Author Archives: meg

The Purpose Behind Formatting?

The content of Wallace’s essay “Host” is as usual quite intriguing but, as is also often true, the formatting was a little tough to read through. I understand when he uses experimental formatting in his fiction, especially his short stories, because often the resulting emotions/awareness caused by the formatting are similar to those that curse the narrator (like the inability to exactly convey thoughts because they do not translate well to English). But it’s difficult for me to believe that Wallace uses the same reasoning for his non-fiction, especially when the topic of the essay seems to have little to do with these anxieties.
In “Host,” after all, Wallace shadows a radio talk-show host and his station cohorts, and describes (with some editorializing) them and what they do. It seems like a straightforward issue; as a reader initially I did not at all see that, because on the first page is some crazy stuff that I had to figure out. By now, as Wallace-readers we are used to footnotes and sometimes other similar structures, but in-text blocks that look more like parts of a flow chart than paragraphs in an essay completely threw me off. At first it was difficult to navigate these blocks, because they do not always appear near the point in the main text to which they refer. I would read them too early, not understanding the context; or I’d realize that I already read past their relevance. And then the blocks themselves could have other blocks extending from them into other, again seemingly random, locations on the page.

Like all of Wallace’s writing oddities, I hoped that I would get used to this one over time so I could actually pay attention to the content of his essay–which, for a non-fiction piece, seems appropriate. And I did eventually get used to it, at least a little bit; a sort of rhythm emerged, where I’d make sure to finish sentences and then go back and read any relevant text blocks, reading them in full before going on to their own sub-blocks. It just required some organization. But I have to wonder why Wallace would put the reader through this in the first place. I don’t remember much of the beginning of the essay, when I was still coming up with a system of reading. Why would he want to obscure meaning in this way? Perhaps he knew this would happen and made sure the beginning stuff wasn’t very important (and, looking back at it, it doesn’t seem crucial to understanding the rest of the essay, since a lot of it comes up again)–but that doesn’t answer the above question. . . .

Let’s look at some of the things Wallace says in “Host.”

“The fact of the matter is that it is not John Ziegler’s job to be responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent, or even defensible” (281).
“These ads, which are KFI’s most powerful device for exploiting the intimacy and trust of the listener-host relationship . . .” (298).
“[In talk-show radio, there is] the near total conflation of news and entertainment” (310).

Most of this essay appears to be about the interesting job of John Ziegler, but there are some tidbits like those above that draw attention to some of Wallace’s own possible issues. First, we have discussed Wallace’s authority in his writing, and how we basically believe everything he says. Is it his job, then, to be “responsible, or nuanced” in what he says? After all, like Ziegler, he is not actually a journalist, he is simply a writer who easily shares with us his own opinions on the subjects he covers. Unlike on the radio, Wallace’s writing is not interspersed with ads, but one does have to keep in mind that it is always an interested third party (i.e. Atlantic Monthly) who pays Wallace for this writing, and one has to wonder how much this affects the “reporting” and possible bias (which, on the other hand, we know exists in some form anyway). Finally, while Wallace’s writing is not “news,” it is informative of the world around us, especially of those aspects we aren’t completely familiar with, and is simultaneously (at least, usually) entertaining. The most interesting sentence to examine here could be, “Sometimes Mr. Z. calls endorsements ‘disgusting’ and says ‘The majority of talk show hosts in this country are complete and total whores’ ” (298).

Is it possible that, because of the similarities previously noted between his job and Mr. Z.’s, Wallace might consider himself a writing “whore”? Could this be why he makes it so difficult, through the formatting, for the reader to really get past a surface glimpse of content, because this realization is too personal and unflattering and frightening?

