Good Old Neon

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Back to David Foster Wallace or Oblivion: Stories.


Think for a second – what if all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life turned out now to be somehow fully open and expressible afterward, after what you think of as you has died, because what if afterward now each moment itself is an infinite sea or span or passage of time in which to express it or convey it, and you don’t even need any organized English, you can as they say open the door and be in anyone else’s room in all your own multiform forms and ideas and facets?

The story is told from an narrator names Neal's perspective. Neal narrates as he looks back at his life, talking to an unknown person in a car, after his (Neal's) suicide. We learn over the course of his tale that Neal has always felt like a complete fraud, like he was only doing things to impress or please other people. Neal claims his fraudulence began at age four, when he learned how to lie, and we then follow him through his high school baseball triumphs, his corporate success, his exploits with women, his attempt to transcend his fraudulence by meditation, analysis, and other means, and his eventual decision to commit suicide. In the course of the telling, Neal talks about the natures of death, thought, language, and time, particularly. He eventually proceeds to imagine people affected by his death, including David Wallace '81, who Neal imagines sitting, looking at their high school yearbook, and imagining (David Wallace imagining) what led Neal to commit suicide.


  • Neal, narrator
  • David Wallace, Class of '81
  • Dr. Gustafson, therapist
  • Fern, sister


Character/Firepower Dichotomy

Neal attributes his inherent fraudulence to a "lack [of] either the character or the firepower to find a way to stop even after I'd realized my fraudulence and the terrible toll it exacted" (173). He assess Dr. Gustafson based on his "firepower," eventually concluding that he lacks the requisite amount of firepower to cure him. Perhaps Neal's inability to snap out of his fraudulence is due to the mistaken assumption that the same firepower that enabled the diagnosis of himself as fraudulent would also serve as the source of treatment. He becomes stuck in a stasis because mental firepower cannot penetrate all the way down to character. Neal’s self-consciousness becomes his over-arching character trait, such that all other traits are subsumed by this self-consciousness. This mental firepower manifested as self-consciousness allows him to manipulate his perception of himself, and the public self that he projects outwardly, but doesn’t seem to be able to reach all the way down to his fundamental constitution. The layer of self-consciousness applied to his self-perception renders all possible manifestations of genuine self as mere appearance. This results in his incorrigible fraudulent nature.


The inefficacy of language to express the contents of our thoughts renders the acts of conveying to other people what we're thinking and finding out what they are thinking "a charade...going through the motions" (151). The inner workings of our mind seem to operate very differently from the linear, sequential operations of language: "What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outline of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant" (151).


Like in The Broom of the System the impossibility of communication is a strong theme in this story. In this story, however, this conflict ultimately proves to be fatal to the narrator. With Neal it becomes clear exactly how dangerous self awareness can be. Neal recognizes his motivation for doing everything and realizes that because these motives aren't a true reflection of his character, he is a fraud. That is, Neal is constantly doing things so that he will be perceived as the type of person who does those things (i.e. Volunteer, Meditate, etc.) rather than because he truly loves to do them. This is representative of the larger problem of trying to communicate one's self through external vehicles be them actions or words. What Neal recognizes about language specifically is that it is always going to be incredibly inadequate.

"This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person's life are 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 of 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 on one split-second's flash of thoughts and connections, etc.-...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" (151).

It is this instance of hyper self awareness that causes Neal to feel so alone. Yet his observation is also something Neal realizes, which makes him feel fraudulent as well for thinking he is special for feeling alone. What Wallace is ultimately saying through Neal, is that communication is hard, impossible even, but that ultimately to get through life, one needs to figure out how to use it as well as possible and to quiet the part of themselves that never feels like it's enough. Much like in his This Is Water commencement address, here Wallace is recommending that people use their brains to concentrate on how to connect rather than to focus on how hard that connection is.


Good Old Neon is written in the first person, narrated by a Neal who has recently committed suicide. The story revolves around Neal explaining the events which have lead to his suicide as well as his thoughts after the event has occurred. In an unusual device, David Foster Wallace inserts a character presumably based on himself at the end of the story to share his thoughts on the aftermath of Neal's suicide.