Originally published in Girl with Curious Hair. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 94.
When it comes down to media, particularly television -- or video in general -- and the ways in which it was influencing (and would influence) culture, David Foster Wallace was a genius writer. You can see this in his essays (from David Lynch to John McCain) and throughout Infinite Jest, whose essays on the rise-and-fall of the videophone and evolution of the hero still seem remarkably prescient. This is part of what makes "Small Expressionless Animals" such a potent piece down the road, for it talks about the meaninglessness of trivia (and what we sacrifice in order to fill ourselves with this nothingness) in equal strides with how all data have import, depending on their use. In turn, this is what makes "My Appearance," which turns away from Jeopardy and toward late-night "anti-shows," particularly David Letterman's, so effective: he uses the veneer of a remarkably fake talk-show ("hokeyness," he calls it) to comment on the place (or lack thereof) for sincerity in a media saturated world. Look, really look at what you're watching on these programs, or the so-called "reality" shows -- which I'm disappointed DFW didn't have more of a field day with -- and all you'll see is smugness sandwiched between self-satire, as we mock ourselves lest we ourselves be mocked.
And so but then, "My Appearance" begins as a well-employed forty-year-old television actress (who has recently been shilling for Oscar-Meyer), the mother of four children, is prepared for her upcoming appearance on NBC's Late Night With David Letterman, citing previous appearances by Teri Garr (fictitious, or at least unavailable on YouTube) as cautions for how she will be "savaged" and "ridiculed." It gets to the point that they actually give her an earpiece -- her husband and a television professional -- and attempt to give her directions during the actual interview, which rather feels like prepping for the SAT, in that you may have short-term gains, but will, in the long-term, not really exhibit much of anything. That is, by trying so hard to appear "real," she cannot help but come across as anything but fake, though she avoids this fate largely by ignoring the "advice" of her husband and living sincerely on stage: she is, after all, "a woman who acts." The tragedy, of course, comes afterward, as she cruises in a limo to dinner with her husband, who insists that things aren't what they seemed:
"He really said that," I told my husband later in the NBC car. "He said 'grotesquely nice,' 'entertainment dollar,' and that I was an engaging guest. And no one was listening."
... "Of course he really said that," my husband said. "It's just the sort of thing he'd say."
"Exactly," I maintained, looking at what his hands held....
"But that doesn't mean he's really that way," he said, looking at me very directly.... "Any more than you're really the way you were when we were handling him better than I've ever seen him handled."
"But if no one is really the way we see them," she says, "that would include me. And you." So she asks him what he really thinks they are, and that in turn leads to this devastating final line: "Which turned out to be the mistake." For of course -- and there are at least two ways to read this -- once we've worked this hard on our appearances, we're no longer connecting in a sincere way. How often have you heard someone say that they're in love with the idea of something, but not the actual thing, the thing that requires work, the thing that refuses to remain the same image. We've grown accustomed to this facade, this veneer, and it can shatter a person to realize how others actually appear. (No wonder this actress -- who knows a thing or two about putting on faces -- feels the need to pop so many Xanax: she's suffering from an unconscious dissociation.)
A weakness some critics have leveled at Wallace, particularly in this collection, is that his characters don't always stand up -- or rather, that they're simply stand-ins for the weighty ideas he wants to grapple with. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, assuming it's true.) Stories like this, however, avoid that problem by dealing with characters who are intentionally undeveloped, reflecting their insecurities back onto us, the viewer, who is no longer safely tucked away on the other side of the screen. The more she protests that she wants to be herself, the more we feel for her, watching (as we read) her transformation/appropriation.
There's a great anecdote squeezed in here, too, about SNL's commercial parodies, which if it wasn't true then is certainly true now. The parodies were so successful that the companies starting making actual commercials that seemed like parodies so that viewers would pay closer attention to them . . . even though they'd wind up disappointed upon realizing that they were not, in fact, parodies . . . though they were, in fact, parodies. Which, in turn, confused the line so far that what they were now no longer actually mattered -- and it's this, which probably has a syndrome named for it in the DSM -- that "My Appearance" lays down: there is now no longer any difference between being sincere and being sincere-seeming, and in fact because someone being sincere will appear to be sincere-seeming, they may in fact be despised for being what is now interpreted as fake. Instead, they have to acknowledge that they are trying to seem sincere so that they are taken as being sincere . . . without appearing sincere-seeming, though again, simply said acknowledgment means they can no longer actually be what they are claiming to attempt to be. Pardon my circular logic here, but this is the sort of sprawling, spiraling logic -- imbedded, mind you, in the hearts of real characters -- that makes me return to Wallace page and page again.