Tag Archives: Appearance


In Brief Interviews I’ve noticed a theme: characters are scared of losing control over themselves.   As many people have pointed out, in DFW’s works there is almost always some emphasis on appearance, whether it’s how we see ourselves, or how we think others see ourselves.   Often, as illustrated in “A Radically Condensed History of Post Industrial Life,”   people focus all their energy on trying to make themselves seem a certain way to others.   The implication here is that there are characteristics or entire personalities hidden beneath the appearance, the “real” you, so to speak.

In B.I. #14 (Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!) we have an instance of one of these hidden characteristics coming out (haha).   The guy clearly has no control over it, and he doesn’t even understand it’s cause, which is partly why it scares him.   It’s ironic that this utterance which occurs during orgasm, one of the most intimate of human moments, when you are “outside” of yourself, completely in union with another. The very self-involuted fear of being judged as strange comes from the most un-self-involved of phenomena.

I see a similar themes in several other of the stories in Brief Interviews, such as the chicken-sexer guy (how he gets off on girls surrendering their will to him) and the great-lover (the trick is to convince the girl that she is blowing you head off, i.e, she has made you lose control of yourself).

Any thoughts?

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.

Anxiety taken from Appearance

Moving past postmodernism’s self-reflexivity is a task that Wallace seems to wrestle with throughout his body of work. Girl with Curious Hair’s “Appearance” continues this theme by parodying Late Night with David Letterman. Wallace does this in a manner that attempts to rip apart the notion that the absurdity and irony of metafiction is a simple means of examining and exposing reality. Moreover, “Appearance” dismisses this notion as naive, and works to solve deeper underlying issues of anxiety and connectedness.

Edilyn’s constant urges to take Xanax, Rudy’s tendency to micromanage, and the build up before Edilyns’ appearance on David Letterman’s talk show is enough to establish a story full of anxiety. As a man well versed in the ways of entertainment industry politics, it’s not shocking to see Rudy nervous as he is about to watch his wife be interviewed by Letterman, who’s hokey appreciation for the postmodern game and freckles seem to only further his image as a ‘savage misogynist’. The irony is clear as we see Edilyn seeking to escape her profession as an actress by asserting herself free of illusions, while all the while Edilyn’s husband tries to coach and alter her behavior to effectively play the postmodernism’s game. The only actress in “Appearance” is paradoxically also the only character that is concerned with sincerity and fighting to break past appearance.

This anxiety is clearly seen literally, but it is in the figurative symbolism that its true extent is experienced. As Edilyn sits backstage, light imagery works to intensify the atmosphere. After Rudy lights a cigarette, a patch of sunlight falls on the couch with the smoke trailing upwards in a way that makes the light seem distantly “bright and cold”(182). The cigarette is seen as “gushing smoke into the lit air”. The bright and cold light paired with the adjective ‘lit’, bring to mind both literal and figurative meanings, however it is the figurative that captures the tenseness of the story. Describing the air as ‘lit’ also has the connotation of having the potential for explosive destruction. Inside this same room sits Ron, whose distinctively small mouth is mentioned several times. The significance of Ron’s mouth provides a humorous break from the text in which his small mouth and small drinks match his equally small advice. Size is a quality later mentioned in Letterman’s interview in which he discusses salary and Edilyn’s work as an actress. In this scene, “Big dollars” are mentioned as the sort of thing that one discusses only in “low tones”.  This statement has a range of symbolic meanings, one of which could be to introduce shame as an underlying theme. Another possible intent of Wallace was to show support of Edilyn’s concern with genuine reality, highlighting appearance and it’s relation to the superficial.

                      Wallace’s “Appearance” brings to question where we locate the root of our own personal anxiety. Is it a product of trying to combine the two opposing worlds of appearance and reality? Or does it come about in our struggle to find a distinction, if any, between the two?