Musings on “Big Red Son” and IJ

The opening paragraphs to “Big Red Son” were so astonishing I actually read them aloud to my house-mates, because I felt the need to share the strange experience of reading them. For me, this was the most startling and repulsive and yet engrossing opening of anything I have heretofore read by David Foster Wallace. And based on the fact that the subject of autocastration never again occurs in the approximately fifty-page essay, I can safely say that that was its basic purpose: to mirror for the reader the atrocity of the AVN Awards show’s effect on Wallace. He practically says as much when saying that after being a judge for the AVN Awards, “We guarantee that you will never thereafter want to see, hear, engage in, or even think about human sexuality ever again” (5). Apparently just watching the show came pretty close to this for Wallace, and the disturbing opening paragraphs of the essay are certainly meant to convey some of this feeling of horror.

In the body of the essay, though, the strangest thing was that I kept finding echoes of
Infinite Jest. Take, for example, the description of one of the male porn stars: “The infamous T.T. Boy is here, standing alone with his trademark glower, the Boy who is rumored to bring a semiautomatic pistol with him to the set . . .” (15). (Not to mention that Max Hardcore declares that he will get a trophy whether legitimately or not [32].) Anyone else get the sudden image of Eric Clipperton? One has to wonder what it is about a gun that helps a guy perform in a porn scene, and how that may be similar to Clipperton’s tennis performance. It didn’t sound like the gun was actually a threat for the Boy; rather, it was just sort of there. Clipperton, on the other hand, had the gun held to his head for entire matches–and the threat was implicating others in his suicide. For the Boy, the short sentence didn’t make it sound like suicide was really a possibility. Truly, though the two both had guns involved in their performances, and I immediately thought of Clipperton when reading this, I’m not sure what their real connection is. It seems like the symbol for the Boy is really just a symbol, but for Clipperton it’s a very real thing.

A clearer connection is made between pornography and the Entertainment, though not by Wallace himself. He quotes David Mura: “The addict to pornography desires to be blinded, to live in a dream. Those in the thrall of pornography try to eliminate from their consciousness the world outside pornography, and this includes everything from their family and friends or last Sunday’s sermon to the political situation in the Middle East. In engaging in such elimination the viewer reduces himself. He becomes stupid” (19). Like the Entertainment, it seems Mura is afraid that the porn “addict” ceases to care about anything outside the world on the screen. He uses the word “stupid” not in the sense of “less intelligent,” but in the older sense of being literally stupefied, falling into a state of stupor–much like the watchers of the Entertainment. It makes sense, since pornography certainly claims to be about pleasure in the various forms of sex, that these two would relate. Moreover, the draw of porn for people like the LAPD detective is the open humanity that sometimes appears (despite the fact these people are actors) as a direct result of pleasure (16); and while the Entertainment does not give pleasure because of sex, it does appear to touch on the basics of humanity.

Finally, the discussion of reality and representations thereof appears in both
Infinite Jest and “Big Red Son.” In IJ these discussions mostly arise from things like the map vs. territory dispute during Eschaton. In “Big Red Son,” we get the porn genre “Gonzo,” which “videos push the envelope by offering the apparent sexualization of actual real life,” “. . . whereas traditional, quote-unquote dramatic porn videos simulate the 100 sexualization of real life . . .” (26). The question of which genre is more real becomes unnecessary here, because people know that neither is. It becomes a question more of truthfulness: the dramatic porn never claims to be real life in the way Hollywood movies never claim to be real; but Gonzo porn is by all appearances real–and yet no discerning watcher would believe that. But then, I have a feeling most people watch porn not to analyze it but to gain some sort of pleasure from it. One has to ask, would any watcher even care?

Not oblivious to recurring themes

My first impression of Oblivion was the apparent ease with which I could read these stories. Admittedly, we’ve been reading the monolithic IJ for a while now, and most recently attempted a book about math, but I think the stories here are actually more understandable (at least on the surface) than some of those from either GWCH or Brief Interviews. It first has to do with the fact that these four stories all seem to be told in the classic DFW voice (which I’m certainly getting used to) rather than creating strange narrative styles. But I think, also, that it has to do with the patterns emerging among the stories that makes each new story easier to internalize, because I have already read something that illustrates much the same point.

