Author Archives: lrose

Shameful Irony

We didn’t get a chance to talk about it in class, but one of my favorite essays in Consider the Lobster is “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s.” Considering the subject matter, I didn’t quite know what to expect from Wallace. But, not to sound overly cheesy, I found the essay to be extremely moving and heart-warming.

The essay reminded me of how amazing Wallace is at using one backdrop or situation as an excuse to discuss or comment on about ten other things.   And that’s what I feel he does so beautifully in “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s.” Yes, September 11th is in the story; it’s there and looming in the background, but the essay is much more about the people, about Bloomington, Illinois, and about himself.

Through his experience on the day of and the day after September 11th, we get a glimpse into the lives of the community in Bloomington, the people who “aren’t unfriendly but do tend to be reserved” (128). We learn about the tendency of people in Bloomington to watch TV together: “what you do in Bloomington is all get together at somebody’s house and watch something” (134). TV, for the people of Bloomington, is the main venue with which they experience the rest of the world, the rest of reality. And because they desire to experience the world together as a community, watching TV becomes a social phenomenon. (An interesting point because it seems to be contrary to Wallace’s argument in E Unibus Pluram that TV fosters a cycle of utter loneliness…)

On the day of Horror, Wallace himself partakes in such communal television viewing. And even while the Horror is going on around him, the most profound insights Wallace gathers that day have to do with the immediate people around him rather than what is happening on TV. He realizes that though the Bloomington women aren’t stupid or ignorant, they are decidedly “innocent” (139). And that in Mrs. Thompson’s living room around the TV, “there is what would strike many Americans as a marked, startling lack of cynicism…” (139). Wallace goes on to explain that it would occur to no one in the room in Bloomington, Illinois that “all three network anchors are in shirtsleeves” (139) or that there are any number of cynical and detached observations that could be made about the situation unfolding. He claims that “nobody’s near hip enough to lodge the sick and obvious po-mo complaint: We’ve Seen This Before” (140). In describing what the Bloomington women don’t do, Wallace essentially admits that he himself made these cynical and hip observations in his head. But, for the first time in a Wallace essay, I feel like there is a palpable sense of shame attached to such “po-mo” remarks: “part of the horror of the Horror was knowing, deep in my heart, that whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America, and F—‘s, and poor old loathsome Duane’s, than it was these ladies” (140)

In the rest of Wallace’s work, yes, cynicism and irony is bad and is a cage, but no one seems to be truly ashamed of being trapped in that cage. Some people may want out and try to get out, though I don’t think we’ve seen any succeed. And for those who can’t get out, there is not much guilt involved because it is pretty clear that being trapped in the cage of irony is the norm. But, when Wallace is surrounded by “truly decent, innocent people” (140), he acquires a sense of guilt from his cynicism. And it was that guilt that was, at the same time, so heart-wrenching to witness but also, so refreshing to see. It was really interesting to see Wallace confront his irony and cynicism in a way I don’t think he’s ever done before.

And this essay made me wonder if we have, in fact, encountered any characters who have harbored much shame because of their cynicism or irony. I’m feel like we haven’t (I’m not sure if Neal in Good Old Neon actually felt guilty or shameful as much as he felt frustrated and fed up), but I could be missing someone. Any ideas?

Selfish Charity

The one part of last week’s Infinite Jest reading that I thought was particularly interesting was in the long footnote of Marlon Bain answering Steeply’s questions–particularly when Bain begins a discussion about charity in regards to Avril and Orin. kk wrote a really nice post last week about Avril and ‘Politeness Roulette’ that explained a lot of Avril’s self-absorption, and I feel like we learned even more about Avril and Orin this week that is worth looking at.

