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David Foster Wallace, All that

March 13, 2011

I have not yet read anything by David Foster Wallace and so when I came across his short story*, “All that”, in The New Yorker, I jumped at the chance of an introduction.

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
“All that”
The New Yorker, 14 December 2009
Available: online

* I believe this is an excerpt from his posthumous “novel”, The pale king, which will be published this April.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2011 10:29 am

    I think short stories are a great way to ‘feel’ out an author. I read some of his short stories a few years ago and enjoyed them.

    • March 13, 2011 11:08 am

      Thanks Guy … I’m glad you agree. Have you read any of his novels? Are there themes that run through his novels and stories. This story “feels” as though there are.

  2. March 13, 2011 6:13 pm

    My first attempt at DFW was with Infinite Jest. Big mistake! He has sentences that can run on for days…Lucky for me someone steered me back and encouraged me to try him again with Consider the Lobster, which I now recommend to you.

    • March 13, 2011 9:15 pm

      Oh thanks Amanda … you probably recognise then the long sentence I quoted above! That was pretty long … Note to self, perhaps not start with Infinite Jest. Perhaps there’s a reason he called it that?

  3. March 13, 2011 8:15 pm

    I haven’t read anything by Wallace either, having been warned off him by a friend who had tried ‘Infinite Jest’ and come to grief. Perhaps I should follow Amanda’s advice and try ‘Consider the Lobster’.

    • March 13, 2011 9:17 pm

      Yes, Annie, sounds like that might be a good place to start. I was impressed by the story so think he is worth exploring further.

  4. March 13, 2011 8:59 pm

    Oh, I think I shall have to read this one! And then ponder the ways in which I might’ve been led astray as a child by your stories…

  5. March 13, 2011 9:08 pm

    I haven’t read any work by DFW but he is on my list of authors whose works I want to explore. Will get to reading the short story. Thanks.

    • March 13, 2011 9:19 pm

      Hi Kinna. I do find short stories a great way to be introduced to an author … so many people to read!

  6. March 14, 2011 5:41 am

    Check out his essays first, I’ve found them the easiest way to get into him. He’s very funny, I love both Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Like some others said, Infinite Jest isn’t really the best book to start out with…I found his first novel a much easier read than IJ, but his essays are what made me want to read all of his work.,

    • March 14, 2011 10:24 am

      Thanks for this Ellen … I must say I love the title “Infinite jest” but it does seem daunting. I wasn’t really aware of the essays – and I do rather like the essay format. Someone has also suggested Broom of the system as being a good read. I will keep an eye out for some of these recommendations though right now I’m drowning in actual books to read!

  7. March 15, 2011 4:55 am

    I’ve read a very few short magazine pieces by DFW but have not yet ventured into his books either fiction or non. I really want to as he seems like such a fascinating writer. Maybe I will manage to get to one of his books of essays this year, if not I will have to put him on the planned reading list for next year.

  8. Krista permalink
    August 14, 2011 1:49 am

    Apparently this is not an excerpt from “The Pale King,” which I was hoping as I wanted to read more about this narrator and his life. I’ve read that this does not appear in the book, which is too bad, and it seems to me it is an excerpt from something as it doesn’t really work as a short story. However, if it does belong to a longer work, I can’t find which it is.

    • August 14, 2011 8:56 am

      Ah, thanks Krista. I had read that it was but I think that quite a few New Yorker stories are, so some reviewers just start assuming, particularly if an author has a novel in train. In some ways I’m glad it isn’t because then you know it is something he wrote AS a story, though if it works I don’t really care that much. I agree it would be great to know more of this character!

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