I am attempting to read David Foster Wallace’s very large novel and write about the experience as I go. That is all.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Three: 1 April – Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad

In the last post I mentioned the shift from first-person to third-person narration, and raised the transgressive spectre of the second person, but this chapter bypasses the whole notion of points of view. It’s entirely conducted in dialogue, with the exception of a few sound effects. There’s no indication as to who might be reporting the action, whether it’s Hal or the professional conversationalist – who eventually turns out to be something else entirely, although we’re not entirely clear what – or some other character or just a run-of-the-mill omniscient narrator. In that sense, it’s more like a film or theatre script than conventional prose; although it’s even stripped of attributions, so we have to search for internal clues to work out who’s speaking. This is an unusual technique, but not entirely unprecedented: Nicholson Baker used it in Vox and Checkpoint; further back, Evelyn Waugh tried it out in a couple of chapters of Vile Bodies (which happens to be the best novel ever written, which is nice). There are doubtless more; feel free to fill in the holes.

Anyway, pretty soon we’re clear that one of the characters is Hal. So we’re back in the realm of the first chapter again; although if Hal is now 11 years old as he claims, we’ve fallen back a few years. There’s still the possibility, of course, that this is a tale told by Hal at the prompting of the Cuban orderly at the mental hospital; indeed, the whole book could turn out to be that. Which sounds pretty postmodern but again, nothing new; it’s an old, old technique, employed by Chaucer and Boccaccio and Emily Brontë and many more.

(To go off-piste for a moment: alerted by mention that there might be rude bits, I once decided to leaf through my mother’s Everyman edition of Boccaccio’s Decameron. And rude bits there were indeed, but – as was the convention until the Chatterley trial threw such squeamishness to the winds – the very rudest passage of all was left in the original Italian. The implication being that such matters were too disgusting for the delicate sensibilities of good Anglo-Saxons, but filthy, libidinous continentals might be able to cope. The fact that at the age of 13 or so I was searching for smut, not in a furtively half-inched copy of Men Only, but in a 14th-century allegory suggests that I had rather more in common with Hal Incandenza than I might have liked. Not the tennis skills, though.)

OK, here’s young(er) Hal. We’ve already deduced that he’s a somewhat unusual young man, and he confirms the fact once more:
That I’m a continentally ranked junior tennis player who can also recite great chunks of the dictionary, verbatim, at will, and tends to get beat up, and wears a bow tie?
...so the likelihood that he’d be sent to some kind of therapist is high. And we’ve had hints at the dysfunctional nature of his upbringing, so it’s quite feasible that nobody would think to explain to him the nature of the therapy. A professional conversationalist, though? Well, that may be perfectly normal in the parallel/alternate/future reality that Wallace is in the process of creating; although it soon transpires that even Hal finds it a bit weird. And his scepticism quickly extends beyond the walls of the consultation room: “Is Himself still having this hallucination that I never speak?”

And it starts to go downhill from there, as Hal recognises his father’s sweater-vest and queries the authenticity of the conversationalist’s moustache (cf Erdedy’s counsellor Randi, “with a mustache like a Mountie”) and nose. Any pretence at a conversation has ended here, as the two of them fire questions at each other, echoing (perhaps) the Ithaca chapter in Ulysses and (perhaps again) anticipating Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood. But Himself has the last word, although whether that’s because Hal really has lost the power of speech; or he’s decided to stop talking; or something more sinister; we’re not told. And is his father, moving from regular text to italics, as horrified by whatever it is that Hal presents to him as the deans were?

One more thought, that doesn’t fit easily anywhere else; is the five-walled room a reference to breaking down the fourth wall, a key technique of self-reference, especially in film and theatre? So many questions. Damn, he’s got me doing it.


  1. The all-dialogue portions of Wallace's work are probably influenced most by Gaddis's J.R. and Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman, the latter of which he admits to outright stealing from in his use of an ellipsis ('...') for a character's non-response.

  2. Gosh. I've read Vile Bodies probably 20 times, and have never noticed any unusually structured chapters. Whereas here it's the whole... point. (Maybe I'm just a bit thick.)

    But I think books like IJ and eg Eggers' AHWOSG are a bit too obvious, a bit too try-hard, in their cleverness and literary showing-off. But with Waugh, the brilliance of the whole book means that you don't even notice all the cleverality.

    Having said all that, I'm enjoying it so far. I'm at 6% on the old Kindle if that makes any sense.

  3. Damn, DH, should have remembered the Puig. But I'm sure I've seen the same technique used elsewhere as well. Never read any Gaddis. His first book appears to be almost as long as IJ...

    Oops, Spin. I just checked and although chapter XI (in which Adam phones Nina to tell her doesn't have any money, then Nina calls him back to say that she's going to marry Ginger) is *almost* entirely done in unattributed dialogue, each conversation is prefaced with an explanation (eg: "Adam rang up Nina".) Consider me the unreliable narrator :-(


What do you think of it so far?