Review: Good Old Neon

Warning: There be spoilers ahead

There have been many things on my to-read list, and Infinite Jest has been there for pretty long. But this isn’t about David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus, or his voice-of-a-generation reputation, it’s a reflexive response to a single short story, Good Old Neon, from his 2004 collection Oblivion:Stories.

I came at the story with no expectations whatsoever; A friend said “this is the story of my life”, so of course I immediately read it. The first thing that strikes you about it is it’s denseness. DFW and Hemingway may have both been journalists, but 60 years on Hemingway’s style seems dated and disused, a sign of the undeveloped writer who has not yet mastered the use of exotic punctuation like em dashes or parentheses that DFW uses liberally in Good Old Neon. In this, as the New York Times puts it, “most personal and approachable of the stories”, the multi-page paragraphs of stream-of-consciousness slam into the reader like the narrator’s forehead into his car’s steering column when he finally puts himself out of his misery.

But what stylish misery. It may be at at times frustratingly impenetrable, but have no doubt that this is also a clever, clever story. Delving into the narrator’s “fraudulent life” and inauthenticity and his dissatisfaction, DFW goes one step beyond “show don’t tell”. The narrator’s choice of words, to his psychologist and to the reader, and the way in which he structures his tale point towards his tortured, conflicted inner experience. The ease with which he slips into character, performing for the ever-watching audience, confirms the fact that he is, as he says, a lifelong actor.

Besides the concern about inauthenticity, the story is brimming with other ideas DFW is itching to write about, but cannot within the confines of a short story. The pained grasping for appropriate words illustrates his point about the inadequacy of language. The narrator’s pondering over logic and paradoxes hint at deeper contemplation of the absurdities he wants to explore. Despite, and also because of, the obtuse language, DFW leaves the reader with the possibility that the experience of time is subjective, that words need not come sequentially, but can be consumed in a single instant, much like the story is not primarily a narrative with time-like rules, but a still snapshot inside a troubled mind

Which leads me to my biggest gripe about Good Old Neon. The narrator’s troubles are essentially self-absorbed navel-gazing. He has trouble being authentic, being true to himself, being existentially fulfilled. Literature of this sort is too far removed from the simple Bildungsromans or good vs evil struggles for me. Its self-involvement, its lack of concern of the reality outside the narrator’s head puts me off. The irony of DFW contributing to the tradition of American literary solipsism, having described Mailer, Updike and Roth as “Great White Narcissists”, is rich.

Not to say that DFW isn’t very, very, skillful. I’m still going to read Infinite Jest and see how that turns out.

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