I'm fairly sure that David Foster Wallace's short story "Good Old Neon," published in the collection Oblivion, is the most celebrated piece of writing in the author's post-Infinite Jest career. It is certainly the most lauded story to appear in Oblivion: it received an O. Henry Award, was the most consistently praised piece in the mixed reviews that greeted Oblivion upon publication, and was mentioned again and again (for reasons both literary and autobiographical) after the suicide.
The piece, which I read this week for the first time, strikes me as in many ways Wallace at his best. It's provocative and thought-provoking, and it leaves the reader to wrestle with a series of inter-related paradoxes concerning the nature of language and identity, and how we use language to share our identity with others. It's an extremely complex work–I'd even say intricate–and it brings together an impressive range of thematic material. But for everything in "Good Old Neon" that impresses me, the story lacks a certain vitality; it feels to me more like an interestingly stated puzzle than an actual human voice. Admittedly, though, given the nature of the narrator, this might have been just what Wallace wanted.
The story consists of the thoughts of someone: the narrator's ghost? David Wallace? It's unclear, and I'll explain what I mean at the end of this post. For the sake of simplicity, though, let's just assume for now that "Good Old Neon's" narrator is the ghost of the character that kills himself at the end of the story.
So then. The narrator is recounting what led him to kill himself; the malady that led to suicide is difficult to define exactly, but revolves around the idea that since he was 4 years old the narrator has felt himself a fraud in that he is always managing, every single moment, the impressions that others receive of him. For almost all of his 29 years he's managed these impressions in order to achieve–to do well in school, to get into various women's pants, to succeed as a corporate marketer–and this wracks the narrator with a great existential emptiness. In the end, the narrator can't get past this emptiness, and the angst leads to suicide.
The narrator's deep conviction that he is a fraud is declared in the story's very first paragraph, and that should immediately make any reader suspect every single word that follows. Further clouding the narrator's reliability is that he soon reveals how he takes pleasure in leading his psychiatrist around by the nose and outwitting him with conundrums of life. And, indeed, "Good Old Neon" exposes us to so many paradoxes, contradictions, and dilemmas that we can at times feel like the narrator's batted-around interlocutor. Wallace was very much a writer who reveled in infinite recursions, in thought patterns that snaked around like a Moibus strip or that ate their own tail like a an Ouroboros, and in this story he heaps them on the reader here in characteristic style. To wit:
There was a basic logical paradox that I called the "fraudulence paradox" that I had discovered more or less on my own while taking a mathematical logic course in school. . . . The fraudulence paradox was that the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside–you were a fraud. And the more of a fraud you felt like, the harder you tried to convey an impressive or likable image of yourself so that other people wouldn't find out what a hollow, fraudulent person you really were. Logically, you would think that the moment a supposedly intelligent nineteen-year old became aware of this paradox, he'd stop being a fraud and just settle for being himself (whatever that was) because he'd figured out that being a fraud was a vicious infinite regress that ultimately resulted in being frightened, lonely, alienated, etc. But here was the other, higher-order paradox, which didn't eve have a form or name–I didn't, I couldn't. Discovering that first paradox at age nineteen just brought home to me in spades what an empty, fraudulent person I'd basically been ever since at least the time I was four and lied to my stepdad . . .
The movement in this passage is similar to the feeling brought on by a lot of "Good Old Neon." It starts with a fairly easy-to-conceive paradox–the fraudulence paradox. But then it adds an element to make the whole system far more complex: the idea that the narrator, completely understanding the fraudulence paradox, still couldn't overcome it. But then, before we've had a chance to so much as begin to digest that new complication, Wallace adds yet another element to the mix: the whole story of how the narrator imagines he first became a fraudulent person.
If you can imagine this accumulation of paradox being built up again and again, and then meta-paradoxes being built on top of these smaller paradoxes, and then doubling back to inject thought into paradoxes discussed pages ago, and plus a little bit of character-defining anecdote and some progression forward in time toward a climactic ending; if you can imagine all that, then you've got a pretty good idea what it feels like to read "Good Old Neon."