Take, for instance, our first story in
Oblivion, “Mister Squishy.” The first obvious theme here is consumption/consumerism, something DFW has pointed out to us many times before. And yet he still managed to get a smile out of me when I read, “By industry-wide convention, Focus Group members received a per diem equal to exactly 300% of what they would receive for jury duty in the state where they resided. . . . It was, for senior test marketers, both an in-joke and a plausible extension of verified attitudes about civic duty and elective consumption, respectively” (11). I found this statement both sad and amusing in that sort of way you often find comedians’ jokes sad and amusing: it’s a silly situation, but you believe it’s true and the truth of it makes it funnier yet sad because the silly situation ought not to be true. Of course I don’t know how marketing agencies work, so I would have no way of knowing whether or not people get paid like that to participate in the real-world equivalent of the “Focus Groups.” But I do know that the average person, myself included, spends more time thinking about things, like food and clothes and my warm comfy bed, than about politics and my civic duty. In fact, I almost never think about civic duty; and having only been a legal adult for two years, voting every once in a while just about comprises my idea of what the term “civic duty” means. I have never been asked to serve on a jury, and until I read the sentence quoted above, I thought that like voting, jury duty was unpaid. (Turns out that California actually pays you $15 a day as a juror–which is nearly unpaid, considering that it takes most people away from their jobs.) What is both funny and sad is that I can easily see how people would rather go try out a new product for a day than serve on a jury, and that by getting paid more to do so, it seems like testing out new products is more important/valuable than a person’s civic duty. The pay, in other words, reinforces everyone’s idea that things we can buy and touch and use are much more important than political ideals.

In addition to politics, philosophical ideals also get warped in the world of “Mister Squishy.” Among the various marketing pitches and slogans used in “Shadow” advertising are, “freedom of individual choice” and “the unenjoyed life was not worth living” (37). The former hearkens back to the discussions of Marathe and Steeply in
IJ, a central argument being that Americans don’t actually know how to choose except to always pick those things which satisfy infantile desires. The latter is even more poignant because it is a recognizable but misquoted phrase. It is a perfect phrase for advertising because of its familiarity, yet it a rather malicious thing. The original wording is, “The unexamined life is not worth living”–something Socrates once said. This ties back to another theme of DFW’s, relating to the joke about the fish in the water: we often don’t see what is right before our eyes, and according to Socrates, if we don’t try our best to find out what this “water” is, we have not really lived. The warped phrase used for advertising means practically the opposite: if we don’t indulge ourselves with utter abandon and instead worry about things we cannot solve, we have not really lived. It is worrisome that so grand a statement (if impossible for most people to accomplish) can be so easily manipulated into something that fits the base consumerist desires of a nation that was built on similar grand statements.

One gets the sense, after reading so much of Wallace’s work, that he was quite stuck on a few issues. These issues he either couldn’t seem to work out no matter how much he wrote, or he felt that no other issues were worth writing about because these so pervade the lives of Americans (humanity?) today.

Boundaries of reality

Once again, our reading for the week touches on and expands the variety of themes we have identified as central to Infinite Jest (and basically to DFW’s writing as a whole). The theme I’m concentrating on here is the one about the relations of varying realities and worlds–the idea that not only games but life has rules.

In this section, Marathe and Steeply continue their conversation on freedom as it relates to the Entertainment, and Steeply speaks up a lot more. He clarifies that the problem is not that
Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents are employing a very insidious weapon against the American population (that type of act is, after all, not out of the question when it comes to U.S.-international history). The problem is that they seem not to have a motive. They are doing it just to hurt America. With past aggressors, actions were understandable: “It’s like there’s a context for the whole game, then, with them. We know where we stand differs from where they stand. There’s a sort of playing field of context. . . . Rules of play. Rules of engagement” (421). When it comes to the AFR, there are no rules. They have broken those bounds that Steeply and most others cannot see around. What they have done, really, is completely abstract the idea of an enemy that Americans can define: an enemy wants to hurt, yes, but there is a goal in mind. That enemy is an Other who is its own Self, and we can understand the desire to harm for the sake of Self. When harm is caused without intention, without Self-gratification in some way, it is utterly puzzling. Because that Other is not doing it for its own Self, is that Other even an Other? It does not define itself as a Self, which paradoxically seems to be a prerequisite for being called an Other (viz. a Self that is separate from the POV’s Self). So, then, who is this enemy that has no purpose but hurt? If it is not Other . . . What else is there? (Is the abstraction beginning to hurt your brain yet?)

