Friday, April 15, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, The Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright's Father Begs a Boon"

From Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 91.

My dutifully proud -- wear a mask and your face grows to fit it. Avoid all mirrors as though -- and no, worst, the black irony: now his wife and girls are bewitched this way now as well you see. As his mother -- the art he perfected upon her.

Written as a monologue (complete with humorously bleak medical stage directions) from FATHER to a "you" that starts out as a deathbed confession to a priest (a Father) and his divine sister, this story is filled with mid-sentence pauses and shifts like the ones above, and rich with a sense of this narrator's unreliable character, a fact that emphasizes the broader point Wallace is making (in his work) about perception and (I'll say it again) empathy. The key phrase here is "Wear a mask and your face grows to fit it," because for years, the father has been living a lie, refusing first to tell his wife that he detests their son, and then never admitting to his son -- with whom he awkwardly interacts -- that he's a detestably selfish hindrance to the father's own happiness. In this, the story shares unhappy secrets with "Adult World" and, more accurately, "Suicide as a Sort of Present," which, if you assume to be talking about the mother from this story, is really kicking things up a notch, for it says that both the father and mother detested the child, but both hid it -- the father, out of love for the mother, and the mother, out of her outward attempts to face her inner emotional difficulties. Even on its own, however, the story is a gripping piece, and yes, one that demands to be performed in a theater.

"If only I myself could have been taken in. My son. Oh and I did, prayed for it, pondered and sought, examined and studied him and prayed and sought without cease, praying to be taken in and bewitched and allow their scales to cover mine as well." Above all, I think loneliness is caused by one's inability to relate to the way other people view the world. Having an opinion which nobody agrees with can make you a pariah, and when it comes to an emotional or factually perceptive issue -- i.e., the color of the sky -- can go further, to the point where you are crazy, or worse, psychopathic. This is the danger of norms, that they attract more and more people to them -- whether those people agree with them or not (and look at how many people define themselves as Republican or Democrat, even when they disagree with whole swaths of policy) -- simply because nobody wants to be left out. And as this story shows, being untrue to yourself will consume you. Medically, it leads to the father being literally unable to breathe, swallowed up by his own decay.
The truth: I found it neither natural nor fulfilling nor beautiful nor fair. Think of me what you will. It is the truth. It was all disgusting. Ceaseless. The sensory assault. You cannot know. The incontinence. The vomit. The sheer smell. The noise. The theft of sleep. The selfishness, the appalling selfishness of the newborn, you have no idea. No one prepared us for any of it, for the sheer unpleasantness of it. The insane expense of pastel plastic things. The cloacal reek of the nursery. The endless laundry. The odors and constant noise. The disruption of any possible schedule. The slobber and terror and piercing shrieks. Like a needle those shrieks. Perhaps if someone had prepared, forewarned us. The endless reconfiguration of all schedules around him. Around his desires. He ruled from the crib, ruled from the first. Ruled her, reduced and remade her. Even as an infant the power he wielded.

Ignoring the ironies of the father's own current incontinence, vomit, and urine (all the plastic things attached to him), he's describing a baby as if it were an adult. He calls the baby out for its thoughtlessness at a time when, yes, it is more or less unformed in thoughts. And yet, he knows all of this: the father's tragedy is that what he also knows -- that this is natural and will become fulfilling -- is never realized. He cannot see things as they are -- or, worse -- perhaps he sees things as they really are, when you remove cultural expectations and societal indoctrination from the picture. (I'm sure there are many animals who are baffled and offended by the way we coddle our young.)

But perhaps the greatest tragedy of the piece is that the father is actually talking to his son, who he no longer recognizes. That he has, for nearly an hour, described to the son how he regrets not suffocating him as a child, how he finds the son greedy for weeping so heavily at the mother's funeral ("that he had the right to weep at her loss," seems to implicate the son in her death [suicide?]), how he finds it absurd how this sluggish learner is now celebrated with a Pulitzer, all for such shallow plays (like the one that we are reading, that is attacking him, and also ones that may deal with his mother's death, in which case the suicide would be like a present). Whether his observations/accusations are true/exaggerated or not -- it seems unlikely, given the lengths to which the son has gone to show up at the hospital every day, and the fact that he's married and celebrated and loved (which indicates jealousy, perhaps, from the father?) -- to at last break the silence before you die, simply to harm another? That's rough.

Given the painful content, this story's remarkably smooth to read, and it's filled with great payoffs about the disconnects and illusions under which we live our lives. No wonder "The Depressed Person" is so concerned about how others perceive her; Wallace's biggest fixation/point throughout Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (you might as well say "hideous people") is that we all constantly lie, and that our agreed upon lies are what lead to reality/"happiness."

1 comment:

Falcon said...

Wonderful piece about what may be my favourite DFW story. I never thought extensively about the story, simply content in loving it without articulation of why I love it, and you really hit a lot of the themes/morals right on the head. Fascinating idea that the story we're reading is really the son's new play; I can't believe i never thought about that before. One slight gripe: I'm not sure the direct correlations with Suicide as a Sort of Present are all that credible, given that Suicide ends with the child killing himself with the mother still alive, while Begs A Boon has the child alive with the mother dead. I always interpreted the titular 'Present' as the child letting all the mother's repressed feelings out for her by committing suicide himself. The final few lines of the story: "the mother was filled, deep inside, with loathing: loathing for herself, for the delinquent and unhappy child, for a world of impossible expectations and merciless judgment. She could not, of course, express any of this. And so the son- desperate, as are all children, to repay the perfect love we may expect only of mothers- expressed it all for her."