The story revolves around its protagonist Edilyn—a forty-year-old Emmy-nominated television actress. She is married to Rudy, her second husband, with four kids and features in a Police drama which has been picked for its 5th season. Specifically, the story recounts her appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman," a show in which the “hokeyness of the whole thing is vital.” Rudy expresses concern that “This particular appearance could present problems. That it could be serious” (176). The story dramatizes the confrontation between Edilyn’s “heart’s heart” (175) with the irony and cynical sophistication that Letterman emblematizes, which brings issues of appearance vs. true self to the forefront. The difficulty inherent in being sincere, especially against a backdrop where the “joke is now on people who are sincere” (182) is expressed by Edilyn: "So you believe no one's really the way we see them?" (200).
- Edilyn, actress
- Rudy, Edilyn's husband
- Ron, Rudy's friend
- David Letterman
Edilyn's muted tone and unadorned diction, a straight-forward reporting of facts as it were, often belies layers of complex reflexivity and self-consciousness. Often, she manifests contradictory impulses.
For example, she claims that she "emphatically did not want" (185) to wear an earplug and was "seriously considering taking [it] out" (186). However, not only does she ultimately chooses to keep it on, but is quite self-conscious about being seen wearing it: "I touched my ear and tried to drive the earplug deeper, out of sight" (186). Throughout the interview, she is excruciatingly aware of and dependent on Ron and Rudy’s prompts through the ear piece, which suggests that she did in fact concur with them with regards to their fear of Letterman, or at least more than she had let on.
In the face of the purported "dark fearful thing” present in Letterman, Edilyn defiantly protests: "So so what? All of this is known. It’s all way out in the open already. I honestly don’t see what about me or us is savageable" (179). However, this outward profession runs counter to her need for #Xanax. Furthermore, this unconcern with being ridiculed by Letterman is later shown to be just a façade:
I had become truly worried about at least this. The Mayer people had been a class act throughout the whole negotiations…I didn’t want Oscar Meyer wieners to be made to look ridiculous because of me; I didn’t want to be made to look as though I’d prostituted my name and face and talents to a meat company..I mean, will he go beyond making fun? Will he get savage about it? (183)
Hence, the veneer of "a woman with no illusions" (194) that Edilyn projects throughout the story should not be taken at face value. Of particular note is her proclamation at the end of the story: "[I]f nothing else at all, I am a woman who speaks her mind. It is the way I have to see myself, to live" (201). This equates her essence with self-deception through fraudulent appearance.
It might be tempting to view the hokeyness of Letterman’s show as all in good fun and therefore not of any real consequence. However, as Rudy points out, "that doesn’t make [Letterman] benign" (176). Perhaps the most diabolical aspect of Letterman is how his resolute willingness to puncture appearances ensures that everything is necessarily perceived as appearance. The upshot of this is a dogged disavowal of sincerity, along with a corresponding rigid posture of awareness. To Ron’s observation that “Sincerity is out…The joke is now on people who’re sincere,” Rudy replies, “Or who are sincere-seeming, who think they’re sincere, Letterman would say” (182). The acknowledgment that “being seen as being aware is the big thing, here” precludes sincerity to the effect that “being a certain way or not isn’t a question that can come up” (189). “They laughed. It was an in-joke. I laughed” (183) is an example of how the laughter comes as an after-thought succeeding the preceding awareness. Despite her outward refusal to countenance Letterman as a threat, it is quite clear that Edilyn is not immune to it. Take her actions on the show: drawling “Yas,” yawning, touching her ear absently, clearing her throat to feign an important declaration, and smoothing of skirt the way prim women do. She seems to take Ron’s advice of “[acting] as if you knew from birth that everything is clichéd and hyped and empty and absurd, and that that’s just where the fun is” (183) to heart. When Rudy prompts her to “be honest” and “go ahead and tell him about the back taxes” (196), Edilyn prefaces her response with “may I just be honest?”, but then proceeds to faux-divulge in a stage whisper that “I did the wiener commercials for nothing” (196). In the face of Ron’s expression of tenderness, “At least she’s looking terrific,” Edilyn recoils, “Toward me? We weren’t particularly close” (184). She reacts as if to an unacceptable anomaly: “his expression betraying what looked to me like tenderness.” Her use of the word “betraying” is telling—to allow genuine emotion to escape to the surface is to betray oneself.
"Late Night with David Letterman” is depicted as an “anti-show” (188) wherein the “rules of television humor are [made] the most fun of” and Letterman “[makes] money ridiculing the exact things that have put him in a position to make money ridiculing things” (188). It is a show acutely aware of what it is supposed to be (marked by conventions such as congeniality and interest towards its guests, probing into their inner life, and promotion of their latest work) coupled with a willingness to make fun of and actively expose them as mere appearances. The wild applause is tacitly commented on by the camera zooming in on a tight shot of the studio’s APPLAUSE sign; Letterman’s makeup is made conspicuous by a label affixed to his cheek that says MAKEUP. For Wallace, Letterman is the symbolic embodiment of his thesis that television has co-opted and bastardized the devices of postmodern fiction. This is laid out at length in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, in which he posits that "television [has taken] elements of the postmodern—the involution, the absurdity, the sardonic fatigue, the iconoclasm and rebellion—and bends them to the ends of spectation and consumption" (64). Letterman and his show exhibits many of these elements: "The whole show feeds on [absurdity]; it swells and grows when things get absurd" (180). He has a poster showing “David Letterman taking a picture of whoever was taking his picture for the poster” (189), he does not laugh but says “Ha ha” (191), and is somehow able to exude to the audience that “he chooses to ridicule himself” (181), thereby exempting himself from ridicule. In the aforementioned essay, Wallace confers upon Letterman the title of “the ironic ‘80’s true Angel of Death” (62); this perhaps alludes to the "critical negation" he saw the best postmodern fiction as being preoccupied with in order to expose how "the world is not as it seems" (66). Letterman inherits this feature by virtue of television's assimilation of the postmodern devices, but the redirection away from its original critical purpose mutates it into a deathly-disease:
[I]rony…serves an exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. (67)
Similarly, "Saturday Night Live" is also mentioned in the story as exhibiting "anti-show" qualities: "The cheap seats that are supposed to look even cheaper than they are. The home-movie mugging for the cameras, the backyard props like Monkey-Cam or Thrill-Cam or coneheads of low-grade mâché" (188). 'SNL' had such great parodies of commercials right after the show's opening, that it "always took you a while to even realize they were parodies and not commercials" (189). Subsequently, "the sponsors started putting commercials on 'SNL' that were almost like the parodies of the commercials, so that it took you a while to realize that these were even real commercials in the first place". The tendency of television to appropriate certain practices for its own purposes is emphasized by this instance, within television, of how "the sponsors had turned the anti-commercials' joke around on 'SNL' and were using it, using the joke to manipulate the very same audience the parodies had made fun of them for manipulating in the first place" (189).