Of course, before we can talk about breaking rules and boundaries of reality, we have to recognize that these things exist. In elucidation of this point, one of the biker AA members tells Don Gately a little joke: “This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, ‘What the fuck is water?’ and swim away” (445). In the shallow argument against this, we could say, Look, the fish know they are surrounded by something and just haven’t named it water, like if someone called “air” something else, of course we wouldn’t know what they meant; that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize that air exists. But in a less shallow way, we have to admit, we don’t really know what “air” means either. We are told in science classes that air is made up of a bunch of molecules (a variety mainly including nitrogen) bouncing around with a lot of energy. But we can’t really see this. We can’t really
see anything. Air is right in front of our noses, like the water is right in front of the fish (their eyes, since they don’t have noses (which seems like a better way to put that expression anyway, right?)) and yet we can’t see it. Philosophically, there are probably a lot of things that are right there, so obvious, and yet we don’t recognize their existence. This is probably why, leading into things like AA, we have the ubiquitous “admitting the problem is the first step toward recovery.” It is impossible to change anything unless one first realizes a change ought to be made. For the AA members, the reason they first stepped through the doors is because they finally recognized the reality that had been there for a while. They admitted the fact of addiction (which, to any observer, probably would have been obvious), something very big and encompassing that was for quite a while, unseen and unnamed, like the fish’s water.

To tie these two accounts together, one might say that humans need to see boundaries to live. These boundaries may be of different realities, or they may be the places that divide Self and Other, but they are necessary for our existence. It isn’t always easy to see them, but when they are disrupted, we feel very distressed.

Are we free to choose?

I found that in our current section of reading, Marathe and Steeply (but mostly Marathe) have some interesting things to say about choice and freedom. At the start of their current segment of conversation, the two are discussing the film cartridge that has caused a growing group of individuals to watch on repeat basically until they die. Marathe says passionately (as ever), ” ‘[N]ow is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to love, each one. A U.S.A. that would die–and let its children die, each one–for the so-called Entertainment, this film” (318). Marathe considers Americans’ inability to choose what they love, and therefore really only loving themselves, the reason everyone who sees this certain cartridge so far is unable to break away. Craving entertainment is an obvious form of self-love, and this craving coupled with what appears to be the ultimate Entertainment results in the lack of desire (and even inability) to pay attention to anything but that which provides the pleasure. Marathe continues: ” ‘The appetite to choose death by pleasure if it is available to choose–this appetite of your people unable to choose appetites, this is the death. What you call the death, the collapsing: this will be the formality only’ ” (319). In other words, the actual ceasing of bodily functions that the film cartridge prompts through catatonia is just the physical representation of what has already happened in the minds of all Americans. Once again this comes from their inability to choose what to love, and so only love themselves. In constantly craving pleasure, then, it is no wonder they would choose death by pleasure over any other cause of death–but it is in that non-choice that Marathe believes they have already died because they cease to live in any meaningful way. They do not live for others, they do not love something greater than themselves. He is arguing first that the Entertainment does not kill them because they are already dead, and if you want to play semantics and say that it does in fact kill them physically, then that is their own fault. The cartridge would not kill someone who was not already dead in the mind, obsessed with pleasure, because it would not affect them the same way. A person who could choose what to love would be able to walk away from viewing the ultimate Entertainment.

In light of the argument about choice, the argument about freedom is rather interesting. Steeply argues that it is the temptation in a free society that leads to things like watching the film cartridge. Marathe, however, views freedom differently, pointing out that it is not even well-defined. ” ‘Your freedom is the freedom-
from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress. . . . What of the freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose?’ ” (320). Steeply would see Marathe’s “loving-filled father” as someone who forces, who applies that constraint that Americans like to be free from; but to Marathe, there is no way to be free unless one is taught how to choose. If a person is not taught, she will of course choose “a child’s greedy choices”–i.e. those things that demonstrate her self-love, because she does not know how to love something else, because she has not been taught how to choose what she loves.

