Back in August 2004 I read the first story in David Foster Wallace's then-new story collection, Oblivion--"Mr. Squishy". The story is long-ish (67 pages) and dense, written substantially in marketing-speak. Navigating the sometimes arcane, sometimes arduous sentences is, for me, part of the fun. Terry Schmidt is facilitating an advertising focus group and most of the story seems to be, in one form or another, from his perspective, his interior view of or take on things. There is some explication of his personal life, as well as an at first seemingly unconnected bit about a man scaling the outside of the building the focus group is located in. I enjoyed the story, and I think it serves as a good an example as any of what Wallace is doing, in general, in his fiction.
At The Reading Experience, Dan Green and the Rake presented "dueling" reviews of the book. It was an interesting idea, first of all, to read, back-to-back, two different takes on the same stories, all the more so since they were by two of my favorite bloggers. Rake began by saying he is wary of DFW's short fiction, that he thought Brief Interviews With Hideous Men an "almost unmitigated disaster". I was more than a little surprised by this assessment; I happened to enjoy that collection very much. In fact, I thought much of it to be among the best things by DFW I'd read to that point. I recall being impressed with how thoroughly he occupied the "language-world" of the characters in his stories. What's more, I felt the result of him doing this so effectively, was that the stories often carried, if subtly, great emotional impact--a charge, it would seem, not often leveled at him. Indeed, in his review, and elsewhere, Rake essentially holds that DFW falls short in this very area, in achieving a human response in his fiction, in failing to ask "what do we do?" or "how do we live?"
Dan Green's review was more interesting to me, if only, admittedly, because it seemed to gibe with my own already existing take on DFW. But that take had been thitherto unarticulated, so, I think, instead it was the pleasure of recognition that interested me. Yes, I thought, that sounds right. Early on he says this:
In my view, Wallace's real subject is language, but not just language as the medium in which writers create stories, not just style, and not exactly the "failures of language," ...although ultimately language can only fail to communicate fully or to cohere into an entirely satisfactory aesthetic rendering of the world. What Wallace's stories try to do is to inhabit the consciousness of the characters they feature, but this can only be done by inhabiting the language-world of these characters, a world itself evoked by the very language they habitually use in confronting it and only through which can they perceive it to be comprehensible at all. His stories are composed of the stream of words by which his characters construct a manageable account of the reality they negotiate--although in most cases these characters do not literally speak in their own voice, tell their own stories.I think this paragraph describes very well what it indeed appears Wallace is doing in his fiction, and it is this that I've responded to in his work, when I've responded to it. I've already stolen, above, Green's phrase "language-world". Certainly when reading Brief Interviews I was aware of this, even if I did not articulate it as such, how DFW was so thoroughly inhabiting the language-world of, for example, professional therapy, or the double-speak or interior rationalizations of relationships. Even in Infinite Jest, where, I have to admit, the "story" itself kind of lost me along the way, I was very much taken by the way in which he represented the language of the different characters and their respective milieus.
At this point, I still have not completed the collection, with the final story still left to read. When I get around to reading it, I plan to re-visit the rest of the collection. So far, my overall assessment is positive--there is enough good stuff in this collection to recommend it. Now, however, I want to go back to revisit the questions of "how do we live?" or "what are we to do?" that Rake says Wallace often fails to address, thus preventing his fiction from being, he feels, more emotionally resonant. I happen to disagree with the assessment, but I don't intend to spend much time in this post discussing why I do. Instead, these questions stick with me sort of metaphysically. Strongly related to these questions in my mind is a movie I watched around the same time--Robert Altman's 3 Women. The movie really focuses on two women (the third sort of hovers throughout, weirdly), Millie (played by Shelley Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek). It begins at an old-age spa, where Millie works as a therapist, and Pinky is just beginning. Millie is constantly talking, seemingly oblivious to the fact that no one is the least bit interested in anything she has to say. She talks about recipes, her evenings, her supposed dates with different men (who in reality are not interested in her), her apartment, stuff. No one cares; any response she gets is entirely perfunctory. Pinky is new to the state (California, the desert), apparently completely naive about how things are. She latches onto Millie, obviously aping how Millie does things, trying on her clothes, reading her diary, trying to be more like her--actually at one point calling her "the most perfect person in the world". She is seemingly oblivious, too, to the fact that Millie is not popular, arguably not someone to be emulated, certainly not if one wants to be accepted.
