Good Old “Good Old Neon” Essay (Not Actually Old But Actually Very New)

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Today, the Los Angeles Review of Books published an insightful essay by Tim Peters about David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon.”

“Good Old Neon” is (in my estimation) Wallace’s finest piece of sustained prose, and his most tortured exploration of the tension between authenticity and performance.

Peters’s essay also features a number of photographs from Wallace’s high school yearbook, which are interesting, sure, but they actually fit into the essay.

Breaking into the strands and allusions that feed “Good Old Neon” (including Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, and Hemingway), Peters’s essay has a riff-like quality (is that why I like it so much?), but there’s also a thesis here, one that I think actually answers alarmist/reactionary “death of the novel”/”end of literature” “think pieces” (how do you like that last clause for phrases in quotation marks?).

Obviously, if you haven’t read “Good Old Neon,” then read “Good Old Neon.

Then check out Peter’s essay. A sample of his analysis:

If you read “Good Old Neon” and then read D. T. Max’s biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (the epigraph of which is a line from “Neon”), you see one example after another of stuff from Wallace’s life that Neal says happened to him. Being raised by people “of high ideals and values, humanists”; making fun of his sister as a kid and pretending like she was obese and jumping out of the way when she passed him in the hallway; having a knack for mathematical logic and logical paradoxes; having “a killer G.P.A.”; playing a varsity sport; being a philanderer with women; being on the professional fast track by the time he was in his 20s; getting into religion and meditation as a way of dealing with his troubles; living in the vicinity of the cornfields of Illinois; committing suicide. At the end of the story, when Neal’s ghost is hovering over Wallace and their high school yearbook, and as the latter is thinking about how impossible it is to try and pass through the exterior image of a person and to enter into the realm of his psyche, you wonder if what’s really going on in this story is something more akin to what happens between Dorian Gray and his picture, or William Wilson and his double, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk, or the two Tyler Durdens in Fight Club, or even between Martin Sheen and his reflection in the mirror in Hearts of Darkness, which is to say, you wonder if what’s going on here is a sort of a spiritual/philosophical death match, a duel between two opposite tendencies that are internal to a psyche but in the world of these stories are teased into two separate but similar-looking characters, into doubles or doppelgängers who both need each other and then perversely also try to destroy each other. And the dialectic that these characters are working out is Apollo v. Dionysus, the superego v. the id, the false self v. the true self, the rational civilized scientific order v. spontaneity and passion and a community of spirit. The drama that makes these stories interesting is that there’s no boring, middling, mediating ego term to calm things down and to make concessions and to prevent the dialectic from exploding. Hence: Dorian Gray stabs himself; William Wilson stabs himself; Mr. Hyde is either going to be executed or to commit suicide; The Hulk goes Smash; Tyler Durden shoots himself; Martin Sheen has a heart attack and has to be flown off the set of Apocalypse Now. And as for “Good Old Neon,” the struggle is between Neal, the golden child, against the “real, more enduring and sentimental” David Wallace who’s looking at their pictures in the high school yearbook. It’s the struggle between a nihilist who’s yet actively making the society function, and a believer who has a desire for solid, non-alienated, human relationships, but who’s quietly, sadly, sitting in a recliner and watching the nihilists run.

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“A Sea of Troubles” — P.G. Wodehouse

“A Sea of Troubles” by P.G. Wodehouse

Mr Meggs’s mind was made up. He was going to commit suicide.

There had been moments, in the interval which had elapsed between the first inception of the idea and his present state of fixed determination, when he had wavered. In these moments he had debated, with Hamlet, the question whether it was nobler in the mind to suffer, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. But all that was over now. He was resolved.

Mr Meggs’s point, the main plank, as it were, in his suicidal platform, was that with him it was beside the question whether or not it was nobler to suffer in the mind. The mind hardly entered into it at all. What he had to decide was whether it was worth while putting up any longer with the perfectly infernal pain in his stomach. For Mr Meggs was a martyr to indigestion. As he was also devoted to the pleasures of the table, life had become for him one long battle, in which, whatever happened, he always got the worst of it.

He was sick of it. He looked back down the vista of the years, and found therein no hope for the future. One after the other all the patent medicines in creation had failed him. Smith’s Supreme Digestive Pellets—he had given them a more than fair trial. Blenkinsop’s Liquid Life-Giver—he had drunk enough of it to float a ship. Perkins’s Premier Pain-Preventer, strongly recommended by the sword-swallowing lady at Barnum and Bailey’s—he had wallowed in it. And so on down the list. His interior organism had simply sneered at the lot of them.

