Saturday, July 3, 2010


There's a piece by Wyatt Mason in NYRB on Lipsky's book about David Foster Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. At one point he comments on an early story, "The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands In Relation To The Bad Thing" (first published in The Amherst Review, Vol XII). A story I have never read. Here's Mason:

In “Planet Trillaphone,” Wallace puts that “opening” to indicative use. As the narrator divulges the precarious details of his depression and how the drugs he’s on both keep him from suicide and produce a new species of intolerable feeling, the reader is run up against the story’s surprising final sentence—”Except that is just highly silly when you think about what I said before concerning the fact that the Bad Thing is really”—a sentence that doesn’t conclude. Without outlet, the flow of the story ceases midstream. What has happened? One can’t know such things, the story would argue, just as when, without warning or explanation, we receive news that a friend has committed suicide, we can’t know precisely what has happened: we’re left with the shock of a life cut short and for which there can be no reassuring resolution. Life is regularly all beginning and middle; why should fiction be any different?

I don't know the story. I do know that Wallace was not only a writer but a mathematician and modal logician. I read Mason with furrowed brow, thinking, what can this possibly mean? I write:

All sorts of things might have happened to the narrator: he might have been knocked down by a car, stung by a bee, kidnapped by pygmies, or just realised suddenly that it was time for the Simpsons. Or he might have jumped off a cliff. It's not easy to see how these are in principle unknowable (we can't know these things?), nor why breaking off in mid-sentence should imply that they were. If a friend commits suicide, whether with or without warning, I presumably do know, at any rate, that s/he has committed suicide (that is, I have the sort of fact Wallace withholds); in the absence of this sort of knowledge I would have no reason to speculate about motives. And life is not regularly all beginning and middle: humans are begotten, born, and die. (I am not enough of a mathematician to be sure of this, but is it actually possible for something to have a beginning, a middle and no end? The interior of a sphere could perhaps loosely be described as all middle but has neither beginning nor end. The set of positive numbers has a beginning, no end and no middle. Could there - well, Wallace would know, but in any case, even if such a thing is logically possible it is hardly true of life as we know it.) (When I say I find myself wondering what it means, I mean that the things it seems to mean are both false and inconsistent with each other.)

So, yes, this is me, writing merrily along without ever having read the story. This is precisely the confrontational, argumentative tone which provoked the resignation of my agent, it wins me no friends and alienates people disposed to help; I put it, as one does, in the drafts folder.

Some time later I have a radical idea. Why not, erm, read the story?!!!!

Some quotes from the story (here in PDF):

And you start thinking about this pretty vicious situation, and you say to yourself, "Boy oh boy, how the heck is the Bad Thing able to do this?" You think about it -- really hard, since it's in your best interests to do so -- and all of a sudden it sort of dawns on you... that the Bad Thing is able to do this to you because you're the Bad Thing yourself! The Bad Thing is you.

That's when the Bad Thing just absolutely eats you up, or rather when you just eat yourself up. When you kill yourself. All this business about people committing suicide when they're "severely depressed;" we say, "Holy cow, we must do something to stop them from killing themselves!" That's wrong. Because all these people have, you see, by this time already killed themselves, where it really counts. By the time these people swallow entire medicine cabinets or take naps in the garage or whatever, they've already been killing themselves for ever so long. When they "commit suicide," they're just being orderly. They're just giving external form to an event the substance of which already exists and has existed in them over time. Once you realize what's going on, the event of self-destruction for all practical purposes exists. There's not much a person is apt to do in this situation, except "formalize" it, or, if you don't quite want to do that, maybe "E.C.T." or a trip away from the Earth to some other planet, or something. (pp 29/30)
end of story:

The big question is whether the Bad Thing is on the planet Trillaphon. I don't know if it is or not. Maybe it has a harder time, in a thinner and less nutritious atmosphere. I certainly do, in some respects. Sometimes, when I don't think about it, I think I have just totally escaped the Bad Thing, and that I am going to be able to lead a Normal and Productive Life as a lawyer or something here on planet Trillaphon, once I get so I can read again.
Being far away sort of helps with respect to the Bad Thing.
Except that is just highly silly when you think about what I said before concerning the fact that the Bad Thing is really

All right, class.

