Here and There
Upon a first reading, David Foster Wallace’s short story “Here and There” seems almost deceptively simple. It is essentially a love story, or rather, a story of love lost. The story centers on the relationship between Bruce, “a hulking, pigeon-toed, blonde, pale, red-lipped Midwestern boy, twenty-two, freshly graduated in electrical engineering from MIT” (153), and his unnamed lover, “a certain cool, tight, waistless, etcetera, Indiana University graduate student” (153). When we meet Bruce and the girl, their relationship is already over, and each is telling their account of their failed relationship to a psychiatrist. Through this account, we learn that Bruce and the girl had a long distance relationship for a number of years through college, but that the distance eventually became to hard for them, and so they were forced to break it off. Though it is unclear, the narration seemingly goes back and forth between Bruce and the girl as they take turns telling their side of the story to the therapist. Yet, in keeping with the title, Bruce and girl seem to be telling their story in two different rooms on two separate occasions even though the narration seems to be a dialogue at times.
- The girl
The Inefficiency of Language
Throughout his relationship with the girl, Bruce is working on his thesis at M.I.T: “[h]is honors thesis is an epic poem about variable systems of information and energy-transfer” (154). Essentially, Bruce is attempting to create non-verbal poetry. He believes that “words as fulfillers of the function of signification in artistic communication will wither like the rules of form before them” (155) so that “poetry won’t be words after a while” (167). He believes that “poetic units that allude and evoke and summon are variably limited by the particular experience and sensitivity of individual poets” and that “the limit and the infinity of what is real can be expressed best by axiom, sign, and function” (167). What Bruce is attempting to solve with his notion of non-verbal poetry is the essential problem of human communication; a problem that Wallace addresses in several works. Bruce recognizes the very thing that Wallace’s character Neal struggles with in “Good Old Neon”: “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” (GON, 151). Our language is simply not conducive to the complexity of our inner thoughts and ideas. Therefore, it is categorically impossible to express exactly what you mean using language. Bruce recognizes all of this, and in so doing, decides to change our language in order to better fit our needs. He believes that if our language was more scientific and more mathematical, that our problems of communication would be solved.
As exemplified by the title, “Here and There” is rife with notions of distance. In particular, Bruce struggles as his strong desire for perfection leads him to want to be here in his work on his honors thesis, but at the same time, his perfectionism also leads him to escape the here to go there when it comes to his relationship with the girl. Bruce’s desire for closeness, his desire to be here manifests itself in his work on nonverbal poetry. As described above, Bruce’s thesis strives to turn “clumsy and superfluous” writing and poetry into a “mathematical and technical” form (155). For Bruce, words are too nebulous, too ambiguous, too flowery, too emotional. Instead, he desires communication to be “crisp and proper” (155) so that “meaning will be clean” (155). This new kind of poetry would be “not sensuously here, but causally, efficaciously here. Here in the most intimate way” (155). Bruce desires a world where everything is close, is here. He even describes himself “as an aesthetician of the cold, the new, the right, the truly and spotlessly here” (155). Being here is characterized by a sense of cleanliness, organization, and tidiness. Nothing is muddled or emotional or equivocal. Bruce yearns for poetry “that will give way to symbols that both are and stand for what they’re about” (167). He wants a word or symbol to say what it actually means. He has a need to close the distance present in abstract and elusive metaphors that characterize normal poetry, making way for the “icy beauty of the perfect signification of fabricated nonverbal symbols” (167).