‘Death, where is thy sting?’ thought Mr Meggs, and forthwith began to make his preparations. Read More

Another paradox (David Foster Wallace)

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc. — and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. The internal head-speed or whatever of these ideas, memories, realizations, emotions and so on is even faster, by the way — exponentially faster, unimaginably faster — when you’re dying, meaning during that vanishingly tiny nanosecond between when you technically die and when the next thing happens, so that in reality the cliché about people’s whole life flashing before their eyes as they’re dying isn’t all that far off — although the whole life here isn’t really a sequential thing where first you’re born and then you’re in the crib and then you’re up at the plate in Legion ball, etc., which it turns out that that’s what people usually mean when they say ‘my whole life,’ meaning a discrete, chronological series of moments that they add up and call their lifetime. It’s not really like that. The best way I can think of to try to say it is that it all happens at once, but that at once doesn’t really mean a finite moment of sequential time the way we think of time while we’re alive, plus that what turns out to be the meaning of the term my life isn’t even close to what we think we’re talking about when we say ‘my life.’ Words and chronological time create all these total misunderstandings of what’s really going on at the most basic level. And yet at the same time English is all we have to try to understand it and try to form anything larger or more meaningful and true with anybody else, which is yet another paradox.

From David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon,” collected in Oblivion.

I read “Good Old Neon” first back when Oblivion came out in hardback. It was good then, but it seemed more poignant and deeper after Wallace’s suicide. I reread it again last night, and I’m convinced it’s his finest discrete piece, and rivals some of the strongest sections of Infinite Jest and The Pale King. Anyway, I encourage doubters to check it out if they haven’t read it.

I’ll close by suggesting that in some way I think the story works through an idea from Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311).

A Riff on Thomas Bernhard’s Novel The Loser

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1. I finished Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel The Loser (English transl. Jack Dawson ’91) a few weeks ago and then picked over some of it again this week.

I’m not going to try to unpack all of The Loser here—it’s too thick, too loaded, too layered—its density is monochromatic, or monoglossic really, a monologue that threatens to drown the reader. One big paragraph.

2. The Loser is the second Bernhard novel I’ve read, after Correction, which is an even denser novel: Correction’s sentences are longer, its tone grimmer, its humor less readily apparent.

Correction is a novel about repetition. The Loser reads like a repetition of Correction: Like CorrectionThe Loser is one long uninterrupted monologue by an unnamed narrator who attempts to puzzle out the motives and meanings of a friend’s recent suicide. As in Correction, the suicide in The Loser (eponymous Wertheimer, whose name recalls Correction’s Roithamer) is a ridiculously wealthy man who obsesses almost incestuously over his sister, repressing her in the process. Like CorrectionThe Loser focuses on three friends. And like CorrectionThe Loser is ultimately about how idealism leads to breakdown, insanity, and suicide.

3. (I riffed on Correction here).

4. You might want a plot summary (always my least favorite business of a book review).

Here, straight from the text:

Wertheimer had wanted to compete with Glenn, I thought, to show his sister, to pay her back for everything by hanging himself only a hundred steps from her house in Zizers.

That’s more or less the plot: Our loser’s sister (whom he sought to control and constrain and confine) elopes to Switzerland to marry a Swiss millionaire. This is the proverbial  last straw for Wertheimer, whose dream of being a great piano player was decimated the moment he heard Glenn Gould play piano years ago when they attended a conservatory together.

5. That’s like, the Glenn Gould of course—which is what our narrator calls him (that is, the).

Glenn Gould’s perfection—or rather the perfection Wertheimer (and the narrator, through whom Wertheimer lives (as a voice)) affords GG—stymies the pair forever:

Glenn is the victor, we are the failures

GG is their ideal, and the ideal shatters them:

. . . always Glenn Gould at the center, not Glenn but Glenn Gould, who destroyed us both, I thought.

And later:

. . . there’s nothing more terrible than to see a person so magnificent that his magnificence destroys us . . .

6. Glenn Gould has the gall to die of a stroke, upsetting Wertheimer to no end. (Wertheimer’s not upset that Glenn Gould has died—no, he can’t stand the perfection of Glenn Gould’s death)

7. Glenn Gould’s own idealism:

. . .to be the Steinway itself . . .

—an idealized self-erasure; a self that doesn’t think, that doesn’t theorize; a self that only acts.

8. Glenn Gould’s perfection shatters Wertheimer, but when his sister leaves him he starts to go insane:

We have an ideal sister for our needs and she leaves us at exactly the wrong moment . . .

9. More on our loser Wertheimer:

Do you think I could have become a great piano player? he asked me, naturally without waiting for an answer and laughing a dreadful Never! from deep inside.

—and—

. . . ultimately he was enamored of failure . . .

—and—

. . . he was addicted to people because he was addicted to unhappiness.

—and—

My constant curiosity got in the way of my suicide, so he said, I thought.