First off, we get an interesting description of Orin and his tendencies with women: “Orin can only give, not receive, pleasure, and this makes a contemptible number of them think he is a wonderful lover, almost a dream-type lover…” (596). This is something we’ve seen before, both with Avril (in the Politeness Roulette), and in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” and “Good Old Neon”: the idea that what seems like a selfless endeavor is actually quite the opposite. Neal only gave to charity and worked at the church because he selfishly wanted to be seen as “good” in the eyes of those around them. He gained pleasure from being seen this way. Similarly, “it gave [Orin] real pleasure to give the impression of care and intimacy” (596). Essentially, “the subject’s pleasure in him has become his food” (596). Wallace seems very concerned with people who not only seek pleasure, but whose highest forms of pleasure somehow involve them giving some form of pleasure.

In the footnote, Bain clearly explains this phenomenon: there is a

sort of philanthropist who seems humanly repellent not in spite of his charity but because of it: on some level you can tell that he views the recipients of his charity not as persons so much as pieces of exercise equipment on which he can develop and demonstrate his own virtue. What’s creepy and repellent is that this sort of philanthropist clearly needs privation and suffering to continue, since it is his own virtue he prizes, instead of the ends to which the virtue is ostensibly directed. (1052)

Wallace here brings up a very essential and human question–in regards to defining charity, do one’s actions or one’s motives count?

Yes, Orin gives his Subjects pleasure, but doing so isn’t for the sake of the Subject, but instead for himself. In the same way, Avril is completely selfless for the sake of her children, but the motive for her selflessness comes from a place of selfishness. But which one matters: action or motives? On which do we make a judgment? This question seems even more complicated to me in so far as we came across it in class in regards to Lenz. If I remember correctly, some people were arguing that Lenz is bad because of his actions: he is a bad person because he kills dogs. No matter what Lenz is feeling inside, the fact that he kills dogs defines him as a despicable character. But others were saying that Lenz’s motives don’t necessarily come from an evil place and so, though his actions don’t coincide, he is redeemable.

But what about Orin and Avril? After this passage, I realized how similar the two characters are. I am tempted to look at them both with disgust for their seemingly charitable, yet selfish actions. What I wonder, though, is how this similarity affected any incestuous relationship they might have had. If both characters only get pleasure through giving pleasure to others, how might such a relationship have worked? Maybe this is why they don’t get along. Just something to think about…

Ultimately, it seems as though Wallace comes down pretty strongly on the side of the importance of motives in actions. In the end, both Orin and Avril’s selfish charity seem to hurt rather then help those around them. But, then again, this issue gets complicated by the fact that AA is a strong proponent of the action mattering more than the reason or motive behind it (it doesn’t matter why you do it, but thank the ceiling every morning and night). So I guess I’m not sure what to think. Any ideas?

P.S. Just thinking about the wiki and themes, I think this whole concept could be engulfed by the larger theme of appearance vs. reality or inner reality vs. outer reality. We’ve seen so many characters who think very differently than they act or look…

Mario Stands Alone

Over the course of reading Infinite Jest, we’ve all pretty much come to the conclusion that Mario holds a unique place in the novel. He stands apart from all the other characters in the novel, both physically and emotionally. In the last section of reading, we learned a little bit more about Mario and about what exactly makes him so different.

In a society where irony, cynicism, and sarcasm prevail, Mario doesn’t fit in. His seeming ignorance and his inability to understand the language of irony around him causes him to be largely ignored by most of the characters in the novel. Ignored might be too harsh; maybe it would be better to say Mario is not exactly listened to. His words and ideas don’t seem to be taken for their full worth by the other characters. But, to the reader, (or at least to me), Mario’s naïveté serves as a refreshing reminder of what it would be like to view the world unironically.

We learn that “the older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy” (592). While everyone else in the novel is trapped in the cage of cynicism, unable to express true emotion and instead hiding behind a veil of irony, Mario is left outside of the cage. He can only understand the truth in its purity. Therefore, he fails to grasp the significance of the winks and the nudges that normally accompany any truth.

This is why Mario likes visiting the Ennet house. The Ennet House residents are all learning how to rid themselves of Substance addictions. But, the foundational principle of the AA program is not to rid the alcoholics of their addictions first and foremost, but instead to release their members from the cage of irony so that they may then be open enough and truthful enough to slowly work their way to sobriety. The escape from irony comes first (through the meaningful work of doing clichés, etc.), and only then can one escape addiction. “…Mario’s felt good both times in Ennet’s House because it’s very real; people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside” (591). Mario, in his attraction to pure truth, enjoys being at the Ennet House because all of the residents are in the process of stepping out from the cover of cynicism and becoming truthful themselves.

