The serious limits of “postmodern” fiction: On David Foster Wallace’s “Here and There”

For my first intercourse with David Foster Wallace, controversial author of the acclaimed, encyclopedic novel Infinite Jest which I also aim to read, what I see is what I deem to be the classic wounded hero of contemporary fiction. In the story “Here and There” which is part of collection of stories, “Girl With Curious Hair,” Wallace displayed mastery of his characters, Bruce and his partner, as he puts the two of them in a “displaced” exchange of thoughts that somehow managed to appear responsive of one another. This actually prefaces a lack of similar groundedness between the two whose relationship would eventually fall apart and prelude a more excruciating, albeit commonly proffered falling apart in contemporary society (arguably, one that Wallace himself succumbed to in real life) – the falling apart of the individual.

The incongruities that first struck me here is those between Bruce and his partner. At the onset, Wallace’s wrenching of the deceitfully simple words “here” and “there” was not yet too hard to follow: if not physical distance, it involved mental misapprehensions. We could argue later, upon proceeding with the text, that there was not even an effort to apprehend. Bruce would share,

“At the time, with her, yes, I’d feel vaguely elsewhere…” Physical proximity had its merits, but something is proving to be more potent a force when this factor is negated: “I knew her, I knew every curve, hollow, inlet and response of a body that was cool, hard, taut, waistless…. Only when I was forced to be away at school did things mysteriously change.”

Both were resigning to the widely propagated dictum of things changing and Bruce’s partner would provide a clue to the more pressing issue they had to face: “I sense feeling being avoided not confronted.” In the affluence of cosmic forces and existing material conditions that factor in their relationship, there was no mutual effort to arrest anxieties and uncertainties. Bruce was envisioning a world rife with cleanliness and perfection. The essential improbability of this “there” he dreams of would ultimately subjugate him and make him wallow in murdering fear.

Bruce’s structural vision: being the “great poet of technology”

For all of his engineering enterprises and fascination over definitive systems and the concomitant ramblings on the potential of language in particular and signification in general, Bruce had quite an immodest vision. He hankers for the mathematicization of meaning and communication, the foregoing of language that after all dirties the communication process. In his conversation with Leonard, his older brother, Bruce received the same beating but remain undeterred:

“Leonard maintains that I am just like our mother and suffer from an unhappy and ultimately foolish desire to be perfect. Leonard says I’ve always liked playing games with words in order to escape the real meanings of things. I become almost hysterically excited and say that that’s just the point and begin to spout run-on sentences about the impending death of lexical utterances.”

Here, a case in point for Bruce is already crystallizing for me. Here is a man who intellectualizes meaning and sense too much that it overtakes his entire experience. He wants to treat his experiences as a “community of signs” which perhaps he wishes to conquer with his systematization of it. But similar to De Saussure and all the grand structural scheme of rooting the ones that govern the flow of humanity every day, partly by the post-structural assertion of angst and the irremovable dialectic operating underneath the universe, Bruce’s outlook only failed and tormented him. This structural attention to and emphasis on “axiom, language and formation-rule” and its mechanistic tendency also recoils at the humanity that should be fostered by a civilization that is mainly human. With regard to his partner, a severe ending has been mapped out, all incongruities are bitterly punctuated by the insight that more than disharmony, there was total ignorance, worst, totally neglecting the human in favor of a supposed overarching process that illuminates it:

“Bruce why not just admit that what bothers you so much is that she has given irresistible notice that she has an emotional life with features that you knew nothing about, that she is just plan different from whatever you might decide to make her into for yourself. In short a person, Bruce.”

Is this not the murder of the human usually faulted on Structuralism?

After the human dies: Crumbling in fear

When his relationship has ended, Bruce found himself “immersing in the lives and concerns of two adults for whom I have a real and growing affection.” What was once a potential to reconnect with humanity became an agonizing retreat to a tormenting present, not a successful springboard to an absence (a “there) being anticipated and desired. Anxieties get into Bruce’s skin more and more and which culminates in a fittingly terrifying dream:

“In this dream I am afraid of the sky: she has pointed at it with her rake handle and it is full of clouds which, seen from here below, form themselves into variegated symbols of the calculus and begin to undergo manipulations I neither cause nor understand. In all my dreams, the world is windy, disordered, grey.”

So here comes the paralyzing fact that despite its provisionality, haunts still merely for being right there, and not just there in one’s envisioning. In contrast to Bruce’s “here,”  the clean calculations he wants, “there” at the distance were the things that are actually happening – symbols that one does not beget, and cannot fully understand. Its termination would clinch the admission of fear. Bruce fumbled in repairing the crude system of his aunt’s old stove and the disconnections that ensued, and which disillusioned him ultimately, were not something he solely caused; they were part and parcel of the system that does not always work perfectly. Bruce would let his fear gobble him as he no longer shuts his eyes when his wish for a perfect totality disintegrates in front of him.

The mismatches in here and there, Wallace’s control and the gnawing frailty of resolution:

Spanning some abstractions of a character that in the end was marred by the world whose actuality did not attune with his visions, Wallace’s short story typifies the path brazenly trailblazed by structuralism only to end in the anxiety and the little creativities  (which are absent in the story) of post-structuralism. As the writer, Wallace owned mastery, hardly characterizing his characters except for their thoughts which are immensely divorced from their material settings. What Wallace professed are two characters recollecting experiences and spewing thoughts at each other and it is in this mainly mental realm that we were able to engage with the story. In that sense, “Here and There” can be argued to cut us off a material plot where we can certainly understand the origin of thoughts more concretely and more objectively. We were offered only with the already biased thoughts of Bruce and his partner and this reduces the reliability of every interpretation, which we can aptly blame to a hardly reliable narration. Wallace bypasses the material – where the thoughts were situated and likely have been influenced in their formation, and if that was done for his own mastery of the story, then he evidently succeeds.

Still, this ricocheted to the resolution of the story, which for all of its being fleshed out from the universe of thoughts, is at its best frail, and at its worst, lifelessly abstract. Bruce admitted fear and hardly can we imagine how he would go on with his life now that his vision has been shattered — which is the same flak that debilitated post-structuralism despite its (feigned) celebration of creativity and playfulness after the collapse of the so-called structures. What is lacking is the recognition, not to say understanding of the dialectical procedure that operated at ground level where humanity exchanges breath and sweat and personalities. Definitely, it would be a surprise if that emerges in this story where the thoughts of the characters were isolated from their material situations. In the end, Wallace also joins the bevy of contemporary writers whose revelry and creativity spring from a postmodern attitude of either cynicism or openness which in the same vein, limits the discourses generated and propelled by their fictions.

The greatly missed David Foster Wallace

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