Bruce’s insistent desire to be here, to bridge the distance between symbol and meaning and create perfect communication seems contradictory to his relation to the girl. For, when it comes to the girl Bruce needs distance, needs to be there. The girl explains that even from the beginning of the relationship, the distance was present: “we didn’t get really close until a long time [after high school], when we were both already in different colleges and only saw each other at vacations” (159). Their relationship began with distance—being hundreds of miles apart at different schools. Soon, we learn that being apart from the girl is the only way that Bruce can properly feel a connection towards her. He prefers to kiss her senior photo (which is “cloudy from kisses” (152)), more than he enjoys kissing her in real life: “at that time [kissing her]…I’d feel vaguely elsewhere, as a defense against myself” (151). It is in this moment of close physical contact when Bruce ironically feels most distant from the girl. Their relationship is a constant story of Bruce trying to get away, to create distance. The girl explains that “he’d tell me he missed me and then stay away” (152). He invited her to live with him in Boston over one summer, but as soon as she got there, he “acted like he really didn’t want [the girl] to be there” (162). Bruce’s entire relationship with the girl is one of escaping her presence. Every time they are at the risk of getting close, Bruce pulls away. Once they perform the most intimate and emotional act of having sex, the girl explains that Bruce was driven away, became distant. He constantly escapes the emotional closeness, the here of the relationship, and creates distance, goes there. Finally, the girl admits: “I can only feel like I’m giving more than I’m getting for so long” (163). Ultimately, it is Bruce’s creation of distance between himself and the girl that causes the demise of the relationship.
In the story, Bruce struggles with a simultaneous desire for the uncluttered here of signification and a need to be there in his relationship. Yet, the two are reconciled in the fact of Bruce’s absolute need for perfection. While talking to his brother on the phone, Bruce admits to having a “desire to be perfect…since being perfect would be…well, perfect” (166). Bruce’s striving to be perfect makes clear his need for the tidiness and lack of intangible emotion of nonverbal poetry. If the poetry is here, its meaning is clear and signification becomes perfected. But, Bruce’s perfectionism also illuminates his need for distance in his relationship with the girl. Everything that Bruce finds to be wrong about verbal poetry, its inefficiency, its messiness, is also what he finds to be wrong with human relationships. Bruce wants the girl to be perfect, and needs an unemotional, unambiguous, clean relationship. But the only way he can achieve that perfection is by not actually being with the girl. When he is here with the girl her human imperfections are unavoidable. But, in escaping to go there Bruce uses the distance to create, in his head, an imaginary picture of the girl—one in which she is perfect. This is why Bruce can only really love her when they are apart. Only when he is there can he “invest” the girl with qualities he wants her to have, can he create a perfect image of illusion. He “never regards her as more than and independent from the feelings and qualities [he] is disposed to invest her with from a distance” (156). Every time they come together again, he realizes that “she is just plain different from whatever [he] might have decided to make her into for [himself]” (157). Essentially, Bruce’s need for the here and the closeness that comes with inhuman and unemotional perfection causes him to alternatively flee there in order to escape the messiness that comes with a human relationship. His true desire is for a perfect here, but when it’s not, when it’s messy, he is forced to run there.
The Messiness of the Stove
The whole story leads up to a moment at the end when Bruce is visiting his aunt and uncle’s house in Maine. While his uncle is at work, Bruce’s aunt asks him to fix their stove so she can make some lunch. The broken stove is a physical manifestation all the shortcomings Bruce finds in verbal poetry that are also found in human relationships and connection. The aunt explains that “[the stove’s] got sentimental value” (169) to her and the uncle. The stove is connected to emotions and sentimentality—both are things that Bruce tries to get away from in poetry and in his relationship with the girl. In addition to the emotional aspect of the stove, it is also terribly inefficient, for “energy-to-work ratios…probably sit at no better than 3/2” (169), another quality Bruce abhors. Once he begins working on the stove, the process also becomes messy and complicated, for “the wires begin to unravel and stick out in different directions, and become disordered” (170).
In the past, before this moment at the stove, when faced with emotion, untidiness, and ambiguity, Bruce would find a way to escape. After encountering the equivocal and metaphorical nature of verbal poetry, Bruce makes it his job to fix the old poetry and create a clear and clean form of nonverbal poetry that is here. And, after being confronted with emotion and human imperfection in his relationship with the girl, he is able to escape there and create distance between himself and the girl—both emotionally and physically. But, it is at this pivotal moment with the stove that Bruce is neither able to fix nor escape the problems he finds. Bruce commiserates: “I’ve never once been stumped on an exam. Ever. And I appear to have broken this miserable piece-of-shit stove. I am unsure what to do” (170). For once in his life, Bruce is stumped and he can’t escape for he is wedged “deep in the bowels of the stove” (169). For the first time, Bruce is forced to face the inefficiency, the messiness, and the ambiguity that arises in life. Just as with the girl, he has encountered something here that is imperfect, yet, in this case he has no way to flee there. He has no escape plan.