But the most important question to address when it comes to Mario is what does it mean that Mario, the only truly unironic character, is also the only extremely physically disabled and deformed character? Near the beginning of the book, we learn that “Mario is basically a born listener. One of the positives to being visibly damaged is that people can sometimes forget you’re there, even when they’re interfacing with you…That’s why bullshit often tends to drop away around damaged listeners, deep beliefs revealed, diary-type private reveries indulged out loud; and, listening the beaming and brady-kinetic boy gets to forge an interpersonal connection he knows only he can truly feel…” (80). Here, it is implied that the only reason Mario is able to be so truthful and irony-free is because of his damaged quality. It is only because he is ignored and becomes invisible that other characters can drop the “bullshit” when talking to him.

This is my bone to pick with DFW. If all of Wallace’s work is about the cage of irony and how we need to get out of it and get to someplace free and open and truthful, why create the physically-impaired Mario as the only example of someone who has escaped the cage? In so doing, Wallace seems to be implying that it is only those who are abnormal, those who are flawed, and those who are ignored by the majority of the society that are able to escape from under the cover of the veil of irony. Yes, Wallace introduces us to the problem of irony in our society, but he himself doesn’t seem to be able to do more than diagnose the problem. Where is the solution?

Speechless

The main idea I find Wallace to be grappling with in Oblivion, as several other people might have already pointed out, is the ways in which one deals with horror or pain. And it seems that the primary modes of attending to horror when faced with it, is in fact, no such attendance, but instead a detachment. But more importantly, Wallace explores the inability to describe such experiences with words, instead relying upon non-linguistic forms of communication.

In “Incarnations of Burned Children,” I was most taken by the description of the screams in the kitchen, which I think represent the need for non-linguistic expression in the face of pain. The baby’s “mouth [was] open very wide and [seemed] somehow separate from the sounds that issues” while the Mommy was “matching the screams with cries of her own” (114). The baby’s screams were also “regular as breath and went on so long they’d become already a thing in the kitchen, something else to move quickly around” (115).   The screams are not just the baby or the mother’s expression of pain, they instead become a whole other entity in and of themselves. They are the baby’s mode of communication–a way of signaling for help. They become another character in the room, and as the Daddy sees it, another thing to push to the side in order to attend to the wounds of the child. But, the irony is that the screams are not what should be pushed to the side, for it is the screams that are trying to lead Mommy and Daddy to the real source of the pain. Yet, the problem with pain, as Wallace illustrates, is that when faced with it, it is usually impossible to communicate to others. And therefore, we are unable to unburden ourselves from our pain, leading to the detachment that arises at the end of the story. And even though in this story, the child has no other modes of communication, for he is baby, we’ve seen this same chain of events before: as in with Kate Gompert and her inability to explain the pain of her depression.

And we also see it in “The Soul is Not a Smithy.” In this story, a man recollects the time he was held hostage by a substitute teacher gone crazy. But, the most interesting thing is that at the beginning of the story, he claims that “this is the story of how Frank Caldwell, Chris DeMatteis, Mandy Blemm, and I became, in the city newspaper’s words, the 4 Unwitting Hostages” (67).   Yet, the majority of the story he tells is not, in fact, that of the incident with the teacher, but instead is the daydream he has created for himself in the window panes of his classroom that day. The fact that this man’s recollection of the events of that day center not on the actual traumatic events, but instead center on Ruth Simmons and her dog and her father and mother, is yet another indication of the detachment and the inability to communicate in words that accompany pain and terror. The man thinks of that day in comic book style pictures because that is the only way he can relay the experience. That is the mode in which the terror of that day is stored in his mind: in pictures and images.

