Saturday, April 09, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Adult World (I) & (II)"

Originally published in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 76.

You may have noticed by now that many of Wallace's stories don't exactly end. After watching the author struggle within the fiction of "Octet," the logic behind this becomes clearer: to end a story is to, in some way, resolve it; in turn, this can be said to then absolve the reader of any obligation to come to terms with it, much in the same way that when an answer key is provided to a student's mathematics homework (when it is presolved), the student has less motivation to derive a logical/fitting answer. For this reason, Wallace splits "Adult World" into two stories. (I) is a three-part exploration of an "immature, inexperienced, emotionally labile young wife" who, after three-and-a-half-years of worrying that she's hurting his "thingie" when they have sex, has an epiphany that accounts for all the subtext in her dream images and for her husband's peculiar quirks. (II), on the other hand, is the fourth part of the same story, written as a schema (a formal outline often done in shorthand, as Wallace was wont to do), the part that actually explains the nature of the epiphany and details what happens next -- a sort of "ending" that Wallace was apparently unable to force himself to seriously write (as in, as an actual story segment, and not just as the writerly, self-conscious outline of such), and throughout which there are bracketed notes reminding the author to "avoid ez gag."

The first "Adult World" is familiar stuff, written in the "mxmly fat/affectless/distant/dry" voice that Wallace trusts not to betray any smugness or cliche on the part of the narrator, but will instead clinically detail the issues at this hand, cutting to the heart of the mature/immature theme here, i.e., what does it take to be "one flesh," for two people to really lose themselves without concerning themselves about what comes next? The second "Adult World," however, is jokey (read the descriptions of the dildos), builds toward a punchline ("4b. Concl {embed}: '...were ready thus to begin, in a calm and mutually respectful way, to discuss having children {together}.'"), and actually works, thematically, to illustrate the post-epiphany relationship, in which the man with secrets (he's a compulsive masturbator, pretending to get off with his wife because he loves her) is now truly bound to the woman who has none (she's overcome her insecurities, and has laid everything out -- including the vibrators -- before her).

Most impressive about "Adult World" is the way in which Wallace is able to sustain our interest in the young wife's rather facile concern, slowly building an elaborate and crippling condition out of her inability to simply confront the husband. (Note how this parallels the husband, who, in refusing to tell his wife about his masturbatory needs, winds up with a near-crippled condition of his own.) We could laugh about their situation -- and there are some winningly witty observations -- but we could also take it seriously, for it's nothing more than the X-rated version, perhaps, of insecurities and fears that most of us will, at some point, hold bottled up. (You can tie this into the whole sexual undertone of the piece, too; i.e., the idea of reaching release together -- finding a happier, more comfortable union by not holding back.) I'm not entirely sure what to make of the husband's inability to come clean (pun intended), nor of the overwritten scene with the wife's Former Lover, who she interrogates in order to figure out if the sex problem is all in her head, but suffice to say, the story is working rather hard (pun intended) and on many levels, and I admire it for that, even if I'm not totally sold on the second part of it.

2 comments:

Ruhul Quddus said...

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Ruhul Quddus said...
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