Monday, April 11, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Forever Overhead"

Originally published in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 95.

And so but here's the story that's almost the total opposite of "Church Not Made with Hands": it's poetically written, sure, but in a familiar and intimate second-person that thrusts us into what is an easily recognizable situation: a pubescent thirteen-year-old boy ("Your voice is rich and scratchy and moves between octaves without any warning"), on his birthday, decides to grow up by plunging off a local swimming pool's diving tower. Time slows for him in this formative moment and his senses flare to life: there is nothing too small to be detailed as he climbs out of the pool, stands in the line that snakes past the "SN CK BAR," and prepares to climb the ladder, feigning the boredom of waiting that comes to those who have done something before, who can no longer appreciate the experience with fresh eyes.

There are few fully descriptive pieces like this in Wallace's work, so the effect is dazzling: we see mountains that, spiked against the sky's fading red light, look like "an EKG of the dying day." We pause at hearing what is usually glossed over being meticulously written: "Knock your head with the heel of your hand. One side has a flabby echo. Cock your head to the side and hop -- sudden heat in your ear, delicious, and brain-warmed water turns cold on the nautilus of the ear's outside. You can hear harder tinnier music, closer shouts, much movement in much water." The pool is a "convulsive ballet of heads and arms." It is filled with "disproportionate boys, all necks and legs and knobby joints, shallow-chested, vaguely birdlike." When the pool is scarred a dive, it "reheals." The boy's sister plays Marco Polo, and "you" observe how it's almost cruel, the fact that she's been "It" for this long -- how quickly fun can flip on you; he makes a decision not to think about what he's about to do, noting that "being scared is caused mostly by thinking," a fact that we'll see illustrated in more than a few of Wallace's thought-to-death pieces (the depression this can lead to).

On the whole, this is an arresting view of childhood, and the story ends frozen on the cusp between his boyhood and manhood, with the realization that time does not stop and never will. (The level of imagery here reminds me, strongly, of David Mitchell's exceptional Black Swan Green, but the message is the same one executed so deftly by Steven Millhauser's recent must-read "Getting Closer.") My only sorrow is that this bright and hopeful story continues to hint at a hurt that will come with adulthood, as if the story threatens us with its beauty by pointing out how all this, too, shall pass -- savagely, painfully -- until we reach a point where we are standing blindly, impatiently in line, as bored as everyone else with the world itself. Creativity and empathy were the qualities Wallace preached (without the religions over/undertones) in his commencement speech; he reminded us to keep our eyes open and to appreciate the moments around us. A story like "Forever Overhead" inspires us to do just that.

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