I personally disagree with Marathe’s view here (quite possibly because I am American and therefore too immersed in my own culture to see it for what it is): I do not see us only as a freedom-from society, I think we are very much a freedom-to place as well. (Concrete example: there have been arguments surrounding the freedom of religion clause about whether atheism is a legitimate choice, because using its wording some argue that it says one is free to choose one’s religion, but not free
from choosing a religion; therefore abstaining altogether (being an atheist) is not protected in this clause.) It may be that most of the time our choices are selfish, but I don’t think that is uniquely American; evolutionarily, considering myself the center of the universe is called self-preservation for promotion of the species. I don’t know whether we’re capable of choosing what to love, but once again I don’t find that an American problem, I find it a human issue.

Counter arguments? Corroboration?

Hideous fathers and sons

I was very intrigued by the way DFW slowly drew me in in the story with the longest title in Brief Interviews, “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon.” This wasn’t a brief interview of a hideous man, but I certainly felt that a hideous man was present. Namely, at the beginning, the father. He describes the birth of his son, that terribly unpleasant and painful act that perhaps no one described to him well enough, but that everyone knows is not a walk in the park. This was quickly followed by sentences like the following (bringing back ideas from my post last week): “The selfishness, the appalling selfishness of the newborn, you have no idea” (257). My first thought here was, yes, newborns are selfish. That’s how it goes. They know nothing except whether or not their needs are met, and like the pain of giving birth, he should have known this. It seemed at this point in my reading like the father simply concentrated on those not so pleasant aspects of fatherhood that people do actually know exist, and he did not recognize at all those pleasant aspects that make people have kids in the first place. For some reason, he was predisposed to despise his son. Thinking back to the above quotation, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the father’s own selfishness getting in the way. After all, he describes the utter impossibility of being able to give up everything for this newborn in the way his wife automatically did; and while I don’t think he had to go so far as to not want anything for himself (as his wife seemed to), he should have been more than willing to help and love his son. That’s part of being a parent, taking care of a being that is unable to survive on its own yet. “A being,” because I am influenced by his saying that his son had “an essential disorder of character. An absence of whatever we mean by ‘human'” (258). Once again, I give the father a little leeway: toddlers have not become self-sustaining, mature, [insert others of society’s hopeful adjectives] adults quite yet–but does this mean they are not human? I don’t think so.

At this point in the story, I was firmly against the father, but I slowly began to turn to his side. He began to convince me he wasn’t just a crazy, selfish, hideous man. Describing his son’s medical problems: “My son oozed, exuded, flaked, suppurated, dribbled from every quadrant” (259). Okay, I can see how that would be difficult to be around all the time, to have to love and support something that was physically not pleasant. But the father started out from the very beginning not liking his son, so I needed more evidence that he (the son) was actually despicable. The scene that turned me around to completely side with the father was the one in which he describes the son eating chocolate in the living room and then throwing an enormous tantrum when asked not to do so. It was not just the event, it was the way he described it that left no room for anything but sympathy:

“and with his mouth crammed with candy and chewing at it even as the tantrum began, puling and stamping his feet and shrieking now at the top of his lungs in the living room even as his mouth was filled with chocolate, that open red mouth filled with mashed candy which mixed with his spittle and as he howled overran his lip as he howled and stamped up and down and running down his chin and shirt, and peering timidly over the top of the paper held like a shield as I sat willing myself to remain in the chair and say nothing and watching now his mother down on one knee trying to wipe the chocolate drool off his chin as he screamed at her and batted the napkin away” (262).

From this point on, I was firmly inclined to believe the father about everything. The fact that his son was evil, because he drew everyone in somehow, because he knew his father knew, because he wasn’t conscious of his evil-ness. Everything. The father was no longer the hideous man; that title had transferred completely to the son.

