Saturday, April 02, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Here and There"

Originally published in Girl With Curious Hair. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 28.

[Okay, I've received my copy of The Pale King, but since I haven't finished my taxes yet -- or my catching up on Wallace's earlier work -- I'm going to hold off on starting it, difficult as that is, until the "official" release date.]

At first glance, it's a simple He Said/She Said chronicling of a breakup, with separate monologues spliced together so as to feint at actual communication, a thing that the two of them -- along with emotion, connection, actual presence -- seemed to have issues with. Then, as a doctor introduces himself, explains that "fiction therapy in order to be at all effective must locate itself and operate within a strenuously yes some might even say harshly limited defined structured space," and we learn a bit more about Bruce, a mathematical poet, the story feels as if it may be a thinly veiled attempt at autobiography. Ultimately, the story comes across like the anecdotal self-fulfilling prophecies of Infinite Jest -- with a slight glimmer of self-revealing hope -- in which a character is so afraid of something that their actions lead to the fear, which in this case is loneliness, caused because of Bruce's distance, first linguistic, then (cunni)lingual, then actual, which leads back to the title's supposition of the obvious otherness between here and there.

The end result is more than a bit heavy, as you'd expect of a formally structured story dedicated to Kurt Godel, and Wallace's use of heavy-handed or mathematically baroque text to show the mechanics of this sort of thinker is an opaque and oblique misfire. (I bet that Wallace Shawn, of Marie and Bruce and My Dinner With Andre would get a kick out of this intellectual romanticism, though, so it's not a failure of a story -- it's just difficult.) Wallace attempts to draw a metaphor between an engineering problem -- in which Bruce is trying to repair a very old electric oven, despite not being able to read any of the labeling and not having the proper tools to rebundle the frayed (and dangerous) wiring -- and his doomed relationship, which is all just a very lengthy way of being unable to communicate on a real and functional level instead of on a hypothetical and technical plane.

The front end of the story, however, shows a rare youth and fragility to Wallace in the ways that Bruce chooses to describe his own flaws, specifically his fixation on kissing her "chemically bitter senior photo" as opposed to her, not because of the squeamishness "that kissing someone is actually sucking on a long tube the other end of which is full of excrement" but because of the silliness of the act: "the kiss contorts our mouths; noses get involved, bent; it's as if we're making faces at each other." These self-described self-defenses bring us closer, like a moat that's actually a black hole. We can relate, if not to the act, then to the thought and the sorrow behind lines like this: "But she says 'My feelings have changed, what can I do, I can't with Bruce anymore.' As if her feelings controlled her rather than vice versa. As if her feelings were something outside her, not in her control, like a bus she has to wait for." This right here is the crux of much of Wallace's work: the need to be in control (as a writer) even when writing about things that can clearly not be controlled, and finding the necessary balance to join the two without losing one's mind.


E. Hunter Spreen said...

If I didn't have a thesis to turn in on Monday and a play draft due on Friday, I would so be joining you to read this book. I've been wanting to re-read Westward since I read it this past summer.

Aaron Riccio said...

Oh, how I wish you had the free time; these stories, despite what I may give them on my "personal enjoyment" scale, are all beginning for deeper discussion.

I'm just glad "Everything Is Green" is so short -- will give me a needed head-start on "Westward." Though I will say, I'm very much looking forward to moving on to "Brief Interviews" next week; "Octet" was one of my favorites, and I hope it's held up.

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