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?