A Universal Problem?

What is Steeply describing when he says, “‘Stuck. Fixed. Held. Trapped. As in trapped in some sort of middle. Between two things. Pulled apart in different directions'” (IJ 647)? In context, Steeply is describing the expression of his old man’s eyes, glued to the television screen. His words, however, also seem to describe precisely the existential traps that multiple characters in Wallace’s writing find themselves stuck in.

In the pre-fight scene, as Lenz dashes behind Gately to use Gately as a shield, Gately literally stands between Lenz and the Nucks, “as in trapped in some sort of middle. Between two things” (IJ 647). But more than being physically positioned between two forces or groups, Wallace reveals Gately’s psychological positioning as being similarly stuck between two seemingly conflicting forces. Wallace writes, “Late in Gately’s Substance and burglary careers, when he’d felt so low about himself, he’d had sick little fantasies of saving somebody from harm, some innocent party, and getting killed in the process and getting eulogized at great length in bold-faced Globe print” (IJ 611). The text portrays Gately as a character who is “stuck, fixed, held, trapped” in a state of contradiction. Gately wants to perform an act that simultaneously captures both selflessness and selfishness.

The writing highlights the two opposing forces combating inside his head. On the one hand, by sacrificing his own life, his act would ultimately save somebody from harm (this half of the fantasy seems to be at least partially performed within the next few pages, even though we do not know if Gately actually gets killed). On the other side of the hand (as Lenz often says), the text reveals his effectively selfless act as ultimately stemming from selfishness, from the desire of “getting eulogized at great length in bold-faced Globe print” (IJ 611). Apropos, after being shot, Gately imagines:   “SHOT IN SOBRIETY in bold headline caps goes across his mind’s eye like a slow train” (IJ 613), which reiterates the voice of self-interest chugging through his head. Moreover, the text flops back and forth in the characterization of this act. First, the text labels this act with negativity-“sick little fantasies” (IJ 611)-but later, in portraying Gately as “a big animal that’s hurt” (IJ 615), the text wipes away all stains of negativity and instills a blanket of sympathy, for Gately and his selfless act. Thus, Gately, much like the expression of the eyes on Steeply’s old man’s face, exists or lives in the trap of being “pulled apart in different directions” (IJ 647)-these directions seem diametrically opposite and incompatible, yet coexisting for Gately.

Orin Incandenza faces an analogous trap. Wallace writes, “Orin can only give, not receive, pleasure” (IJ 596). In this line, Wallace depicts Orin as not only compassionate, but also tragically compassionate-to the point that he can “only give,” but not receive any pleasure. The following sentences, however, unveils the other side of the view:   “But he cannot show the contempt, since this would pretty clearly detract from the Subject’s pleasure. / Because the Subject’s pleasure in him has become his food….It gave him real pleasure to give the impression of care and intimacy” (IJ 596). Thus, like Gately, Orin also seems trapped in the loop of simultaneously giving selflessly and taking selfishly, unable to do one without the other. On the one hand, Orin does give others pleasure, making women believe “he is a wonderful lover, almost a dream-type lover” (IJ 596), but on the other hand, Orin feeds off of and consumes the pleasure he gives to others, a description that renders he himself contemptible.

A similar symptom manifests in the speaker of “Good Old Neon,” but there, with a heightened sense of self-awareness created by the first person narration, that symptom becomes paralyzing. From the age of four, Neal begins to experience the “Stuck. Fixed. Held. Trapped” (IJ 647) feeling of “trying to create a certain impression of me in other people…to be liked or admired” (Oblivion 141) and actually making others feel good-for instance, by pretending to tell the truth to his stepparents or playing dumb with Dr. Gustafson so as to “let him feel like he was explaining to me a contradiction I couldn’t understand without his help” (Oblivion 155)-a feeling, or “problem” as he calls it, that he “couldn’t seem to stop” (Oblivion 143) and ultimately takes his life away. I wonder, to what extent is this feeling a problem? Is this feeling universal? Selflessness and selfishness seem mutually exclusive, but are they in fact inescapably intertwined? And to what extent does the selfishness matter, if the impression or effect of the act helps another-even if fraudulent, insincere, or self-interested?

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