But then just a few pages later, 266 to be exact, I realized something. This entire time, I had been glazing over the “paused” portions, where the writer described what was going on during the breaks in the father’s speech. It wasn’t really a pretty sight; after all, he was dying. I started to pay attention to these notes after my realization, and discovered that once again, I had been fooled. I couldn’t tell what everything meant in these medical descriptions, but all of it was certainly unpleasant and a lot of it seemed similar to the conditions the father described earlier about his son. I didn’t stop believing the father at this point, but I did go back to considering him as a hideous man as well. Just because he saw that evil in another didn’t exempt him from his own type thereof. And for a brief period, I really identified with the father. I guess we’re all doomed to being hideous.

Extra-linguistic possiblities?

I was thinking about what was briefly discussed in class today, the idea that we cannot understand or explain anything outside the terms of language. Then Prof. F. pointed out Lenore’s crying in BOTS as a wordless, anti-linguistic form of communication. So perhaps the showing of strong emotion is a way to communicate extra-linguistically. Obviously novels do not break free of language, but what about art? Paintings or photos or sculptures etc? They don’t use words, yet (if done well) they communicate something. Critiquing art brings it back down to the linguistic level (maybe that’s why I’ve always hated the idea of art critics), but if you just go to a museum or a show or something and you stare at an art piece, don’t you feel something? I feel like I can understand a piece of art without having to talk about it. Does this count as over-coming my entrapment in language? Or because here I am talking about it, have I just ruined it? But then, I’m not actually attempting to explain art here…

Selfishness in Brief Interviews and it’s effects on me, the reader

The theme that seemed most apparent in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was that of selfishness and its varying levels. Some little, some big problems of selfishness; sometimes a person recognized it and sometimes he didn’t–and there wasn’t really a difference between the two in their effect.

In the very first story, we have (not surprising, as it is titled “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”) a very condensed version of selfishness. The man and the woman both very much wish to be liked, and this is stated explicitly. It is unclear whether either achieved this selfish goal, the implication being that perhaps because of their mutual selfishness, they were mutually unable to fulfill the other’s needs. As for the “man who’d introduced them” (0), his selfishness also, though not explicitly, is defined by his wanting to be liked; he is anxious to always “preserve good relations” (0) with others because he understands he may need them someday, when they would only be willing to help if they liked him. And yet he gives the clue that everybody ought to understand, because in no way is he alone in this: he doesn’t particularly like either the other man or the woman. He acts like he does, which feeds their selfishness and indirectly feeds his own; but one has to ask: “Does anybody ever truly like anybody? Or is it all just selfishness?” The answer is unclear, and certainly isn’t in the story; I think it implies the question without giving any assistance, to get the reader, as many authors want, to think for once about her relationships with others.

The reader is shown another version of selfishness in Brief Interview #11, where the man is explaining why he’s leaving the relationship. This “interview” is frustrating to read because, for one thing, I have no idea what the other person (presumably a girlfriend) is saying or thinking, and I have only some idea of what the man is thinking by what he is saying; so the whole story isn’t here. Also, what he is saying is ridiculously annoying. He says, for instance, “I said I’d promise I wouldn’t leave and you said you believed me that I was in this with you for the long haul this time, but you didn’t. Okay? Just admit it, all right? You don’t trust me. I’m on eggshells all the time. Do you see? I can’t keep going around reassuring you all the time” (20). As I presume the girlfriend says after this, considering his next response, this is not exactly a reassuring group of statements. I have no knowledge of the past here, but this is any indication of how he generally acts, he can’t be much of a reassurance day-to-day either. Plus, while it seems she may have needed his verbal reassurances of his not leaving, he definitely needed some form of reassurance that she actually believed him. If he had received that reassurance, he may not be saying these things right now. He likely doesn’t recognize the possibility that
she can’t keep going around reassuring him all the time either. This is where his selfishness appears: not only does he want her to trust him despite his past (implying that he generally does up and leave), he wants her to constantly prove that she trusts him. Obviously she didn’t do it well enough, because now here he is wanting her to admit that she doesn’t trust him, thereby going back on her word, while he basically is up and leaving her as they speak. Then, to deny that she had well-founded distrust, he says it’s all her distrust that’s making him go, which is hard for me, the reader, to believe because I only read his distorted side of the story. This guy wants to have everything and do what he wants and not have to do any work for it–and now that he is basically breaking up with his girlfriend, he wants to make himself out to be a victim when it’s likely, considering clues about his past and their past together, he has brought it all on himself. It’s not clear, but he may even be wanting to have the relationship end in this way. Really, when I read this Brief Interview, all I could think was, “What a selfish tool.”

