David Foster Wallace, All that
It has a first person narrator, who is looking back on his childhood and recalling, in particular, his fascination with magic and religion. It is a clever – and rather sad – little piece about the mismatch between the rationality of parents and the incredulity of children, especially highly imaginative ones. The prime technique Wallace uses to explore this mismatch is that of an unreliable or, more specifically, naive narrator, so that we ache for the little boy while also recognising where the parents are coming from (even if we hope we would not be quite like them). As the narrator says:
That is why it is that adults and even parents can, unwittingly, be cruel: they cannot imagine doubt’s complete absence. They have forgotten.
And so they tease, and set children up, unaware of the impact of their behaviour.
The story’s tone is one of uncertainty and qualification. The narration is peppered with such expressions as “I’m ninety percent sure”, “as I remember”, “I’m positive it was”, “I believe”. And, on occasions, he uses ambiguous syntax and then has to clarify the meaning for us, as in “It was (‘it’ meaning the cement mixer) the same overlarge miniature …”. All this gives the reader the distinct sense of a disconnect between what the narrator is saying and what he is really feeling. For example, the parents lie to their son in the teasing but cruel way that adults do, by telling him that his cement mixer is magic, that it mixes cement while he pulls it along but that it stops the minute he turns around to look at it. He is mystified why his parents, knowing of this “magic”, hadn’t told him immediately but waited some weeks or months. He says of his parents:
They were a delightful but often impenetrable puzzle to me; I no more knew their minds and motives than a pencil knows what it is being used for.
Now that’s an interesting image to unpack, eh? The first time he mentions his parents, he calls them “my biological parents”, providing another clue to a disconnect.
Then there is the intriguing pacing. Most of the story is written at a normal pace with a mix of simple and complex sentences, but, every now and then, there is an excessively long sentence, as in:
Sometimes the experience of the voices was ecstatic, sometimes so much so that it was almost too intense for me – as when you first bite into an apple or a confection that tastes so delicious and causes such a flood of oral juices in your mouth that there is a moment of intense pain in your mouth and glands – particularly in the late afternoons of spring and summer, when the sunlight on sunny days achieved moments of immanence and became the color of beaten gold and was itself (the light, as if it were taste) so delicious that it was almost too much to stand, and I would lie on the pile of large pillows in our living room and roll back and forth in an agony of delight and tell my mother, who always read on the couch, that I felt so good and full and ecstatic that I could hardly bear it, and I remember her pursing her lips, trying not to laugh, and saying in the driest possible voice that she found it hard to feel too much sympathy or concern for this problem and was confident I could survive this level of ecstasy, and that I probably didn’t need to be rushed to the emergency room, and at such moments my love and affection for my mother’s dry humor and love became, stacked upon the original ecstasy, so intense that I almost had to stifle a scream of pleasure as I rolled ecstatically between the pillows and the books on the floor.
Phew! That is one mouthful and a half. It relates to his discussion of his childhood “voices” and his religious feelings (which were not shared by his rational parents), but the language used here and the sudden breathless pace speak to all sorts of undercurrents. The story ends with his recounting watching a movie with his father, in which his and his father’s memory of some critical points vary significantly.
The thing is, I don’t know much about Wallace’s writing and his specific concerns but I did find this a rather disturbing tale … partly because it is hard to decide just how unreliable the unreliable narrator is!
David Foster Wallace
The New Yorker, 14 December 2009
* I believe this is an excerpt from his posthumous “novel”, The pale king, which will be published this April.