Lyndon

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Summary

The story begins with a young David Boyd joining Lyndon B. Johnson's Senate staff as a mailboy. Over time Boyd's responsibilities increase, and he becomes a sort of amanuensis and companion to LBJ, "jot[ting] things down for him--thoughts, turns of phrase, reminders" (91). As LBJ becomes president, Boyd strikes up a friendship with Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson. It is revealed that Boyd, despite his arranged marriage to an alcoholic woman, is homosexual and having an affair with a Haitian named Duverger. Both LBJ and Duverger fall ill around the same time. The story ends with a scene of Boyd and Lady Bird in the living room of the Johnson's private estate, while on the second floor LBJ and Duverger share a death-bed.

Characters

  • Lyndon B. Johnson
  • David Boyd
  • Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson
  • René Duverger

Themes/Motifs

Love and Distance

In Lyndon's penultimate scene, Ladybird tells Boyd that "Lyndon and I, though you would disagree, agree that we do not properly love one another anymore. because we ceased long ago to be enough apart for a 'love' to span any distance" For Johnson, we are all essentially alone in that we are unique. We are unique bodily and historically, and the sum of our myriad differentiating qualities can be called our position. Naturally, one unique person may be more or less different than another unique person, and these degrees of difference between positions can be understood as the distance between positions. The closer in position you are to another person, the better you are able to identify with them and understand their decisions and opinions. We have words for some of the more common degrees and types of distance that exist between two people. Love is a word that describes intense emotional closeness between two people, a closeness that can transcend other kinds of distance. Hatred is the term for the incredible distances between those who can find no common position, emotionally or otherwise. Ladybird's suggestion is that the thing Lyndon and she have, that Boyd wants to call love, transcends separation and therefore also words, which only serve to quantify the distance between separate things. Boyd's relationship with Duverger is characterized by their remoteness, culturally and linguistically, contrasted with their emotional closeness, love being the best way to describe the resultant distance.

Responsibility and Suffering

This theme is dealt with most directly in the scene (between pages 105 and 108) in which Boyd and Johnson have a conversation in the oval office about the Vietnam War protesters marching in front of the White House. The protesters' argument can of course be boiled down to the stance that U.S. involvement in Vietnam is wrong. In the conversation, Johnson accuses the protesters of misunderstanding what right and wrong are. He observes this is due to 1) the fact that they've never known suffering, and 2) the fact that they've never known responsibility. Right and wrong, Johnson explains, are not abstract concepts to be applied in detached judgement of decisions, but the concrete feelings that arise when you're make a decision because you're responsible for something or someone. That the choice to inflict suffering on others can sometimes be right, according to Johnson, is an idea that only makes sense to those who've endured hardship, and thus can see its utility, and who've also lived with the fact of responsibility, and so know the feelings of right and wrong. Within the scene, this all amounts to the idea that Johnson and other adults of his generation are in a position to understand why the Vietnam War can be right, and that the protesters' generational distance from this position is the source of their inability to understand the war. This distance between Johnson and the protesters is, of course, best described by the word hatred.

Never Elaborate

First appearing as a rule that Johnson asks a young Boyd to write down for him (90), the phrase is a motif throughout Lyndon. One reading might be that elaboration is the acknowledgement of distance (as understood thematically above) between two people, and thus is an inadvisable course of action for a politician who wants his electorate to feel close to him. Another is that, given Johnson's notion of right and wrong as feelings and not concepts, elaborating on a decision would amount to the false conceptualization of the visceral rightness or wrongness of it. To understand another person's decision is not to hear him explain it, but to identify with his position, to be close to him.

Voice

The style and voice in this story are as close to conventional/linear as Wallace ever comes in his fiction. The story is less experimental and less self-reflexive than most of Wallace later work. Lyndon's narration switches between the first person realist perspective of its protagonist, David Boyd, and invented primary source documentation. It's notable that Lyndon is one of the only stories in which David Foster Wallace employs realism, given his misgivings with the realist presupposition of an objective reality for it to mirror. Because Lyndon is a work of fiction about a real historical figure, the reader is forced to constantly acknowledge that their identification with his prose as mimetic is unfounded, and thus perhaps Wallace's use of realism serves to highlight the fallacy of the same.

Context

Lyndon was first published in the April 1987 issue of "Arrival," making it Wallace's second piece of writing to be published, after The Broom of the System.

Criticism

New York Times Book Review: 'Love is a Federal Highway'