The narrator's life ends with a vehicular suicide that instantly kills him, but this is not the end of the story. We continue to hear from the narrator after death, and, ironically and sadly, it seems that the narrator has realized in death what he couldn't see in life: a resolution to his feelings of fraudulence. Death, the narrator's ghost tells us, is a timeless realm where all points in time are laid out before you. (To my ear, it sounds awfully similar to Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians' experience of time.) From this vantage, the narrator finally understands that
inside you is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to somehow squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the now in older doors.
The keyhole would be one's mouth, or rather, the words that come out of it.
Words are a key thing here, because fundamentally "Good Old Neon" is about one of Wallace's most cherished themes: the insufficiency of language–both its insufficiency to fully communicate our authentic selves to another human being and its insufficiency to embody thoughts with enough clarity to allow us to escape logical paradoxes. About midway through the story, Wallace discusses the Berry paradox, which in Wallace's characteristic description states that
higher up there in these huge, cosmic-scale numbers, imagine now the very smallest number that can't be described in under twenty-two syllables. The paradox is that the very smallest number that cant be described in under twenty-two syllables, which of course is itself a description of this number, only had twenty-one syllables in it, which of course is under twenty-two syllables. So now what are you supposed to do?
According to Wikipedia, the solution to the Berry paradox has to do with ambiguity in the word definable. In other words, the paradox can be solved with better language, which would also seem to be the case with the narrator's problem: English is insufficient to wrangle with his thoughts on a precise enough level to satisfy his need to wrestle out the paradox that wracks his existence. Death, presumably a realm fundamentally different from life, lets the narrator see things anew.
After the narrator's death, there is a two-page coda. In these final two pages the narrator repeatedly refers to "David Wallace," and oddly, in these last two pages the narrator shows no sign of the problems that he agonizes over throughout the story. Right after the car crash is narrated the narrator declares:
And you think it makes you a fraud, the tiny fraction anyone else ever sees? Of course you're a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, ad of course you try to manage what part they see if you now its only a part. Who wouldn't? It's called free will, Sherlock.
Further complicating things is the fact that this coda also makes it clear that David Wallace is the author of this story: within the coda we learn that the story we have just read was inspired in David Wallace's mind after he found that someone he used to attend high school with committed suicide. It is a small but important twist on the typical metafictional ending: typically in the metafictional ending the vantage pulls back into the author's subjectivity; instead, in this case the vantage pulls back past the author's subjectivity and comes to encompass the author himself as just another character.
This is odd enough, as it implies that David Wallace both is and isn't the author of this story (yet another paradox), but, even more oddly, the story then goes on to imply that this is all "true," in a certain sense of the word, since it gives us reason to believe that these are the genuine thoughts of David Wallace after hearing that the narrator, someone he knew in high school, had died in a suicide.
It is the final paradox in a story that accumulates them like cat hair on a rug. So many paradoxes for just one story. Certainly, to a certain extent, the point of "Good Old Neon" is to let the reader know how the narrator (and, per the coda, David Wallace) feels as he fails to live his life with sufficient authenticity to match his standards. But at the same time, the presence of so many paradoxes–really, so many instances of language breaking down–reveals "Good Old Neon" as an exercise in deconstruction, an effort to reveal the contradictions and insufficiencies inherent in such words as authentic, fraud, performance, and even identity.
Toward the end of the story the narrator reflects that just before his suicide he was "in that state in which a man realizes that everything he sees will outlast him." The narrator readily admits that "as a verbal construction I know that's a cliche," but nonetheless, "as a state in which to actually be, though, it's something else, believe me." This, I think, is the final point of "Good Old Neon." When put into words–that is, the tiny bit that makes it out the keyhole–a person's feelings generally become cliches. But when these feelings are experienced, the totality of the moment–that incommunicable whole that resides within a person's body and soul–is what makes like worth living. The gulf between what is felt and what is communicated is often demoralizing and isolating, and when we lose faith that the gulf can ever be crossed we feel deeply alone. For some kinds of communication, language isn't enough. That is evident in "Good Old Neon," which presents us with many paradoxes of language but offers us no help in solving them.