Originally published in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 0.
First, an epigrammatic quote from A. O. Scott's New York Review of Books article on the oeuvre of Wallace (c. 1999): "Wallace, then, is less anti-ironic than (forgive me) meta-ironic. That is, his gambit is to turn irony back on itself, to make his fiction relentlessly conscious of its own self-consciousness, and thus to produce work that will be at once unassailably sophisticated and doggedly down to earth." I lead with that, because to me, that's the essence of Wallace's best writing (both fiction and non-fiction): work that is relentlessly conscious, work in which we can see the writer struggling to name the world around him, to understand it, a God-like task that is made simpler for the reader, who is led to realize that We Are All in the Same Boat.
Which brings me to "Church Not Made with Hands," the first piece of Wallace's I've read that appears to be struggle-free. In the worst way possible. Confusing from the get-go -- "Drawn lids one screen of skin, dreampaintings move across Day's colored dark" -- the work gets more pretentious from there, hinting only briefly at Day's profession as a part-time art-therapist and his own mental issue, the brain damage done to his wife's daughter, Esther, whom was caught in the suction part of their private pool, and whom he (a non-swimmer), was unable to save. Elements of this permeate the story, it's true, from the use of color -- particularly pink and clear blue -- to the waterlogged writing itself, through which one struggle to find purchase. But rather than make you ponder the situation, these distant, distant third-person characters, the work is ponderous, filled with apparently meaningless descriptions and short sentences that fly by: "Sunlight reverses HEALTH pink through the windshield's sticker. Day drives the county car past a factory."
Further complicating things are the jumps in time, helplessly marked by vague section headers like "Art" or "Two Colors," and which give us exchanges like this:
"Colors," he says to the screen's black lattice.
The screen breathes mint.
"She complaints I turn colors in my sleep," Day says.
"Something understands," breathes the screen, "surely."
Knees sore, Day jangles pockets with his hands. So many coins.
The overt poetry of this piece, distinct from Wallace's regular output, is a cruel and stifling thing, for we want to understand the significance of Day's encounters with a "truly old former Jesuit" who now gives lectures on famous Dutch painters. Instead, we get descriptions of the way the light hits the college's bell-tower: "In which open spaces flash like diseased nerves and bent trees hang with a viscous aura that settles to set the grass on willemite fire, in which windrows of light pile up against fence-bottoms, walls, and undulate and glow." Ostensibly, a church made with hands is the "steeple" position that a man, such as Day's boss Dr. Ndiawar, makes by pressing his fingertips together; the story, then, aims to tell about a totally internalized prayer, but appears hung-up on the external. It is, at best, an argument for how outside of ourselves we are, numbed, after tragedy, when it is then that we must double-down our attentive interior to coping with the world. But that's stretching rather far, and the story's not the vehicle taking us there; it's just another obstacle.