Wallace’s exploration of the inefficacy of language and words in the face of terror seems to me to ring pretty true to life. Though I’m not sure how uplifting his notion of detachment from pain is. If Wallace truly believes that detachment from pain and terror are the only ways to live one’s life, then he must condone the excessive use of drugs and alcohol that we see in Infinite Jest (which offer modes of detachment from the pain of life), yet I don’t think that that’s the case. shhunter89 already brought this up a little and I wholeheartedly agree: in what instances is it ok to detach and lack communication, and when are we supposed to just face our pain and the others around us?

How to Write Like DFW

One of my professors who knows I am taking this class sent me this link recently. I thought I would share because it’s fairly amusing…

http://www.kottke.org/09/03/growing-sentences-with-david-foster-wallace

The Pursuit of Happiness

After our conversation in class about the role of happiness in the novel, I went back to the conversation between LaMont Chu (the boy who wants tennis fame) and Lyle. Lyle’s sagely words to LaMont very clearly explicate the over-arching problem with the pursuit of happiness in the novel. Yet, even Lyle isn’t able to offer any true solution to the problem.

LaMont goes to Lyle explaining that he has a “crippling obsession with tennis fame” and “wants to get to the Show so bad it feels like it’s eating him alive” (388). He is convinced that the famous tennis stars must be intensely happy and must “derive immense meaning” (388) from their fame, and LaMont wants to experience that same happiness.

Lyle immediately explains that the happiness obtained from fame is extremely transitory and, in the tennis stars’ case, lasts only for one’s first photograph in a magazine. After that, all happiness immediately turns into fear: “fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines” (389), fear that the fame will go away. Though LaMont feels trapped in the cage of envy, the actual attainment of fame is no “exit from any cage” (389). Fame doesn’t end in happiness, but in fear of losing what once caused happiness. This, to me, is pretty much the root of most of the characters’ problems in the novel: the fact that you either endlessly pursue happiness, or you attain it fleetingly, until it immediately gets turned into fear of losing that happiness. Everyone is stuck in this cage wherein any choice made in pursuit of happiness is one that will eventually lead to unhappiness.

The cage and the cycle of happiness and fear are exactly what drive every AA member’s drug and alcohol addiction as well. The desire for drugs is a desire to be in a state of utter happiness, but as we’ve heard from Gately and all the other AA members, the happiness and enjoyment that comes from the drugs is temporary. Once the happiness wears off, all that is left is the addiction and the fear that you won’t be able to get more tomorrow.

So now what? LaMont asks this of Lyle and I’m left wondering the same thing. Lyle offers two suggestions: one is that “the truth will set you free” and the second is that “escape from a cage must surely require, foremost, awareness of the fact of the cage (389). Through AA, the addicts seem to be able to break out of the cage of drug/alcohol addiction using truth and an awareness of their problem. But, as we decided in class, their addictions just get transferred to another object, though one less dangerous. So, even Lyle’s suggestions don’t truly allow for a break out of the cage.

So what can we do to truly break out? Or is anyone really able to? From what we’ve read so far of the novel, I’m really inclined to say that Infinite Jest is a testament to the fact that we are, in fact, trapped in the pursuit of happiness and that there is no way out. Most of the characters in the novel are caged, one way or another. It seems as though the only way to get rid of the problem would be to not desire happiness. But our desire and pursuit of happiness appears to be built into the fact of our humanness. Is there any way to begin to not desire/pursue happiness?

It works if you work it

The whole concept of cliché has caught my attention recently. At the Ennet House, we get introduced to a character named Geoffrey Day, who proclaims that he has come to Ennet House “to learn to live by clichés” (IJ, 270). How exactly does something become cliché and what does it mean for one to “learn to live by clichés?”