Plot-wise, things take a turn midway through, when Pinky is confronted by something Millie is doing that she doesn't like, and she tries to kill herself. When she emerges from her subsequent coma, she has adopted the persona of Millie's ideal image of herself. Indeed, Pinky actually becomes popular with the guys who had been ignoring Millie. Etc. This part of the movie is interesting but ultimately not the part leading me discuss it. It is the first part of the film that interests me here. It is palpably clear that Millie and Pinky are essentially lonely people. They don't get it. There are some scenes that are just plain sad, from a cluelessness perspective, scenes of such social embarrassment, one would think, that it startles one to observe the characters not self-destructing. I'm trying to get at the idea of their loneliness, their isolation. I listened to some of the commentary track by Altman himself after the movie was over. I didn't watch the whole thing again, because it was late, though it was one of the more interesting commentary tracks I've listened to. In any event, Altman talks about Millie and Pinky being "lost souls", people who do not know how to live in the world. Millie is completely by herself, no one has told her how to survive in the world, and she has interpreted the outside world's messages in such a way as to fashion her own version of what things are like. She takes advertising at face value, she decorates her apartment according to catalogs and Better Homes & Gardens-type magazines, she clips recipes (she surely has none of her own, nothing she has learned as part of any heritage). She wears what she wears because that is her take on what fashion has to offer someone like her. But she has no friends, no family. Pinky is similarly adrift. No one has shown her how to live, either, so she gloms onto Millie. When Pinky has her accident, Millie manages to find Pinky's parents, who come in from Texas. Pinky, having adopted the "ideal Millie" persona, does not recognize them as her parents, but more importantly, here, her parents are quite old indeed, and clearly do not have any inkling of how to deal with Pinky. It is perhaps apparent that they have been thoroughly unable to provide Pinky with any useful examples on how to be, how to live, how to make her way in the world.
Ok, so what? What is the upshot? What am I getting at? Well, again, I tend to bristle at attempts by people to find messages in art. So, I'm not trying to find any messages here. Nevertheless, I think the question "how do we live?" is central, not to the film itself, but to life, certainly, and art can and does allow us to illuminate such areas of discussion. While watching the film and while thinking about it afterward, I imagined how easy it would be to ridicule them, the characters, as "stupid" or "losers" or something similar.
But. But what? I am increasingly thinking, if admittedly only in the abstract (how does this really reflect itself in how I conduct myself during my day?), that "ordinary" people need to be given a break. People are only trying to live in the best way they know how. And it is difficult. And I think people are fundamentally lost. It's easy to look at someone, such as the characters in the movie, who appears hopeless and criticize their way of life, their "choices", as irrational, as "stupid". Worse, to attack them, to mock them for their awkwardness, their attempts to fit in. (This is by no means to excuse people from actual responsibility. But, for example, much of the rhetorical hand-wringing about the last election reeked of the worst sort of liberal self-righteousness, much of which consisted of rants directed at those idiots who voted for Bush, without attempting to actually understand why they might do such a thing, or anything. Thomas Frank at least makes an attempt.) I think people are grasping at things, at ways to live, at some way to survive, to make a mark, to not be finally alone. Altman makes an interesting aside, in his commentary, about individuality. He posits that, in fact, contrary to the popular estimation of everyone being so different from each other (like a snowflake, etc) that, instead, people are so alike, in the end, to not being that far off from being the same person. So as a result, to differentiate ourselves somehow, we exaggerate what differences we do have. At the same time, he makes a seemingly contradictory comment about how no one finally knows what it is like inside your own head, we are unique, no one sees things in quite the way we do, etc. I guess these are, together, just different ways of expressing the human paradox (?). We are genetically virtually identical (indeed, there are twins in the movie, and Altman discusses them in this vein--that, though everything genetic about them is identical, they nevertheless are uniquely themselves), but our minds are undiscovered countries, so to speak, the attempts of psychology (evolutionary and otherwise) to provide explanations notwithstanding.
Anyway, again, I think people are lost, many vastly more so than others. I was discussing this with my brother, and I was worried that the conversation might veer off into religion (I am leftist, atheist; he is conservative, Christian--although, as such, he does not fit a number of the stereotypes). Because I essentially believe that the modern world, as currently situated, results in this widespread existential lostness (yes, I am going to use that as a word), he might have been justified in arguing that, well, we have gotten away from God, from religion, and that is why people are lost. That would not have been my point, obviously, though, in a sense, he'd not have been wrong: religion did (does) provide structure and guidance for people. That is not to be denied. And yet, I am not interested in a return to the past in that way. So, what, then? It is admittedly not entirely clear to me, but I am increasingly certain that the world of capitalism that we find ourselves in now is, in fact, antithetical to human nature--in stark contrast to what is held to be common sense by many people--though I am loath to attempt to actually define, definitively, anything so mysterious as "human nature". In fact, though, since we are inside the beast, it is highly difficult to imagine the beast as not being there. In any event, without going into massive detail here (fodder, perhaps, for several later posts), people are lost because the structure of life (essentially modern economic life) makes no sense, and they know it on some level, but they also cannot imagine any other structure, and, indeed, are conditioned ("educated") to believe that certain others are untenable, even "evil", so that, finally, the lostness is compounded because they see no way out. They are trapped in their own lostness.
I've gone somewhat far afield, but now I am going to return to Wallace and quote a relevant, I think, portion from "Mr. Squishy":
...at least half the room's men listening with what's called half an ear while pursuing their own private lines of thought, and Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as like icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknown and –knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was probably only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he'd watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg's cap's public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under their left arm or the way after any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other's arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness within a grinding professional machine you can't believe you once had the temerity to think you could help change or make a difference or ever be more than a tiny faceless cog in, the shame of being so hungry to make some sort of real impact... Or maybe that even the mere possibility of expressing any of this childish heartbreak to someone else seemed impossible except in the context of true marriage, meaning not just a ceremony and financial merger but a true communion of souls, and Schmidt now lately felt he was coming to understand why the Church all through his childhood catechism and pre-Con referred to it as the Holy Sacrament of Marriage, for it seemed every bit as miraculous and transrational and remote from the possibilities of actual lived life as the crucifixion and resurrection and transubstantiation did, which is to say it appeared not as a goal to expect ever to really reach or achieve but as a kind of navigational star, as in the sky, something high and untouchable and miraculously beautiful in the sort of distant way that reminded you always of how ordinary and unbeautiful and incapable of miracles you your own self were, which was another reason why Schmidt had stopped looking at the sky or going out at night or even usually ever opening the lightproof curtains of his condominium's picture window when he got home at night and instead sat with his satellite TV's channel-changer in his left hand switching rapidly from channel to channel to channel out of fear that something better was going to come on suddenly on another of the cable provider's 220 regular and premium channels and that he was about to miss it, spending three nightly hours this way before it was time to stare with drumming heart at the telephone that wholly unbeknownst to her had Darlene Lilley's home number on Speed Dial so that it would take only one moment of the courage to risk looking prurient or creepy to use just one finger to push just one gray button to invite her for one cocktail or even just a soft drink over which he could take off his public mask and open his heart to her before quailing and deferring the call one more night and waddling into the bathroom and/or then the cream-and-tan bedroom to lay out the next day's crisp shirt and tie and say his nightly dekate and then masturbate himself to sleep again once more.