What did he say the Bad Thing was earlier?
And what was the logical conclusion?
And what has he just realised?

One can’t know such things, the story would argue, just as when, without warning or explanation, we receive news that a friend has committed suicide, we can’t know precisely what has happened


A point of contention between me and my former agent was that I thought maybe the NYRB would like me to write something for them.

Moving right along, here's something I don't get.

Mason talks about Wallace's decision to use the vernacular, which he thinks creates an intimacy between writer and reader: given the atomization and loneliness of contemporary life, that's our opening.

Well . . . the vernacular in this story is straight out of Salinger, and the odd thing about Salinger is, he used it, on the one hand, for the voice of an unintellectual prep school drop-out (Holden Caulfield) and, on the other, for the allegedly exceptionally intelligent, more or less suicidal Glass family. So whatever Wallace is doing, it isn't new. I slightly get the sense that what the vernacular is really doing is giving an anti-intellectual intellectual (the equivalent of a self-hating Jew or homophobic homosexual) the chance to build some kind of bridge to people he perceives, at any rate, as unintellectual. It's hardly surprising that this dodge doesn't succeed in reducing the writer's sense of isolation and alienation. All it really manages to do is persuade a certain sort of reader that he doesn't have to pay attention (which, again, is hardly likely to reduce feelings of isolation and alienation).

I've been clinically depressed. Wouldn't have described it the way Wallace does. Maybe not talk about that today.


Daniele A. Gewurz said...

Not terribly useful, but in some sense a set such as the set of all real numbers greater or equal than zero and lesser than one has a beginning (zero), a middle (the number 0.5 or the bulk of the set itself, as you prefer), but no end (no last element).

Anthony said...

Wallace meant for the whole world to know of this story in the way that he was hoping Lipsky would publish a transcript of that road-trip interview. Ie. this was not the way things should've been.

For Wyatt Mason and for the NYRB, the level of analysis is quite literally sophomoric in an undergraduate way. It's too fascinated by Wallace to criticize this thing fairly and praises all the wrong details, such as the Salinger knocking-off bits. Saying something creates a level of intimacy with the audience is exactly as useful and accurate as saying the ending is ambiguous. (Which ending, if you know much about Wallace's work and think of, say, The Depressed Person, is more a giant gag than anything else.)

In other texts Wallace has written on depression and youth and even people meeting in pscyh wards in a far more vivid and useful way. As a maybe-I'm-out-of-the-woods-(but-am-probably-not) depressive type, I respect what Wallace could do; this story just isn't it and as much as I love his writing, there's no need to get all unhinged and start falsely praising things. Even if you're hired by the NYRB.

Penelope said...

Is this the beginning of the Wallace reassessment I've been waiting for? I've always thought that the coincidence between Wallace's professed aims for his fiction and what mainstream reviewers constantly call for fiction to do - to CONNECT, to talk about REAL ISSUES - meant that the weakness in Wallace's work were often overlook or, as in this, case, actually praised.

It's telling, I think, that Wallace was a pretty awful literary critic - Mason quotes an inane comment on Dostoevsky as an example of profundity, and the essay on Kafka in consider the lobster seems to think its making an original point when it highlights his humor, but its arguing against a straw man, who, if he ever had a heart, stopped having one sometime in the 60's.

Wallace never left America, I think I read somewhere, and I do see something deeply parochial, both in his desperate desire for fiction to matter and in the fiction he ultimately produced. This isn't to say he didn't produce some very good work but, even before his death, it seemed people wanted him to be great and so imagined he was. After all, how could a highly intelligent, ambitious, soulful, precocious mid-westerner not be a Great American Novelist?