To start with a solid definition, a cliché is “a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cliche). Day, a “recovering” drunk desires to “turn [his] will and life over to the care of clichés” (270). He wants to seek solace and comfort in phrases such as “One day at a time. Easy does it. First things first.” (270). In so doing, we learn that the result of Day’s surrendering to a life of clichés is that his life becomes “easier” (271). He explains that before a life a clichés, “I used to sometimes to think. I used to think in long compound sentences with subordinate clauses and even the odd polysyllable. Now I find I needn’t” (271). Day needn’t think because the clichés do the thinking for him. All that is necessary to live a life of clichés is to follow the directions of the short phrases, which have already been thought about, which have already been defined by others. There is, definitionally, no original thought involved in clichés. Therefore, Day’s life of clichés is an escape from personal thought or initiative.

Gately’s response to Day’s philosophy of a clichéd life seems to parallel DFW’s own response to modern societies’ creation of cliché. If Gately could, he would tell Day “that the clichéd directive are a lot more deep and hard to actually do” (273). This is the essential point. Clichés have become cliché because they have been repeated too many times to hold any significant meaning any more. But, the important thing to remember is that at some point in time, before the cliché was a cliché, it actually had meaning. It was once new and original and significant. The only reason that a cliché has lost its meaning is because we have taken it away.

DFW’s work thus far has, in part, been a plea to stop the removal of meaning and value from what become clichés; from what we create to be clichés. In his works and in his interviews he calls for a return to the basics: to real love, and genuine emotion, and true sentimentality. But, the problem he faces in attempting to return to these basics is that we as a society have overused these ideas and made stereotypes out of them so that now they have become trite. As he talks about in the McCaffrey interview, love has become so clichéd that we can no longer talk about it or express it without an ironic wink or a nudge. We have created platitudes where there used to be meaningful thought.

As he recognizes this sad fate of meaningful thought, in his writing DFW tries to get us to work to make the clichés relevant again. This is not an easy task, for they have been so overused and ingrained in us that it is almost impossible to see them as anything but stereotypical. This is why Gately wants to warn Day that clichés are “hard to actually do.” Contrary to what Day believes to be the case, if one were to truly live a life of clichés, one would have to live the clichés completely, fulfilling the value of each phrase. But, in order to do so, one would have to instill meaning back into the clichés–and this is no insignificant task.

Ultimately, Day and Gately’s comments on cliché highlight one of the biggest issues DFW sees with regard to modern society. But, we are still left wondering how this work to revert the clichés must be done–in neither his interviews nor in his writing does DFW give us clear directions. I suppose that merely being aware of the problem is the first step to solving anything, but what can we do next?

Appearance in “A Supposedly Fun Thing”

One of the things I found most interesting in the “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” essay was DFW’s almost neurotic attention to his own appearance as it is seen by the crew and his fellow cruisers on the cruise ship. It’s something we touched on in class for a moment but didn’t really discuss in detail.

The most obvious example of DFW’s concern over his own appearance is when he calls for room service in his cabin. He writes:

Usually what I do is spread out my notebooks and Fielding’s Guide to Worldwide Cruising 1995 and pens and various materials all over the bed, so when the Cabin Service guy appears at the door he’ll see all this belletristic material and figure I’m working really hard on something belletristic right here in the cabin and have doubtless been too busy to have hit all the public meals and am thus legitimately entitled to the indulgence of Cabin Service. (296)

DFW essentially creates a false image of himself in order to justify, to whoever will bring him his food, his need to order Cabin Service when there are so many other eating options available on the ship. He seems to have a fear of being judged. In this particular case, his need to create an outward appearance also stems from the guilt that he feels from indulging in such extravagant pampering. (This is connected to what we were talking about in class w/r/t DFW’s self-conscious hypocrisy of questioning the excessive pampering, but at the same time, indulging in it himself.) But, he ultimately creates a façade of himself in order to escape judgment or criticism from whomever he comes across.

Another example of DFW trying to control others’ judgment of him is in his relation to Captain Video: “Captain Video’s the only passenger besides me who I know for a fact is cruising without a relative or companion, and certain additional similarities between C.V. and me…tend to make me uncomfortable, and I try to avoid him as much as possible” (308). He deliberately avoids C.V. because he doesn’t want to be connected in any way to one of the ship’s “eccentrics.” He doesn’t want to be seen as weird or eccentric himself.