10. In that last example, we see the layering of The Loser’s narrative: “so he said, I thought.” The novel is entirely the narrator’s internal monologue, moving through time and space freely—yet Bernhard constantly anchors the monologue in these layered attributions. The effect is often jarring, as we experience the narrator move from memory to thought to observation on the present continuous world he is currently experiencing.

Here’s an example:

Parents know very well that they perpetuate their own unhappiness in their children, they go about it cruelly by having children and throwing them into the existence machine, he said, I thought, contemplating the restaurant.

We move from Wertheimer’s observation about throwing children into the “existence machine” to attribution of that thought to Wertheimer (“he”) to another layering of attribution (“I thought”) and then, bizarrely, to the narrator suggesting that he is “contemplating the restaurant” (the narrator’s concrete action for the first half of the book is entering an inn). The narrator simultaneously remembers and observes and contemplates—but there’s a deep anxiety here, I think, a refusal to slow down, to reflect.

11. Or perhaps this is just how “the existence machine”—consciousness—works.

12. More on “the existence machine”:

We exist, we don’t have any other choice, Glenn once said.

—and—(thus Wertheimer):

. . . we don’t exist, we get existed . . .

—and—-

Wertheimer had to commit suicide, I told myself, he had no future left. He’d used himself up, had run out existence coupons.

Existence coupons!

13. If you do not find the citation above (re: “existence coupons”) particularly and absurdly and perhaps cruelly funny, it is likely that you will not enjoy The Loser, a book that I found hilarious.

14. Another humorous passage—our narrator, having entered his “deterioration process,” elects to give away his piano:

I knew I was giving up my expensive instrument to an absolutely worthless individual and precisely for that reason I had it delivered to the teacher. The teacher’s daughter took my instrument, one of the very best, one of the rarest and therefore most sought after and therefore also most expensive pianos in the world, and in the shortest period imaginable destroyed it, rendered it worthless.

15. The Loser, like Correction, is very much about destruction, about breaking down both objects and ideas into a pure, idealized zero.

Take Wertheimer’s book, which echoes the narrator’s piano (and Glenn Gould’s own will to remove himself from the process of playing, to be “the Steinway itself”):

He wanted to publish a book, but it never came to that, for he kept changing his manuscript, changing it so often and to such an extent that nothing was left of the manuscript, of which finally nothing remained except the title, The Loser.

The narrator too plans to write a book, his Glenn Essay:

. . . everything we write down, if we leave it for a while and start reading it from the beginning, naturally becomes unbearable and we won’t rest until we’ve destroyed it again, I thought. Next week I’ll be in Madrid again and the first thing I’ll do is destroy my Glenn Essay in order to start a new one, I thought, an even more intense, even more authentic one, I thought. For we always think we are authentic and in truth we are not.

This is how idealism plays out in The Loser: a process of correction that leads to fragmentation, deterioration, nullification.

The fight against getting existed.

16. The Loser’s narrator repeatedly brings up the clash between idealism (theory) and existence (practice):

In theory he mastered all the unpleasantness of life, all the degrees of desperation, the evil in the world that grinds us down, but in practice he was never up to it. And so he went to pot, completely at odds with his own theories, went all the way to suicide, I thought, all the way to Zizers, his ridiculous end of the line, I thought. In theory he had always spoken out against suicide, deemed me capable of it however without a second thought, always went to my funeral, in practice he killed himself and I went to his funeral. In theory he became one of the greatest piano virtuosos in the world, one of the most famous artists of all time (even if not as famous as Glenn Gould!), in practice he accomplished nothing at the piano, I thought.

There is something simultaneously absurdly hilarious and tragic in the idea that even in his theoretical ideal state, Wertheimer is still not as accomplished as Glenn Gould!

17. For the narrator of The Loser, the tragic space between theory and practice is a deeply existential problem, the problem of the individual consciousness’s relation to other people:

In theory we understand people, but in practice we can’t put up with them, I thought, deal with them for the most part reluctantly and always treat them from our own point of view. We should observe and treat people not from our own point of view but from all angles, I thought, associate with them in such a way that we can say we associate with them so to speak in a completely unbiased way, which however isn’t possible, since we actually are always biased against everybody.

18. Watching some beer-truck drivers in the inn, the narrator undertakes a thought experiment that highlights a will to belong, to relate to others, coupled with the immediate dismissal—the internalized abject rejection—of this idea:

Again and again we picture ourselves sitting together with the people we feel drawn to all our lives, precisely these so-called simple people, whom naturally we imagine much differently from the way they truly are, for if we actually sit down with them, we see that they aren’t the way we’ve pictured them and that we absolutely don’t belong with them, as we’ve talked ourselves into believing, and we get rejected at their table and in their midst as we logically should get after sitting down at their table and believing we belonged with them or we could sit with them for even the shortest time without being punished, which is the biggest mistake, I thought.

