I have been writing and thinking about terrorism, ordinary life, patriotism, trauma, and collective identity a lot in the past two years. (Again, really, I'm a happy person in general disposition). This week I reread The View from Mrs. Thompson's, a brief essay by (I know, I know) David Foster Wallace. In light of the official publication of his posthumous novel The Pale King this week as well as the beautiful Jonathan Franzen essay in The New Yorker--and because I just realized (reading this thing for the tenth time is no less heartbreaking, of course) that he "gets" the things I wanted to "get" better in four pages than I did in thousands of writing, reading, revising, rehashing, suffering through--here are a few thoughts on Dave's account of "The Horror."
In the first half of his essay "Tell me How Does it Feel?" James Wood indicts novelists interested in writing the "Great American Social Novel," claiming: "they will sooner or later be outrun by their own streaking material." In other words, a writer attempting to capture the totality of a social moment--its interpersonal, economic, demographic, horticultural (etc) elements—will always fall short of actually describing the world. And worse, in the process of trying to do so, she will also fail to document anything essential about human feeling. Yet Wood seems to rely on the assumption that human feeling should reside solely within the world that the author portrays. He ignores the possibility of locating feeling within the narrative voice.
I’m not sure if this perspective necessarily addresses Wood’s concerns—and perhaps it merely suggests that writers are vain and solipsistic and can only talk about the interior landscape of their own heads. But if this portrayal is honest and curious, and conducted with the interest of connecting the writer to a reader, is it something we should lament?
In The View from Mrs. Thompson's, David Foster Wallace takes it as a given that it would be impossible to describe all of the elements necessary to understand how to synthesize the feelings induced by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The piece does not attempt to portray the totality of the moment; rather, by cataloguing details he observes from the ordinary lives of individuals in Bloomington, Wallace in effect tries to at least give the reader an understanding of how he makes an effort to cope. He describes some conditions “on the ground” in Bloomington--but does so in order to give readers insight into the only consciousness that he feels able to occupy in the wake of “the Horror”: his own.
For me, the most important moments of the essay are therefore not necessarily the long descriptive passages, but rather come at the quietest moments when the reader gets Dave at his most un-distracted. Wallace’s ability to render the brutality of a Midwestern winter (“a pitiless bitch”) and the unique unsettling-ness of summer in that same place (“it can be a little creepy, especially in high summer when nobody’s out and all that green just sits in the heat and seethes”). He interrupts the long meditation on the importance of flags to the performance of patriotism when he suddenly realizes how caught up he has become in the net of emotion he feels simultaneously compelled to expose. In an instant he realizes “All those people dead, and I’m sent to the edge by a plastic flag.” We get a very brief glimpse of the author overcome, unable to conduct anything like a sterile or objective observation of “innocent” Americans going about their innocent grief rituals. Instead, the owner of a convenient store “offers solace and a shoulder and a strange kind of unspoken understanding.” These moments—in which Wallace suddenly finds himself unable to precisely describe the connection he has with another individual—often seem like the instants in which he becomes most accessible to the reader.
When read in this manner, Wallace’s desire to be an insider with those who surround him bounces off his insistent cataloguing of facts and observations about Bloomington. We feel his apartness from others, perhaps recognizing in his halting attempts to behave like the “ladies” our own desires and (frequently failed) attempts to feel comforted by participation in collective grief/mourning/ritual. This kind of alienation strikes me as much more important than the one that Wallace overtly describes at the end of the essay, which he characterizes as a “vague but progressive feeling of alienation from these good people.” The separateness that he ultimately spells out attempts to separate the cynics (like him, and maybe F--) from the innocents (the ladies). The essay collapses in the final paragraphs into a cursory list of various (perhaps he would say “upscale people”) scary political and theoretical questions, and meditates on why he—Dave—thinks about these questions while they—the ladies—don’t. I’m not sure if this is where the feeling of this essay resides. His apartness is not based necessarily on any differences in intellectual/political/historical concerns (and maybe this is why his riff on the ladies being so smart sounds a bit off-key). Rather, it’s the ordinary apartness of being different people—all of whom are experiencing grief in a different, ultimately private way. Wallace shares how this feels—to him—with us.