I have a feeling that both of these instances of DFW’s self-consciousness stem from his own dissection of everything and everyone around him. In his militant attention to detail, DFW makes very pointed and sometimes unflattering (though usually wonderfully funny) descriptions and critiques of those around him. And though all of the descriptions are truthful and probably unembellished, a lot of them are not particularly complimentary. When he first arrives at the pier and sees all the cruisers in their cruise-wear, he points out that “men after a certain age simply should not wear shorts…they legs are hairless in a way that’s creepy” (272). And when playing ping-pong with Winston, he also notes that “Winston also sometimes seemed to suffer from the verbal delusion that he was an urban black male…” (329). Now, both of theses comments aren’t necessarily mean or untrue, but they are delivered in a fairly critical way.

Because DFW notices and reports on all of the minute eccentricities and oddities of everyone around him, his own self-consciousness must stem from the fact that he doesn’t want to fall victim to any criticism himself. He seems to have a slight fear of being that person that he makes fun of or judges. So when he can, he tries to make himself seem as he wants others to see him, in order to avoid putting himself in a position that might allow others to scrutinize him in the same way he analyzes others. I don’t really think this means that DFW feels much guilt for his unflattering descriptions of people, for his descriptions are all truthful. But maybe this causes him to feel some pangs of self-reproach? I’m not sure.

In realizing that on the ship DFW creates appearances of himself, it makes more sense now to assume that the DFW-narrator that we get in the essay is also somewhat of an appearance, some type of persona. Not that the DFW-narrator is completely different from who DFW the author was, but what we see in the story is probably just a slight alteration of his actual character. Just as he does on the ship, in the essay he creates himself to be how he wants us to see him: funny, affable, insightful. And he is wildly successful.

Fiction and Non-Fiction and The Death of the Author

After reading “Greatly Exaggerated,” I decided to look back at my first post of the semester when I wrote about “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” and the intentional fallacy (http://machines.kfitz.info/166-2009/2009/02/01/the-intentional-necessity/). In that post, I claimed that “in the age of self-referencing and meta-fiction, the intentional fallacy is essentially already committed by the authors themselves. The author has already done the probing for the reader, so the reader doesn’t necessarily have to do any extra work.”

But, at that point in the semester, we hadn’t really started reading Wallace’s fiction quite yet, only a few of his non-fiction essays. Now having read a pretty substantial amount of both, I’m having trouble completely agreeing with my earlier comments. My issue with my previous post arises in the fact that making such a statement as “the necessary fallacy is built right into Wallace’s own text,” seems to completely conflate all of Wallace’s writings, fiction and non-. But can we? When we talk of the Intentional Fallacy and the death of the author, is there a different in terms of Wallace’s (or anybody’s) fiction or nonfiction?

At first glance it sure seems like it to me. My previous comments were based on Wallace’s non-fiction pieces, and after reading more of his non-fiction I do still stand by the assertion that in his non-fiction essays, Wallace writes himself right into the text. Therefore, no probing beyond the text is even necessary, meaning no commitment of the intentional fallacy is possible and “the whole question seems sort of arcane” (GE, 144). Wallace’s footnotes in his non-fiction are like T.S. Eliot’s notes as mentioned in “The Intentional Fallacy” (16). Because they are a part of the text itself, the information they provide is not considered “external” (IF, 10) evidence.

But, what can we say about his fiction? Just because DFW is not writing about himself, we don’t have to immediately claim that the work has no author. But I’m not sure we can claim that the self-referencing and meta-fiction that occurs in the Wallace’s fiction allows us to gain insight into Wallace’s intention in the same way the self-referencing in his non-fiction clearly illuminates all of his inner thoughts. Yes, the narrator in “Westward” talks to the reader just as Wallace talks to the reader in “A Supposedly Fun Thing,” but analyzing the intention of the narrator in the fiction and DFW in the non-fiction will be two completely different things. Might we need to, as Wimsatt and Beardsley say, separate the narrator of “Westward” from DFW himself?

