though this last and final point is itself footnoted with the somewhat ambiguous and unsettling "That is not wholly true." So man's place in nature is to be still? And what does this have to do with death, save to assume that our lives are merely interruptions in the world, not to be stressed over? [12/100]

These stories are precise in form, but they lack content -- the old stick shaken at "postmodernism" -- and are hard to assess as "stories" in a qualitative sense. Things get even trickier, however, with a triptych (and pair) of stories in the collection that share the same title, but nothing else in common. Take, for instance, "Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders." The first iteration, (XI), speaks to the border between our dreams and our realities, fixing briefly on a man who is so overwrought by a vivid dream in which he is blind that, upon waking, he is blinded by his tears, and while he is still able to go to work -- he isn't actually blind -- he is so emotionally drained by this idea that he falls asleep again:

Then all day at work then I'm incredibly conscious of my eyesight and my eyes and how good it is to be able to see colors and people's faces and to know exactly where I am, and of how fragile it all is, the human eye mechanism and the ability to see, how easily it could be lost....

Fair enough, but then we're suddenly reading the reconstructed transcript of Mr. Walter D. ("Walt") DeLasandro Jr.'s Parents' Marriage's End, May 1956" (VI), in which a husband and wife divvy up their property: "Look I get the doublewide you get the truck we flip for the boy." Is the thin border here the wall, perhaps, through which we assume Walt has heard this conversation and recounted it to his therapist some many years down the road? Or is it the way things stick with us throughout time, so that we are unable to separate our past from our future and move on? The whole coin toss is a jarring moment of comedy/tragedy, but beyond that, the story is a bagatelle.

To say nothing of the final installment (XXIV), in which a boy, having his hair cut by his mother, is tormented by his brother's mocking mimicry of his own faces, realizing, perhaps, the porous boundary here of identity -- that is, if someone resembles me so totally, then what am I? And also the nightmarish sense of looking -- really looking -- at oneself in the mirror and not recognizing what you see: who am I? An interesting thought, perhaps, but better explored by the students of Enfield Tennis Academy, who dealt with faces in the floor and sweat-licking gurus for this sort of thing. Moreover, Wallace overwrites this section, to the point at which it's almost Joycean in difficult to tell what he's saying (perhaps intentional, given the somewhat Irish lilt):

...my face before us both farther and farther from my own control as I saw in his twin face what all lolly-smeared hand-held brats must see in the fun-house mirror--the gross and pitiless sameness, the distortion in which there is, tiny, at the center, something cruelly true about the we who leer and woggle at stick necks and concave skulls, goggling eyes that swell to the edges---as the mimcry ascended reflected levels to become finally the burlesque of a wet hysteria that plastered cut strands to a wet white brow, the strangled man's sobs blocked by cloth, storm's thrum and electric hiss and Da's mutter against the lalation of shears meant for lambs....

Hard to grade these indeed, especially in any sense as a "complete" story or an interconnected set, but when it comes down to whether or not these brief encounters will keep me up at night or make me want to revisit them, I guess I'd score them as a 31, 8, and a 3. After all, the real porousness should be between the freedom of the page and the bordered sections of the mind. [14/100]

No comments: