The Pale Cast of Thought

On David Foster Wallace and the world he inhabited.



The toxic yet vacuous phrase “self-indulgent” was often used by the detractors of David Foster Wallace (as if it isn’t self-indulgent to write anything at all). Another accusation, that Wallace was overly cerebral, misses the point completely. As a writer, the guy was as large-hearted as he was big-brained. Don Gately, the recovering narcotics addict in Infinite Jest, is one of the most compassionately drawn and convincingly real characters in contemporary fiction, close in intention, conception, and articulation to a latter-day Leopold Bloom.

I don’t think an essay more hilarious than “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” — Wallace’s account of a botched vacation on a cruise ship — has been written. It ranks with Twain and will endure as long as people want to laugh. His essays often brought forth a sense of exuberant joy, with their meanderings and addictive, often imitated footnotes and mock-scholarly sensibility. Yet Wallace’s fiction also portrays terrible mental darkness, especially what doctors call “major depression.” Wallace’s father told The New York Times that his son suffered from this disease for years, leading to two recent hospitalizations before his apparent suicide. A pair of brilliant and courageous Wallace short stories — “The Depressed Person” in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and “Good Old Neon” in Oblivion — similarly focus on profound psychological agony. With excruciatingly painful detail and a humane laughter that is neither cruel nor belittling, both stories relate the involutions of a consciousness at war with itself, in which the maze-like wandering of thought spirals in futility, deepening the distress without offering any way out. Both stories relate facets of broken-down self-consciousness — severe depression in one case, a terrible feeling of hollowness and fraudulence in the other — that generate a bad feedback loop in which thinking does not help the character to think, or to heal. In Wallace’s fiction, self-reflection is often worse than useless.

“Good Old Neon” is about a person who seems outwardly successful but decides to kill himself by running his car at high speed into a concrete highway embankment in suburban Illinois, out beyond the spreading subdivisions where the new houses are still covered in Tyvek. At a certain point, the narrator shocks the reader by speeding far forward in time:

I know this part is boring and probably boring you, by the way, but it gets a lot more interesting when I get to the part where I kill myself and discover what happens immediately after a person dies.

Specifically referencing “Good Old Neon” in his Newsweek appreciation, David Gates suggested that “it will take a while for all these apparent ‘clues’ in Wallace’s work to stop pulsing like neon signs when we stumble on them.” But, acknowledging that great fiction can’t be reduced to biography, Gates also notes that Wallace’s writing will surely live long beyond the shock of his death. In any case, the passage from the story is a tour de force of meta-fictional intrusion into a story by a narrator, one that uses such techniques to bring us closer to the character instead of pushing us away.

“I want what I do not want,” St. Paul wrote of the sinner’s mindset. This is the state of mind of so many David Foster Wallace characters — the parade of “hideous men” in particular, but also the addict Gately and the self-confessed “fraud” of “Good Old Neon.” As for “The Depressed Person,” adding information, insight, self-knowledge, advice, or tidbits of wisdom does not help but actually worsens the condition in which she finds herself. It is as if an uninterrupted Hamlet kept up his soliloquy for hours on end, To-Be-Or-Not-To-Being, forever and ever.

In the final pages of “Good Old Neon,” the reader discovers that the entire story appears to be the imaginative reflections of one “David Wallace,” who is ruminating on the high school yearbook picture of a dead classmate. There’s something fundamentally compassionate about “David Wallace’s” determination to reconstruct a potentially plausible narrative about his classmate’s death, as well as an archetypal aspect to the whole idea of sitting around looking at an old yearbook and wondering what the hell happened to everybody who seemed so intensely important and present all those years.

“Good Old Neon” ends with a strange notation that reads as follows:


As far as I can tell, it’s the narrator’s identity expressed through his initials (NMN, “Neal being my given name”), his date of graduation from high school one year prior to “Wallace” (’80, “all this stuff clanging around in David Wallace ’81’s head”), and his Legion League batting average (.418, “this .418 hitter”). It could be that in heaven, baseball-playing males are classified in this manner, or perhaps this odd postscript is a fictional “i.m.” or “in memoriam.”

But “Good Old Neon” cannot be classified as mere gamesmanship with the rules of fiction. It is much finer than that, as in this passage about the narrator:

Verily a fair-haired, fast-track guy, whom in the very best human tradition David Wallace had back then imagined as happy and unreflective and wholly unhaunted by voices telling him that there was something deeply wrong with him that wasn’t wrong with anybody else and that he had to spend all of his time and energy trying to figure out what to do and say in order to impersonate an even marginally normal or acceptable U.S. male…

In an interview with Larry McCaffrey, published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, Wallace made an astonishing series of remarks on the purpose of fiction writing as he saw it. “In dark times,” he said, “the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” And isn’t there a need for literature about late-night cable infomercials, focus groups, telemarketers, pitchmen, talk-show hosts, satellite television channels, tennis stars, cruise ships, strip malls, and everything else? In short, shouldn’t writers write about the world they live in, one that didn’t exist in Ancient Rome or Renaissance London? To go beyond the merely topical, however, was always Wallace’s goal. Wallace put his case beautifully, with serious passion, profane wit, and heartfelt conviction:

Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still are human beings, now. Or can be…I just think that fiction that isn’t exploring what it means to be human today isn’t good art. • 18 September 2008

J. M. Tyree is a Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University's Creative Writing Program.

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