Friday, November 11, 2011

The Borders of Empathy: Struggling With David Foster Wallace's Good Old Neon

When I first read the last short story collection from David Foster Wallace, Oblivion, I immediately gravitated towards the sheer power and urgency of the story Good Old Neon.  It presented itself as a serious riddle, almost a paradox of life in which the only answer was suicide. I spent countless hours in the laboratory of my mind trying to find a way out for this character, to find a hole in his logic. But I couldn’t. His narrative felt inexorable, driven to the destruction of self by tight reasoning. I felt beaten by someone I respected almost too much, and of course, regardless of my desires, the story took on new poignancy in the wake of Foster Wallace’s suicide. In the immediate aftermath, how could I not read the story without thinking of it as the author’s self-prophecy? You try not to, you remind yourself of authorial distance, intentionally fallacy, but then you remind yourself that Foster Wallace shunned this notion in embracing a communicative literature, a constant dialog between author and reader, (or here, between the author and himself, more as a play, a performance than a dialogue) a dialogue that allowed for a transcendence of loneliness if only for a short time. You begin to think that perhaps these were cry for helps, or that literature ceased to provide respite from his loneliness. I, of course, knew that these thoughts evinced a crudity of thinking, but giving the intense relationship Foster Wallace engendered in his readers, I imagine many of us felt this way.

Given the actual content of the story, it’s hard not to make some sort of connection between fiction and the world of our reality. There’s just an eeriness about the circularity of this story, of its connection to our reality. David Foster Wallace writes a story in which Dave Wallace, the character, attempts to empathize with an elder classmate from his high school who committed suicide. DFW does this in layers. The narrator, throughout, written by DFW, seems to stay as Neal, though towards the end the voice gets dicey, all in an attempt to understand the frustratingly compelling logic of the suicide, for the sake of reaching out to this aspect in many people’s live as well as reaching out to that aspect in his life, it would seem. How then with his consequent suicide can we not feel compelled to make a similar attempt? Intellectually, we know we shouldn’t, but emotionally, I think we need it,  we almost deserve to try. So we scour his oeuvre for clues and we find mountains of them. We see Kate Gompert and think of him. We read his released early short story and see the beginnings of the pain. We hear his explanation of suicide as appearing to the person as the lesser of two evils, the jump instead of the conflagration.  Try as we might, I imagine most people found it hard to not read it in this manner, at least in the earlier days when his death still broiled our hearts.

However, with the emotional distance afforded by time, the story takes on new dimensions. You begin to first realize that the narrator does not rank amongst the most reliable narrator in the history of protagonists. You notice holes, discrepancies between his account of the story, and its actualization. The character kills himself by driving off a bridge, but earlier he hopes for a painless and inconspicuous death. (I can think of countless less painful and less conspicuous deaths…) Furthermore, the protagonist recounts the story of his demise into self-consciousness and insecurity that ruined his genuine enjoyment of the sport of baseball. But that same protagonist spends 15 sentences of poetic language describing his experience as a child; why the change in tone? How can a fraud, speaking to a reader, express his certainty of his fraudulence, of his inability to feel a genuine emotion outside of a crippling self consciousness and the desire to create an image in the minds of other people, and then go on to speak poetically on the beauty of baseball?
     The narrator often does this. At numerous junctures in the story the narrator, says he will spare us the details because of their boring or clich├ęd nature, but then goes on to discuss them anyway. It either feels like a cheap parlor trick in which he feels insecure genuinely emoting so he must qualify them by a hip statement, or the stream of consciousness goes back and forth within himself, fighting for genuine expression. How else do we explain his statement not to bore us with the prosaic thoughts everyone must have before suicide, and then, spend almost two pages describing in lyrical language the beauty of life he knows he must leave behind.
   In this vein, I find the character almost impossible to pin down, almost like an oil-slicked person. Ironically, instead of creating a persona, as his claims of constant fraudulence would lead us to believe, I see someone terrified to live, to give, to love other people despite the ambiguities of it all. In the end, the whole self-fraudulence paradox appears as a veil, similar to Joelle’s that creates a “logical” separation from the vulnerability of real relationships, of real giving. In the end, the character opts for the importance of his motivations over the importance of his acts. Like many of Foster Wallace’s characters, he’s fascinated, or here disgusted, but nevertheless, obsessed by the power of his thoughts, their beauty, instead of the power of action. 

In the end, the piece presents less of a riddle, a paradox and more of a balm for that loneliness, for that gnawing doubt of self-fraudulence. The act of our reading, along with the act of the character Dave Wallace’s attempt to achieve full empathy with a high school classmate, creates a dynamic of empathy, regardless how untrustworthy the characters appears. Perhaps he can never outrun his narcissistic life, and perhaps this long suicide note belies his claim to the type of suicide he desires, perhaps this whole letter serves in his mind to persuade us of the type of person who wants us to see him as: too intelligent for his own good, too brilliant for this world, the type of person who lives such a tragic life that he serves as an inspiration for all of us. Either way, despite his possible attempts to manipulate us, we respond with empathy. And one get’s the sense that the character knew this. (At one brilliant point he just throws away the line, "This is the sort of shit we waste our lives thinking about.)

