Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The New Yorker: "All That" by David Foster Wallace

Is it safe to assume that this “story” is an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, due out in 2011? The voice seems consistent with other snippets of the novel I’ve seen, so even though The New Yorker doesn’t tell us this (they never do), that’s the theory I’m running with.

In which case, it doesn’t matter that this piece, as interesting as it is, doesn’t work as a story. Having said that, it’s enormously entertaining, in a David Foster Wallace sort of way. The narrator, an adult looking back at his childhood, is examining the source of his “reverence” for religion, and concludes that it derives from his parents’ tricking him into believing that his toy cement mixer was magic, that the giant mixing drum would turn but only when he wasn’t looking. The narrator relates his efforts to catch the truck off guard with stories his father told of trying to capture the tooth fairy. Except that he sees a difference – he didn’t want the magic to end, he only wanted to confirm its existence.

His belief in, or reverence for, the magic, is somehow connected to the voices he began hearing at about the same age, which he considers entirely normal:
“Nevertheless, the experience of the real but unobservable and unexplainable “voices” and the ecstatic feelings they often aroused doubtless contributed to my reverence for magic and my faith that magic not only permeated the everyday world but did so in a way that was thoroughly benign and altruistic and wished me well.”

Very nice, and makes the prospect of the novel all the more interesting.

December 14, 2009: “All That” by David Foster Wallace


Pete said...

I suspect that the magazine was more concerned that it was written by DFW than whether or not it worked as a short story.

Clifford Garstang said...

Of course. Whether an excerpt works as a story doesn't ever seem to be of concern to TNY.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the few stories in this year's NYer that affected me emotionally (one of the others was Chris Adrian's "A Tiny Feast").

My favorite lines came from his description of ecstasy " when you first bite into an apple or a confection that tastes so delicious and causes such a flood of oral juices that there is a moment of intense pain in your mouth and glands--particularly in the late afternoons of spring and summer, when the sunlight on sunny days achieved moments of immanence and became the color of beaten gold and was itself (the light, as if it were taste) so delicious that it was almost too much to stand...."

WanderingRighter said...

But doesn't this story raise real legitimate questions about what a short story is, or can be? Isn't it the case that the reason this is of such a high caliber is precisely the authorial voice, the control, and the pitch-perfect uniqueness. If you read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, none of those interviewers strike me as any more story-like, per se.

Wallace had a different idea of fiction than plot, character, setting, etc. But he knew that the engine of fiction was emotion, however it might be affected.

Clifford Garstang said...

Sure, if you want to define terms in a way to suit your purpose. The fact is that (I think) this is an excerpt from a novel and Wallace had no intention of it standing on its own. It's a fine piece of writing. And many will accept it as a "story" just because it's prose of a certain length. I appreciate the work -- but it doesn't meet my definition of a story.

Paul Epstein said...

A number of comments come to mind. On the positive side, I've read a lot from the author and think he's insightful and interesting. This story/excerpt reflects that. In one interesting respect, it does differ greatly from his other work that I've read -- while he is always metafictionally self-reflective about the writing process, I've never before heard him directly criticise his own writing, saying things like "I should have made this point earlier" or "I didn't express myself well." An obvious response is for the reader to shout "Well, fix it then!" And a consequent obvious guess is that the author was intending to do this -- it is a work in progress.
Another comment is that (with the possible exception of the interview-stories), the author's novel-structures and story-structures are rather conventional with a clearly demarcated plot, beginning, middle, and end. [Although, yes, he does use footnotes a lot.] So unlike WanderRighter, I don't believe the author does raise questions about what a short story is. Other less conventionally-structured authors do this perhaps, like Barthelme.

My opinion is that his obsessive self-reflection and ultra-long sentences are gimmicky and that he'd be an even better (though yes, less noticed) writer if he cut that stuff out. Along with this view, my personal viewpoint is that he's a fine writer, probably one of the fifty "best" contemporary writers in the US [if the recently-dead are contemporary]. However, he has been hugely overrated, and even more so since his death.

Paul Epstein

WanderingRighter said...

Well, one thing is that, if you're willing to hike through Oblivion's stories which are obviously his late work, he had a tendency to leave behind conventional structures there -- now you could argue Oblivion was his kind of "odds and ends" collection where he just threw all of his unconventional stories. I'll not two of them, tho not by title as I don't remember them, one is a stream-of-consciousness piece that deals with the indelible nature of tragedy and attempts, through frenetic pacing and language, to give a sense of how quickly and irreversibly tragedies are exacted. The story is quite short and involves the scalding of a small child and was the first story I ever read by Wallace actually. No named characters, no plot...

There is also the focus group story in Oblivion which I admit I never finished. It does not actually have a beginning I am almost sure, considering it starts mid-sentence and meanders on (quite intentionally) for paragraph upon paragraph of statistical psych-drivel before introducing the idea of a plot in the form of a building climber...

As for saying he's not expressing himself well... Wallace did that a lot in spoken interviews, though in text obviously somewhat less often. It was a facet of his personality though, to believe that anything he said needed to be repeated 5 or 10 times to come across clearly in the way that he "thought" about it.

Also, I do believe he's a terrible writer as far as "writers" go, but so was Nabokov, since neither are aesthetically pleasing writers to me. That's almost part of being post-modern right? You destroy the lyric quality of prose in the service of an idea. Ian Mckewan, whose ideas in fiction were never compelling, is nevertheless a better "writer" than either of those men in my view.


Paul Epstein said...

Interesting points, WanderingRighter. I (perhaps wrongly) thought you were originally saying that the reason the TNY piece doesn't seem to work as a story, is because of the nature of DFW's experimentalism. My view is that no, that isn't the reason. The reason is that it's an excerpt.
Actually, I haven't read Oblivion. I believe that A Depressed Person is quite conventionally structured, and that's the only one of his stories that I can remember right now, although I've read very many of them.

Mark Richardson said...

I really enjoyed this "story."

You seem to have a fairly dogmatic take on what constitutes a story. But what do I know...?

Annelise Anderson said...

I came to this story unfamiliar with David Foster Wallace. It struck me with the telling of the difference between the father's and the boy's memory of the lieutenant who saves the "bad guys", seen as heroic by the boy, that this is a Christmas story about how the child and then young man Jesus came to the value of sacrifice to save others. Trying "catch" God, hearing two benevolent voices to whom he is closer than he is to his biological parents, his fits of joy and ecstacy, his crises of faith as an adult...a stunning story complete in itself.
Whether this interpretation will be supported by the book, I of course don't know.

Tim said...

Some excerpts work better than others. For me, this piece had enough of a narrative arc that I was satisfied. If you're interested, you can read more of what I thought at: Thanks for the post Cliff.