All this being said, though it doesn’t seem like it, I still don’t completely agree with “The Intentional Fallacy” or the idea of the death of the author. I am definitely one of those “civilians who [knows] in [my] gut that writing is an act of communication between one human being and another” (GE, 144). I guess my point is that by reading “Greatly Exaggerated” in the midst of several hundreds of pages of non-fiction where DFW talks directly to the reader, it is easy to be convinced that, of course, the author is not dead; he is on this page talking to me about this time he went on a cruise. But, I do think it’s important to remember that the issue maybe different regarding fiction. And I say “maybe” because I don’t really know. That’s why I wanted to bring this up. Is there a difference? What do you think?

Close, But Yet, So Far

I think my favorite story so far as been “Here and There.” After “Girl with the Curious Hair” and “John Billy,” Wallace quickly takes us back down to earth with what is a basic, honest to goodness love story. Boy meets girl in high school, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl go to different colleges, boy and girl have a long-distance relationship that doesn’t work out, boy and girl break up. Yet, in playing with the complex idea of distances, Wallace turns this simple love story into an intricate tale of desires, dreams, and space.

From the very beginning of the story, the question of distance is manifest Bruce’s kissing of what is now his ex-girlfriend’s senior photo. It seems as though Bruce enjoys kissing the girl’s picture more than he enjoys kissing the actual girl. She even says, “He didn’t really like to kiss me” (151). But, from his description of the photo (“It’s cloudy from kisses” (152)), Bruce has obviously repeatedly kissed the picture. This strange situation arises because Bruce’s feelings of distance and closeness seem to be inverted. While kissing the girl (in person), Bruce describes that “at the time, with her, yes, I’d feel vaguely elsewhere” (151). It is in a moment of close physical contact that Bruce feels far away from the girl, hence his dislike for kissing her in person. But, it seems that it is only when he is away from the girl, when he only has her picture, that he is able to love her and feel a closeness and a connection.

The reason for Bruce’s inverted sense of connection seems to stem from the fact that Bruce was only able to love the girl because he made her, in his head, what he wanted her to be. And it was only when the girl was away from him that he could “invest” the girl with the qualities that he wanted her to have. The psychologist points this out, explaining how Bruce “never regards her as more than and independent from the feelings and qualities [Bruce] is disposed to invest her with from a distance” (156). When he was able to, essentially, “make her up” in his imagination he felt closest to her. But when they were together, he realized that “she is just plain different from whatever [he] might have decided to make her into for [himself]” (157). So, again it is only when they are apart, when he is free to dream, that he can feel a connection to the girl.

This also connects to why the girl had that impression that Bruce never likes to have, instead “he really likes to want” (159). If he has something, he has to take it for what it is, for how it presents itself, but, if he wants something and doesn’t have it yet, he is still free to dream about it. Bruce needs space, needs a distance between himself and an object in order to connect to it. The second that Bruce feels at home in Maine is the moment that he needs to leave: “Maine becomes another here instead of a there” (164). Bruce can’t have “here’s,” he can only handle “there’s.” He needs to feel that burn of desire, that want. We can only desire things that we don’t have, otherwise it would no longer be a desire. Bruce likes the desiring–the object doesn’t much matter.

Beyond the content, the very structure of the work suggests a play of and with distances. The story seems to be a therapy session between Bruce and a psychologist. But, the girl is present, too. Or is she? At first glance it might appear so: the conversation seems to flow and her responses do, for the most part, follow after Bruce’s comments. But, after re-reading the story, I’m pretty sure that, in fact, Bruce and the girl are in separate rooms, relating their accounts of their story at different times. Though this could definitely be up for interpretation and I would love to hear what other people think, I think there is an ever so subtle feeling that Bruce and the girl are talking just past each other. (Connection to Rick and Lenore, anyone?) In this one moment where both sides of their story finally come together, Bruce and the girl are actually apart, separated.

Ultimately, in this deceptively simple story, Wallace raises many important questions about the nature of human relationships. Do we all try to keep ourselves separated from the ones we love in fear of finding out that they’re not the people we thought them to be? Is the desire to want stronger than the desire to have?