The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, December 20, 2004

Too Cool for Words

[Contains spoilers for the fiction of David Foster Wallace, especially "Mister Squishy".]

Wallace is the only major writer who is, apparently, too young to remember anything before the information age. The idea of a world before The Third Wave is utterly absent from his fiction. In this, he is the most "modern" writer I know. [Yes, we all know "modern" in literature means something else.] Wallace is obviously keenly aware of the cliches of linear narrative, and additionally of the newer cliches of the revolt against it, and the whole conflict seems to make him a bit desperate (see several pieces from the convoluted middle of Brief Encounters with Hideous Men).

Wallace's apparently "natural" voice, best evidenced in Infinite Jest and the later essays of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is engaging and conversational -- the way your friendly kid brother would talk to you in idle conversation if he happened to have an I.Q. of 300.

The point of all this is that Wallace is presumably intelligent enough to choose a form which best fits the story he wants to tell, even to the extent of choosing traditional forms if they really work better. Yet there is one recurring pattern to his stories: they almost invariably break off short. [Perhaps "The Father on His Deathbed" is an exception.] But why? Is it plausible that this is the most effective way to tell every one of Wallace's stories?

I will focus here on "Mister Squishy", recently reprinted in the collection Oblivion. The story is quite good, building multiple layers of paranoia as we gradually move outward from the central character (mid-level marketing functionary Terry Schmidt) whose at-work machinations are seen against those of his coworkers and bosses, and their coworkers and bosses. We also gradually move inward to Schmidt's private plans to take a shortcut to fame by poisoning the sweet cakes sold by the title company; and throughout, a Mister Squishy figure climbs the outside of the building toward the windows of the conference room (where, we presume, his appearance is not expected). Being a Wallace story, of course it ends here -- Mister Squishy (seen from the sidewalk) is one or two floors below the conference room, the poison is ready in Schmidt's darkroom, the boss knows a few things his sneaky subordinate doesn't.

Wallace has set the scene beautifully, and his characters are precisely and believably drawn. "Mister Squishy" is the story of how their quotidian lives are about to be vastly changed. And confronted with these extreme new conditions, what did they do then? On this subject Wallace is silent.

Obviously the study of ordinary people in trying circumstances is one of the mainstays of fiction. In particular, consider Faulkner's Collected Stories, which tell of little else: from "That Will Be Fine" to "The Brooch" to the overwhelming "Wash". Faulkner has something to say about the characters in their normal life, and then he has something to say about how they grow or change or break under extraordinary pressure.

Finally, I have decided that Wallace simply does not know what happens when the shit hits the fan. He knows about the details of everyday life, and can describe them with brutal precision and brilliant style. But there is bad news: we, the readers, already have a very good idea of what everyday life is like in white-collar America. We want a picture which is consistent with this yet reaches beyond it -- what did they do then? And can you tell us, Dave? What did they do then?