So I’m going to venture a controversial assertion. I propose, without real proof but with something like readerly intuition, that “Good Old Neon” is the best short story DFW ever wrote. As a general matter, my second favorite story shifts from day to day, depending on mood and my ability to recall one story or another. “Good Old Neon,” though, has remained comfortably at the top of the fictional heap with Infinite Jest, for reasons I will now try to articulate.
It is in many ways the most traditional of the stories in Oblivion. What this means for me, at least, is that it requires fewer alterations of standard readerly expectations and physics. It is easier to naturalize and follow, and so it is easier to trust the story and become engrossed. It is fundamentally clear what the story is doing and where it is going, on a plot/story level (until the last two pages, that is). We have an identifiable narrator and are given, with not-too-strange temporal movement, the tale of his life and death. It is also simpler on a linguistic level than pretty much anything DFW has written since Girl with Curious Hair. I am a big fan of DFW’s linguistic and structural pyrotechnics, but in “Good Old Neon” DFW seems to have managed to sacrifice his talent’s more abrasive/self-conscious/distracting tendencies without sacrificing his truly stunning level of narrative control. On a sentence-by-sentence level, what makes “Good Old Neon” great is the same thing that makes all of Wallace’s great writing great: a stunning, unmatched ability to anticipate and empathize with the reader. What makes “Good Old Neon” better than almost everything else, though, is the demonstration that this anticipation can be done without forcing the reader up to Wallace’s own intellectual level. It is, in painfully simplistic terms, more gratification with less readerly effort.
Of course, there is the content itself. The issues brought up in the story – genuineness and desire and accomplishment not least among them – seem to be at the very heart of everything Wallace spent his career struggling with. Given everything else we’ve read – other stories, Broom, IJ, essays, interviews, scholarly commentary, and postmortem appreciations – the material of “Good Old Neon” hangs prophetically in our consciousness, the shadow/echo of everything else we’ve seen.
And then, the ending. Our suspicions throughout the story that we’re dealing with things close to the author’s heart are almost explicitly confirmed. This confirmation is the story’s masterstroke, both because it brings us powerfully, suddenly, uncomfortably into the real world and because, in the process, it forces us to take the story with total, painful sincerity. After those last two pages, there are no excuses or escapes: we MUST accept that, even if it is fiction (is it fiction?) it is of crucial, real-life importance to our author. We see parts of ourselves reflected in Neal’s narration, and are disturbed, and then Wallace’s insertion of self into the text forces us to confront the real-world importance of these issues to us. No more abstractions here. No more worming out way out with “how imaginative”s or “it’s just fiction”s. All that’s left is “I, too, am a fraud.” “I, too, have been at war with myself.” “I, too, struggle to look the disingenuous, ironic side of myself in the eye and say: ‘Not another word.'”
There’s also that last thing, the unsayable thing. There is that side of us that knows the circumstances of Wallace’s death and think about the “years of indescribable war” and think about our own internal wars and hate to imagine that maybe “Good Old Neon”‘s author couldn’t win that war, in the end, and that we may never win it either.