Tag Archives: Good Old Neon

not quite finished

After finishing Oblivion, Good Old Neon, Mr. Squishy, Incarnations of Burned Children, I felt a little frustrated with Wallace.   Not that the stories don’t live up to his normal standard of writing.   To the contrary, some of these, including Good Old Neon and Incarnations of Burned Children, might be his best short works.   But it seems that in this collection Wallace really doesn’t want to placate the reader.   Each time, we are left before the moment of completion.   We’re close to being resolved, but not quite close enough to be satisfied.    And it’s not just that the endings are difficult to interpret.   We’re left (it seems to me) with a hollowness that lacks the unfamiliar twinge of hope or at least humor that we usually find by the end of Wallace’s pieces.  

My interpretation of this is a bit like my mom’s favorite life lesson- instant gratification.   As readers, we are always seeking a gratification of our needs right away: our need to be calmed, resolved, entertained, fulfilled, completed… Throughout the DFW stuff we have read, it’s always been a challenge for us, as readers, to trust and hold on rather than give up.   Wallace likes to make us wait a bit with the promise of understanding later.   But these stories seem a little mean at times.   He keeps dumping stuff on us at the last minute: what is with the last dialogue in Oblivion?   The whole story I was dying to see Hope embarrassed to find that, in fact, Randall was truly awake and not snoring each time she yelled at him.   He had me right on a leash, following to the end to see exactly who is at fault.   And the end dialogue, from what I got out of it, was trying to point toward something completely different, with no winner or loser(reality vs. dream?   relationship? whaaaat?).   Not to mention the lack of resolution of this creepy sexual step-father complex everyone has that is fairly disturbing and unsettling.   I couldn’t even quite decide whether I liked the narrator, because the whole Audrey obsession thing seemed fairly normal to him by the end.   Similarly, in Mr. Squishy we seem to be waiting for something the entire time.   Descriptions and exposition seem like build-up and preparation for the main action that is to come… but somehow the main action never comes.   Is the main action actually the build-up?   Did we completely miss the point waiting for the real exciting part to come?   We are so accustomed to getting to the climax that we miss what comes before.

Even in Good Old Neon I felt frustrated by the end.   Yes, the narrator does the deed that he’s been readying us for all along.   He’s promised to do so, and follows through in describing what it feels like to die.   But the end threw this “David Wallace” spin at us too quickly to resolve.   We’re left sort of in the lurch, uneasy.   I was hoping for at least another page of some kind of slow unravel.   Rather, David Wallace is introduced to us on the second-to-last page and sort of blows through an entire emotional battle/ inner turmoil before we quite get what is going on.

Not to complain.   Surely Wallace has reasons for making these endings more difficult for the reader than usual.   And I think it’s more than just making us work harder.   I can’t help but lean toward some cliché “carpe diem” thing, you know, enjoy the moment before you get dumped off to soon at the end.   That somehow our lives become these waiting games, pushing towards that thing that we think we’ll maybe achieve tomorrow or next year.   Or perhaps the joke is on us, because we have allowed Wallace to string us along waiting for the main action to take place (Mr. Squishy), or for our expectations to be proven true or false (Oblivion).   Maybe we, particularly as American readers, have come to expect some sort of trauma to come (Mr. Squishy).   From what I know of Wallace, there’s got to be something philosophical going on in these dissolved endings.   Thoughts??

Language Loss

As we’ve witnessed in several of Wallace’s works, language is a frequently visited topic. Although, after finishing Oblivion I got the sense that Wallace altered his discussion of language. One of the issues that Wallace focuses a great deal on in Broom of The System is language as a source of definition and identity. He also emphasizes that language involves inevitable loss. With all that we’ve read by the author, I wasn’t surprised by Wallace’s return to this topic; however, I will admit I really enjoyed Wallace’s consistent use of withholding information because it provoked in me an awareness of the loss of linguistics. Literally, the word oblivion comes from the Latin for to forget, and this loss is experienced all over Oblivion, especially in a short paragraph from “Good Old Neon”:

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are the ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc.-and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. (150)

While Wallace’s metaphor of language as a charade is frustrating, the loss that he attributes to language recognizes that the human experience is just too “fast and huge and all interconnected” to be adequately described. Oblivion‘s structure and plot organization seem to identify this failure of language in a way that confused me greatly at first. This technique is used all over Oblivion, witnessed in the way that “Mister Squishy” withholds conclusions, in the way that “The Suffering Channel” uses the tragedy of 9/11 as a looming cloud, and in the way “Good Old Neon” literally communicates language’s inadequacy, knowledge only fully realized by someone who’s transcended language’s hegemony by entering the afterlife.

To go back to Wallace’s notion of language as a process of ‘going through the motions’, his writing style seems to gain a new self-consciousness in Oblivion. I got the sense after reading the collection that Wallace reached a point of exasperation, a final acceptance that the words he uses can never adequately communicate his experience, or provide true escape- this was a conclusion that really seemed true after finishing “Good Old Neon”. This sort of acceptance shows through in Wallace’s choice to withhold certain information, an act that to me says, ” If I’m writing these words just for something, some part of me, to be lost, why not save myself some of the effort?” Though this technique ultimately annoyed me and left me unsatisfied I felt myself beginning to identify on a smaller scale with the frustration and blinding awareness that Wallace must have struggled with for a significant portion of his life. My confusion and moments of dissatisfaction were a product of language’s loss, but it was something that I only really experienced after stumbling on the disconnects in Oblivion, and so I owe thanks to this work for opening my eyes.