Why I might start watching creepy movies

Of the first essays we read out of Supposedly Fun Thing for last Wednesday, we didn’t talk hardly at all about my favorite, “David Lynch keeps his head,” and here I’ll examine why I actually liked it so much. I’ve never been a fan of horror films or creepy films or, I would guess, anything David Lynch has ever made. I can only guess at that last, because the only movie I have seen by Lynch is Dune. As DFW says, “The overall result is a movie that’s funny while it’s trying to be deadly serious, which is as good a definition of a flop as there is, and Dune was indeed a huge, pretentious, incoherent flop” (152). So I don’t think Dune gave me a very good idea of a Lynchian movie (not to mention it’s been a long time since I watched it). I think my fascination with this essay is actually because I’m not a fan of such movies. I feel like DFW explains to me exactly why creepy movies exist, why they draw so many audiences, and why Lynch’s films are better than almost any body else’s in the genre of creepiness.

As a broad description, DFW writes:

A kind way to put it is that Lynch seems to be one of those people with unusual access to their own unconscious. A less kind way to put it would be that Lynch’s movies seem to be expressions of certain anxious, obsessive, fetishistic, Oedipally arrested, borderlinish parts of the director’s psyche, expressions presented with very little inhibition or semiotic layering, i.e. presented with something like a child’s ingenuous (and sociopathic) lack of self-consciousness” (166).

In other words, Lynch presents his audience with that side of himself that is mirrored in everybody else but no one else will address. It is not a side that is “beneath” or “hidden” as people wish were true (205), but a side that we push aside and ignore. Lynch exposes the audience’s naiveté for believing this part of humanity is somehow gone by exploring how that part affects what we think of as “normal” life or human interaction. Wallace, constantly reminding us that he dislikes what irony has done in fiction, is obviously particularly intent on Lynch’s lack of self-consciousness in his films. He argues, and I believe him, that if the films did make fun of themselves in the usual postmodern way, they would not be anywhere near as effective.

But effective at what? What exactly is the point of creating a creepy movie? “The absence of point or recognizable agenda in Lynch’s films . . . strips these subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t. . . . This may, in fact, be Lynch’s true and only agenda: just to get inside your head” (171). We’ve discussed the idea that all writing and, by extension, art is used as a means of communication between creator and audience, so it’s understandable that Lynch’s sole purpose could be to completely cross that barrier that obviously exists. Artists are constantly trying to cross the barrier, though, and not succeeding; DFW is arguing that Lynch can actually do it. We, the reader, understand that “‘personal expression’ is cinematically interesting only to the extent that what’s expressed finds and strikes chords within the viewer” (199), so the trick is that Lynch knows how to make his personal universal. Because in all story-telling, identification with character is what draws us in, “we’re way more easily disturbed when a disturbing movie has characters in whom we can see parts of ourselves” (167). If we identify with a character that then goes on to do terrible things that we can’t imagine ourselves doing, we are forced to realize that we are fully capable of doing those terrible things. DFW argues, “His best movies tend to be his sickest, and they tend to derive a lot of their emotional power from their ability to make us feel complicit in their sickness” (168). So, then, the way to get inside my head is to startle me into realizing parts of myself that I have pushed aside–which makes sense: if it’s a happy love story, I will fully enjoy myself, but the creator obviously has not taught me anything new about myself. The communication there is really just a reaffirmation of what I already believe about life. Lynch’s movies, on the other hand, completely shatter his watchers’ beliefs in the world, because he has the ability to get inside their heads.