With no way to get there nor no way to fix the here, Bruce becomes afraid: “I’m so scared behind this dirty old stove I can’t breathe” (171). He is afraid because the stove is something he cannot conquer. It is not perfect and there is no way for him to make it so. His fear of the stove begins to make sense of the fear present in his relationship with the girl: “I think feeling he loved somebody scared him” (171). Bruce never liked the idea of loving the girl, because loving her, with all her human imperfections, would mean settling for the imperfect. But crouched in the bowels of the stove, for the first time forced to face an imperfect here with no ability to run there, Bruce realizes that life is in fact just like the stove, just like verbal poetry, just like a human relationship: imperfect. And it is this realization that causes his fear to grow to a more universal scale: “I believe, behind the stove, with my aunt kneeling down to lay her hand on my shoulder, that I’m afraid of absolutely everything there is” (171), for, in the end, nothing is perfect.
In a refusal to accept the imperfection that accompanies human life, Bruce is left to have a relationship with the world that allows him to only “want” things (159), to see things at a distance and yearn for them. He can never “have” (159) anything, never become close enough to something to actually own or claim it, for to do so would be to also own or claim its inherent imperfections. Without an ability to have or own anything, the world would surely become a scary place.
The story is all told through dialogue, and the reader is forced to deduce who is speaking by the things they say. The reader eventually realizes that Bruce is speaking to his psychologist and taking on the personas of both himself in the past and the girl he lost as part of some sort of exercise in dealing with that loss.
Marshall Boswell, in his book Understanding David Foster Wallace, comments that though “Here and There” is the story in the collection with the most traditional subject-matter: a breakup story, “Wallace employs these banal tropes of apprentice fiction self-consciously, so that the resulting story becomes a critique of the very same exhausted conventions that the piece simultaneously reconfigures and reinvigorates” (90). Boswell also claims that in Bruce’s scientific struggle to create clear and precise language Wallace is allowed to “not only […] exorcise his own private demons but also to explore the chasm between the cold logic of science and the intractable, elusive ambiguity of interiority and emotion” (91).
In explicating one particularly difficult aspect of the story, the narrative style, Boswell points out that “Wallace […] accepts the premise that the story is at root a piece of ‘fiction therapy’ […] so much that it takes the charge and makes it an overt component of the story’s structure” (91). In the story, the psychiatrist explains to Bruce (who is seemingly undergoing “fiction therapy” himself) that “fiction therapy in order to be effective must locate itself and operate within a strenuously yes some might even say harshly limited defined structured space. It must be confronted as text which is to say fiction which is to say project” (HT, 153). From this, Boswell contents that “Wallace seeks to move beyond the ‘fiction-as-therapy’ convention already established by Philip Roth and J.D. Salinger” (91). Boswell continues on explaining that
the lover whose memory he is trying to exorcise, moreover, becomes in this “defined structured space” at once reader (of Bruce’s justifications), object (of Bruce’s narrative), and subject (of her own narrative). The story therefore creates a “space” that contains and ultimately collapses such dichotomies as reader versus text, self versus other, and here versus there—the very dichotomies that the text is in fact exploring. (91)
Boswell’s criticism in extremely helpful in illuminating what Wallace does with the structure of the story.
Ultimately, Boswell contends that "the story […], with its elaborately diffused structure, also plays ‘games with words’ both to dramatize how its hero tries to ‘dodge the real meanings of things’ and also to direct the reader, indirectly and obliquely towards the story’s final vision of desire as an insistent urge that must be reconciled with the fact that we cannot contain or finally possess the things or people we desire" (93). Bruce yearns for perfection so intensely, yet it is the one thing he can never have. He is left only with empty desire as he struggles to move between here and there.