19. Note in the later passages of The Loser ( including the two I cite in points 17 and 18) the dominant use of the pronoun we. The narrator’s we might be a simple rhythmic projection, a generalization of the narrator’s own anxieties displaced onto others. At the same time, the narrator’s we seems to hold the ghosts of Glenn Gould and Wertheimer, who possess, haunt, and ventriloquize the narrator’s voice—which is the novel, of course.

20. The Loser seems like a great starting place for someone interested in reading Bernhard. I think it’s a more manageable introduction to his themes than Correction is: the humor is more accessible, the book’s ironies perhaps more apparent, and its sentences are far, far shorter. (I feel the need to clarify: None of these comments should be interpreted as a knock against Correction, which I thought brilliant; neither should these comments be interpreted as a knock against the intelligence and abilities of readers interested in Bernhard).

21. I still have two Bernhards in the stack—Yes and Concrete—but I’ll hold off for a while. Dude’s writing is rewarding but taxing.

Suicide as a National Folk Art (Thomas Bernhard’s Correction)

Suicide, Luc Tymans

In this passage from Thomas Bernhard’s Correction we can see the strange, bleak, black humor that characterizes the novel:

It’s a folk art of sorts, I said to Hoeller, always longing to kill oneself but being kept by one’s watchful intelligence from killing oneself, so that the condition is stabilized in the form of lifelong controlled suffering, it’s an art possessed only by this people and those belonging to it. We’re a nation of suicides, I said, but only a small percentage actually kill themselves, even though ours is the highest percentage of suicides in the world, even though we in this country hold the world’s record for suicide, I said. What mainly goes on in this country and among these people is thinking about suicide, everywhere, in the big cities, in the towns, in the country, a basic trait of this country’s population is the constant thought of suicide, they might be said to take pleasure in thinking constantly, steadily, without allowing anything to distract them, about how to do away with themselves at any time. It is their way of keeping their balance, I said, to think constantly about killing themselves without actually killing themselves. But of course the rest of the world doesn’t understand, and so whatever they think about us and regardless of what they say about us and of how they always and invariably treat us, every single one of us, they are all wrong. It’s a simple fact, I said, that our country is misunderstood, no matter how well intentioned the rest of the world may appear, what it sees when it looks at Austria and its people is total madness as a stable state of mind, a constant.

(For those interested: Austria currently ranks 24th in the world in suicide per capita)

 

Chris Ware on DFW’s Novel The Pale King

Crippled Robot painting by Chris Ware

Cartoonist/graphic novelist/chronicler of shame and despair Chris Ware wrote about his favorite books for Foyles bookstore. The list includes UlyssesMoby-Dick, and works by cartoonists like Lynda Barry and Ivan Brunetti. Here’s what Ware wrote about David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King:

The first great novel of the 21st century uses the sinister beauty of the American Tax Code as a springboard from which to launch into a genuinely serious discussion of the origins and importance of civic responsibility amidst the hazy, blurred stupidity of a country in quick decline. Contrary to many reviews, I don’t think it’s about boredom, and it’s certainly not boring. Another posthumous editor-to-manuscript resuscitation, the book hangs heavy with the clotted spectre of Wallace’s suicide, which makes the writing glow all the more painfully through it.

Ernest Hemingway’s Suicide Gun

Garden & Gun ran a short piece on Ernest Hemingway’s guns last year, and linked to a slideshow of the famous author (who killed himself 50 years ago today) with his guns. From the article—

When Ernest Hemingway took his own life on July 2, 1961, it was reported in Life magazine that he had done so with a “double-barreled shotgun.” Further reports specified the gun was a Boss that he had purchased from Abercrombie & Fitch, and for years this has been widely accepted as fact. But a fascinating new book, Hemingway’s Guns, by Silvio Calabi, Steve Helsley, and Roger Sanger (Shooting Sportsman Books), makes the case that Hemingway never owned a Boss, and that the suicide gun was actually made by W. & C. Scott & Son. It was Hemingway’s pigeon gun, a long-barreled side-by-side that traveled with him from shooting competitions in Cuba to duck hunts in Italy to a safari in East Africa. By all accounts it was a favorite.

Not long after that tragic day in Ketchum, Idaho, the gun was given to a local welder to be destroyed. “The stock was smashed and the steel parts cut up with a torch,” the authors write. “The mangled remnants were then buried in a field.” Roger Sanger visited the welding shop, which is still in business and being run by the grandson of the original proprietor. Amazingly, the welder still had a few pieces of the gun in a matchbox, and Sanger’s immediate reaction to the evidence was, “This is no Boss.” After showing pictures to a number of experts and collectors, he confirmed that it was most likely Hemingway’s beloved W. & C. Scott that had been the suicide gun.

A W. & C. Scott & Son Monte Carlo B—Serial No. 60293, c. 1898