I guess I’d better go rent a Lynch film.

Questions in “Say Never”

All the stories in Girl with Curious Hair are stylistically as well as substantively different, and difficult to read to lesser or greater extents. “Say Never” is obviously one of those that was easier to read, at least on the surface, because of its style. For each section, the reader is told the point of view, and it only switches between Labov, Len, and Mikey and Louis. Labov tells his side in simple first-person narrative; Len is more stream-of-consciousness; and the plain dialogue between Mikey and Louis is easy enough for DFW-readers to understand (we certainly saw a lot of it in BOTS). Yet “Say Never” was not what I would call an easy read. It prompted me to ask more questions than I could definitively answer. For instance, why did DFW choose the points of view he did? Labov seems an unlikely candidate because he is not directly involved in or affected by the main struggle of the story. He is an outsider that has an in through his friend Mrs. Tagus–who ought to be telling her part of the story, rather than letting us hear it through Labov, especially since he relates to us seemingly unnecessary details of his history. (Why do we care that his landlord has tried to get him to leave by keeping the apartment cold?) Because Labov is who the reader first meets, the reader does not yet know whether or not to pay close attention to all of these details. In short stories, one basically assumes the beginning is important because it sets up the problem and everything else. In “Say Never,” the first character we get to know doesn’t even end up crucial to the plot.

Unlike Labov, it makes perfect sense to have Lenny tell one of the three sides of the story, as he is apparently the catalyst for the pervading issue and all that seems to follow after the story ends. But we are given such an inside view of his psyche, it is like we are being told to be understanding of what happened and, more importantly,
why it happened. He has hurt a not insignificant number of people surrounding his life, yet as story styles go, he is presented as victim rather than perpetrator. We get only the barest of ideas about what his brother, Mikey, from whom he “stole” a beautiful young woman, thinks about the situation (which it is unclear if he even understands). And we have no idea what Lenny’s poor wife, Bonnie, is going through. The vast majority of our knowledge about her at all comes from Lenny’s descriptions, which are less than flattering–which is understandable, given the nature of his betrayal; we know not take what he says about her at face value, but we aren’t really given any other options. Lenny really seems to be the main character here, and it is difficult not to believe a lot of what a protagonist tells us, even when we know from other context that we shouldn’t.

The one thing that interested me more about this story than the odd choices of narrators is the question of title. It comes from in the midst of the story, when Lenny says that he’ll “never be forgiven for this,” and then “She asked me who it was first said never say never. I told her it must have been someone alone” (
GCH 216). Perhaps, then, if this had been a story about someone alone in the world, the title would have been “Never Say Never.” But Lenny is not alone (which brings again the question of why he did what he did), so the clichéd full phrase does not fit (though one could certainly posit that the situation itself is all too clichéd). No, the title is “Say Never,” implying that “never” really could be true here. Lenny may actually never be forgiven, and yet he doesn’t seem to care. Not only that, but rather than hide what he’s done as people often do in such situations, he has sent [half] a letter to the relevant parties to “explain . . . to inform . . . to describe . . . [and] to project the foreseeable consequences” (GCH 212), just about sealing this fate of being forever unforgiven. In fact, in the letter he sends, Lenny doesn’t even get to the projecting part, only the description, because it cuts off. Perhaps he can’t write the idea that he might never be forgiven. Perhaps he simply wanted to use the letter to describe this illicit experience he had, because the only way everyone would “listen” to him is in the given format of a letter that promises to provide some idea of consequences–though it never does this, perhaps because he assumes everyone has an idea of what these might be. Despite everything the reader and the other characters receive from Lenny, I still don’t believe anyone really has an answer to why he would hurt so many people. Though the consequences are unseen because the story ends all too quickly, it is true that we can guess where it is going, and I can’t help but hope that why somehow gets answered for Mrs. Tagus and Bonnie.