Monday, April 04, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "Say Never"

Originally published in Girl with Curious Hair. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 48.

I mentioned yesterday that Wallace's characters were sometimes criticized for appearing to be shallow constructs with which the author can demonstrate a point -- for instance, in this story, that humans are abruptly changeable things (hence the title, playfully modeled after the axiomatic never say never). I added, too, that when Wallace is dealing with the shallowness of Media and its insistence on appearances, this isn't really much of an issue: the characters are magnified by their proximity to that great magnifying glass of a television set. (Likewise when Wallace is writing specifically of General Characters, like the Account Representative, for then they are pared down to the titles which we ourselves may then more directly assume, and don't we all have a secret wish when reading to assume those roles, at least vicariously?) But for stories like "Say Never," which end abruptly, before the climax, and which flit between a variety of narrative styles as a shorthand for character (a bit like Faulkner, though not as developed), I can understand the complaint, even if I soldier through it out of love and respect for the artist at work.

Lenny is a happily married academic, "known" for his pre-Hitler book on Germany (Motion in Poetry: The Theme of Momentum in Weimar Republic Verse), who, compared to his thuggish younger brother, Michael, is the saint of the family, the one who calls his mother, Mrs. Tagus, like clockwork, just to let her know that she's loved and not alone. Wallace opens his story with the stereotypically Jewish voice of Mr. Labov, a tailor and friend of the family, who is comforting Mrs. Tagus: "A thing that is no fun? Stomach trouble." He then jumps to the dialogue-only of Mikey and Louis, in which Mikey complains about being dumped by the spicy Carlita ("I can see maybe whey they cry, when you blow them off"), before briefly cutting to a love-struck Len: "Cinnamon girl, spiced cream, honey to kiss, melt hot around the center of me." These characters, however, are being used purely for contrast in the tale -- and a little for exposition in Labov's case -- in order to set forth the hypothesis that Len, a nice guy, has suddenly changed, and that there is no reason for it. But after receiving Len's own scholarly word for it, we hardly need the other characters: 

L. S. Tagus, having for nine years navigated successfully between the Scylla and Charybdis of Inclination and Opportunity, has, as of today, 21 February 1985, committed adultery, on four occasions, with one Carlina Renaria-Cruz, former significant other of my brother, Michael Arnold Tagus; that the party anticipates further episodes of such adultery; and that such past and highly probable future episodes will be brought to the attention of the party's wife, Mrs. Bonnie Flutterman Tagus, between 1:00 and 2:00 pm (lunch), this date.
Know further that it is neither the desire & intention of L. Tagus, nor the project of an openly probing letter, either: (a) to excuse those libidinal/genital activities on the part of this party likely to excite disfavor or -ease within his intimate constellation; or: (b) to explain same, since the explanation of any transgression inevitably metastasizes into excuse (see (a)); but rather merely: (c) to inform those parties on whom my existence and the behavior that defines same can be expected to have an effect of the events outlined above and discussed, as usual, below; and: (d) to describe, probably via the time-tested heuristic pentad, the W's of why those events have taken and do and will take place; and: (e) to project the foreseeable consequences of such activities for this correspondent, for those other parties (B.F.T., M.A.T.) directly affected by his choices, and for those other parties who psychic fortunes are, to whatever extent, bound up with our own.

It's by playing around with narrative, in fact, that Wallace defuses what would otherwise be a fairly solid look at the fickleness of character, which results in the sorts of character-undefining moments that Wallace has Len go on to describe, such as the night he and his wife awake at the same time, see each other without recognition, and then go back to sleep, together but apart. Or with the naked dishonesty with which he dismisses the chestnuts of It's Not You It's Me, and "[We're] Just Not Right For Each Other Any More Mom, that We've Grown Apart, with Nothing But the Kids To Hold Us Together, and Is That Fair To Of All People The Kids?" Each time he moves the frame from Len, he offers excuses, nevers; but it's when he remains on a repentantly unrepentant Len that he best makes his point, that he lets us in. (Remember, above all else, Empathy, which causes me to think of Edward Albee's The Goat.)

Above all, time spent away from Lenny is time that we're deprived of internal mechanics such as these:

I could respond honestly with the kind of interior paralysis that also attends any sustained intersection of two people's everyday stuffed-together practical concerns, and how this restricts the breath of a man... Vs. this partner, who is in best and worst ways still a child: either sulking, overcome, silent, screaming Yes (Si! Yes! {God!}).... Yes Mrs. Tagus weary of navigation, exigency, routineschmerz, mid-life angst rendered. A unit of cinnamon milk, on fire with love for no one ever, vs. exhaustively tested loyalty, hard-headed realism, compassion, momentum, a woman the color and odor of Noxzema for all time.
Vs. vs. vs. : the reasons that center on others are easy to manipulate. All hollow things are light.
Because I just tired of being well. Of being good. Maybe I'm just tired of not knowing where in me the millenial expectations of a constellation leave off, where my own will hangs its beaver hat. I wish a little well-hung corner. I wish to be willful. I will it. It is not one bit more complicated than no more mr. n. g.

The more we read of Lenny, the less it comes across as the so-called "mid-life crisis" and the more it comes across as an honestly surprised self-evaluation, in which one is caught off guard by new desires to the point where one wonders why we try to repress desires in the first place. Out of loyalty? To whom? (Not to make excuses for infidelity, but rather to attempt to understand it and the whole mess of human connectivity.) And that, which hinges on the absent "never" of the title, is where Wallace has something to say; not in the cliches of the angry, drug-fueled younger brother nor in the motherly concerns of the mother. I love the overflow of ideas that stem from a largely unedited (or successfully defending) Wallace, but from a critical standpoint, particularly of this early work, I wonder what tightening these think-pieces might have done. (The irony of this critique -- being written on an unedited blog that could certainly use more tightening and less stream-of-rantingness, but which would itself lose something of its pure thoughts in the process -- is not lost on me.)