In a different sense, the story seeks to explore the question how can we achieve true empathy, how can we cross that chasm of distinct identities to truly and deeply connect to another human being? Dave Wallace attempts to go to the ends of empathy through creating a long and convoluted explanation that might have possibly run through the head of his deceased classmate. In this case when empathy through experience doesn’t really present itself as a particular smart option, we must, it seems resort to our imagination. As Doris Lessing points out, imagination lies at the heart of empathy. And the end of this story signifies one of DFW's most imaginative moment, bordering on magical realism, or quasi-mysticism, his response to his own creation of his classmate's motivation to commit suicide is that despite our fraudulence, despite the inherent fraudulence in language, in speech, in our personalities, we all contain mountains and multitudes of depth beneath our surfaces. At the end though, I couldn't completely tell who this sermon-like answer was for, the deceased Neal, the Reader, Dave Wallace, or for David Foster Wallace. In an odd sense, Neal, or Dave Wallace, or whomever, in the story, learns this through suicide, which adds a tragic layer to this sort of epiphany.

But we cannot overlook the darker aspects of the story. The narrator, an embodiment of the character Dave Wallace, written by the real life DFW also tries to test the limits of language in its ability to truly convey the speed and feeling of our thoughts. Even with stream of conscious, or hyperrealism, the characters announces that we still fail to communicate, fully, and yet, again, despite or in accordance with his manipulative wishes the attempt creates true connection, not the hoped for success, but the attempt itself conveys so much singularity of personality that we feel fully understood on some super basic lizard level that despite the topic makes our bodies tingle with warmth. 

        One also gets the sense of some ambivalence towards writing itself in this work. The character is a true narcissist, not because he worries all the time as to how to create a certain positive impression on other people, but because he spends all his time discussing this worry. He lets his mind trap him in that DFW abyss of a recessive/regressive circle in which the mind slowly chews a way at itself. The characters speak at such great length of his plight, but nowhere in the story does he attempt to reason that if he did something for someone else, or tried to understand someone else, he might have felt less alone. That even if his paradox has no obvious intellectual answer, the experiential act of doing something, or thinking about someone else, the act of Dave Wallace in this story stops the recursive loop by focusing on others, not himself. In a manner, it’s an evasion tactic, but an apparently necessary one. The more time we indulge in our narcissism, and yes, a person can indulge in their own pain the more we descend into deeper narcissism. You cannot fight fire with fire in this battle.  You want to tell him that despite the logic of his arguments, life still matters because you get to help other people, which itself engenders empathy. This creates a tension in which true empathy in this situation should lead towards action, but Dave Wallace opts for a more internalized process of empathy through creativity. A process that requires distance from a person for analysis, which hopefully results in a personal connection. But all of this takes place in the realm of our minds, not in the realm of practical help, or change.  
         In general, Foster Wallace leaned towards the importance of mind over actions. Even in his antidotes to the problems he describes in our society: the prevalence of irony, cynicism, apathy etc. he offers as an antidote not action, but awareness. In a sense, he tries to fight fire with fire. He stops that endless loop of mind obsessed with itself by using that mind to notice others, to choose what to think about, but rarely to make a choice Sooner or later, this story feels claustrophobic, until the end, when the door opens, when the story elicits within ourselves that burst of everything we feel in a moment. The moment of release from jail through the struggle of others. Lately, though, the release provides less of a release than it used to. It still reeks of the jail cell of someone who still doesn't realize the type of jail they're in. Who doesn't realize that the traps of the mind cannot necessarily be solved by the strengths of that same mind, but often necessitates action. 

I'm left feeling magical, but cold, connected, but alone. 

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Just reread the story for the third time. It is indeed spectacular, even more so following DFW's passing. I think your conclusion is rather solid and made me think of the following from Kierkegaard's Spiritual Writings:

    "Is doubt, then, the stronger? Is the one who will successfully invade the house of the strong a new doubt? Does one take away his weapons by using the same weapons against him that he himself uses, or would not one thereby just strengthen him; and is it not doubt's stratagem to make a person believe that he by himself can overcome himself, as if he were able to perform the marvel unheard of in heaven or on earth or under the earth--that something that is in conflict with itself can in this conflict be stronger than itself! [...] Or what happens to a person who, in conflict with himself, does not confess that even if he were able to overcome everything he still would not have the power to overcome himself by himself? Does not this victorious self change into something far worse than the corrupted self that it vanquished; and does it not go on living securely within him because there is no stronger self in him-- except this self that is even worse? No, therefore one first of all binds the strong person or hands him over to be bound, and not until then does one force one's way into his house to take his weapons away from him (Matthew 12:29)"

    In Good Old Neon, DFW refers to the Bible twice.