In the lead up to her appearance on the show, Edilyn exhibits an urgent but repressed desire for Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication. This seems contrary to her expressions of befuddlement towards both Rudy and Ron's repeated and desperate warnings of the threat that Letterman represents. Initially, she agrees with Rudy to abstain because of the need to be “both sharp and prepared” (179). Subsequently, she proceeds from asking for “half a Xanax” (181) to inquiring if “it might be all right if I had just a third of a Xanax” (183), and then to “very much [wanting]” a Xanax, but only as much as “constructive, supportive advice that wouldn't demand that I be artificial or empty or on my guard to such an extent that I vacuumed the fun out of what was, when you got right down to it, supposed to be nothing more than a fun interview” (184). When she finally obtains a Xanax from Rudy, she immediately deflects the satisfaction of her desire: “it had been Ron’s idea” (186). Thus, her apparent desire to quell her anxiety is treated with a significant degree of self-regulation. The use of medication to mask the discrepancy between appearance and reality is also pointed out by Letterman himself in his presentation of "a list of ten medications, both over-the-counter and 'scrip, that resembled well-known candies in a way [he] claimed was insidious": "the faddish anti-anxiety medication Xanax was supposed to resemble miniatures of those horrible soft pink-orange candy peanuts that everyone sees everywhere but no one will admit ever to having tasted." (186).
Immunity from great disturbance by being in its center
This image is first introduced in the segment preceding Edilyn's appearance. The executive coordinator of NBC Sports demonstrated how "somebody who sat in the exact center of a perfect circle of dynamite would be completely safe, encased in a vacuum, a sort of storm’s eye—but that if so much as one stick of dynamite in the ring was defective, the explosion could, in theory, kill [him]" (187). This appeals to Edilyn, who imagines the coordinator "unhurt but encased as waves of concussed dynamite whirled around him" (187). Months after her appearance on the show, she takes it to be an apt metaphor for her experience of appearing of Letterman: "I'd come through something by being in its center, survived in the stillness created by great disturbances from which I, as cause, perfectly circled, was exempt" (200). However, it is suggested that her perception is skewed. Firstly, the circle was an "ancient and time-honored illusion" (187)that had been used ceremoniously by the Bolsheviks to "execute" Russian noblemen they really wanted to spare. Secondly, her idealized image of what the explosion would be like—"something tordanic, colored pink"—is deflated by its actual materialization—“the real live explosion was gray. It was disappointingly quick, and sounded flat” (187). Perhaps the image is apt, but not in the way Edilyn perceives it to be. While it appears to be one of survivalism amongst chaos, it can also be construed as an image of an alienated and isolated existence. If so, the image takes on a very different quality if we consider the loneliness that is endemic to being encased in a vacuum.
The story is in the form of a first-person narration from Edilyn's perspective.
Paul Giles, in his essay “Sentimental Posthumanism: David Foster Wallace” (Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 2007), discusses the story briefly:
It revolves around an actress's appearance on David Letterman's late-night chat show and the ways she disconcerts her host by being honest about her age, her career, about how she did television commercials "for nothing" (196) in order to get her name before the public again. Rather than simply being "sincere-seeming" (182) in the characteristic manner of network television, Edilyn seeks to resist incorporation into the world of "the ironic eighties' true Angel of Death, D. Letterman"—as Wallace describes the celebrity in his essay on television ("E Unibus Pluram" 180)—and thus to reclaim her own distinct sense of worth.
The story was originally published in Playboy under the title "Late Night." It was based on an actual Letterman appearance by the American actress Susan Saint James, which Wallace neglected to mention to his editor, Gerry Howard. This is recounted in "David Foster Wallace: In The Company of Creeps" by Lorin Stein:
"I don't know why. I was 26, for God's sake, I should have known better. I just didn't think it mattered."
When NBC happened to rerun the Saint James spot, two weeks before Playboy closed the issue in which the story was due to run, Playboy panicked. Viking's lawyers then started looking at the collection and found even more cause for alarm in another story, involving real-life game show hosts Merv Griffin, Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek. Already in galleys, Girl was dropped from Viking's list. Meanwhile, says Wallace, he was sending the lawyers "these involved philosophical letters. I was clueless, and I was scared because I thought this was the best work I was ever going to do. I'll owe Gerry for life for bringing it to Norton."
For more, see "David Foster Wallace: In The Company of Creeps"