Snipping Knots and Getting Somewhere: Short Comments on “Good Old Neon,” a Not-So-Short Short Story by David Foster Wallace, by Elias Keller

Four years before his suicide in 2008, David Foster Wallace published his final story collection, Oblivion, which includes eight pieces ranging in length from three pages to about sixty. Unlike his earlier Brief Interviews with Hideous Men collection, there’s no thematic linkage throughout Oblivion, which makes the stories easier to critique singularly, and often singled out from this assemblage is “Good Old Neon,” a first-person lamentation of a young man’s life of fraudulence, first published in Conjunctions in 2001 and winning an O. Henry award in 2002.

“My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people.”—Thus the narrator begins his jeremiad. He knows he’s inveterately, incorrigibly inauthentic, doing things only for how it’ll look to others. (He recalls making out with “Angela Mead” in middle-school and “not even really feeling the soft aliveness or whatever of her breast because all I was doing was thinking, ‘Now I’m the guy that Mead let get to second with her.’”) The further snag for our narrator is that when he tries to remediate his fraudulence, whether by meditation, hobbies, religion, drugs, sex, or psychoanalysis (among other activities), he only ends up feeling even more fraudulent, because he’s still defrauding other people by trying to create the impression that he’s not a fraud.

If that dynamic seems puzzlingly circular (or if you’re already weary of the word “fraud” and its conjugates)—just wait until you read the actual story. And I mean read. “Good Old Neon” and its metaphysical pyrotechnics isn’t for skimming or grazing. DFW peels back so many layers of the fraudulence onion that it’s hard to keep your eyes from watering. And just for good measure, the narrative often digresses into long passages that try to portray what the human thought process is really like—while also portraying why trying to portray that process is impossibly futile. I’d include an example of these dizzying excursuses, but to be frank, I can’t find one that isn’t as long as this entire essay. (Easy there, don’t all rush for the library at once.) But “Good Old Neon” also provides plenty of entertainment, much of which comes from the narrator’s interplay with his hapless (and sexually repressed) psychotherapist, whose predictable analysis: if you can be so honest about being fundamentally dishonest and fraudulent, then you’re not really fundamentally dishonest and fraudulent, are you?—proves all-too-predictable and none-too-illuminating for our hypercritical narrator.

“Good Old Neon” has been called DFW’s masterpiece, and it could well be, notwithstanding that the gargantuan novel Infinite Jest and the “cruise ship essay” (“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”) are arguably his signature works. But in “Good Old Neon,” not only do the content and the style of the story blend as harmoniously as coffee and cream, and not only is the story a paragon of metafiction and post-modernism (whatever the latter means, and you know what it means, but I’m not going to try to explain what it means)—but, most importantly, the story is artistically moral, even “passionately moral,” a phrase DFW used in a 1993 interview with the Review of Contemporary Fiction to describe the type of fiction he wants to write.

“Moral” fiction, however, doesn’t mean that the text preaches a certain ideology or way of living, but that it productively contributes to the human corpus of knowledge. And since the narrator comes to realize that his own ruthless dissection of his fraudulence is far more enlightening (and cheaper) than any therapy sessions ever could be, I’d claim that the reader of “Good Old Neon” who recognizes his or her own “fraudulence” in the narrative can get the same psychoanalytical bargain. In other words, the story can actually help people, although its value goes well beyond the therapeutic.

Avertissement—no specific plot points are revealed, but the rest of this essay may constitute a “spoiler” for those who haven’t read “Good Old Neon.” I’d like to think that what follows would whet someone’s appetite for the story rather than spoiling it, but if you think otherwise, or don’t want a glimpse at the story’s “money shot,” now’s the time to put this aside and do your homework.

Now then: consider this very metafictional line from the story (one of the characters of “Good Old Neon,” that may or may not be the narrator, being named “David Wallace”)—a line that refers to the conflict between how someone appears to others versus the view from the interior:

“—with David Wallace also fully aware that the cliché that you can’t ever truly know what’s going on inside somebody else is hoary and insipid and yet at the same time trying very consciously to prohibit that awareness from mocking the attempt or sending the whole line of thought into the sort of inbent spiral that keeps you from ever getting anywhere…”

A lesser writer might have presented the paradox of fraudulence and authenticity, bandied around brilliant words for forty pages—but ultimately kept the protagonist (and the reader) trapped in that inbent spiral. What DFW does with “Good Old Neon,” on the contrary, and despite the narrator’s final desperate act of self-destruction (which can’t help but to foreshadow DFW’s own)—is get somewhere. There’s discovery, anagnorisis, as Aristotle would say: a change from ignorance to knowledge. (Aspiring writers, take note.) And by the end of the story, the narrator does find some syncretism between “fraudulence” and “authenticity,” and in doing so, offers us hope (from a human perspective) and (from a literary one)—good old catharsis.

“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, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. Who wouldn’t? It’s call free will, Sherlock. But at the same time it’s why it feels so good to break down and cry in front of others, or to laugh, or speak in tongues, or chant in Bengali—it’s not English anymore, it’s not getting squeezed through any hole.”

What makes this brief passage so significant, even epiphanic, is that it comes after pages and pages of vivid anecdotes, deep-sea psychic exploration, and mind-bending discussion of fraudulence and its paradoxes. If the same passage came early in the story, it would fall too lightly on the reader, who’d shrug and say “Well, of course.” A lesser writer wouldn’t have had the exquisite sense of narrative timing that’s required for such metaphysical bathos. But placed where it’s placed by David Foster Wallace (a supremely masterful user of “English”), it’s architectonically perfect, as though he’d woven a terribly tangled knot, and then, rather than tediously (and undramatically) trying to untangle it—he revealed a gleaming pair of scissors we didn’t know he had, and snipped right through, to our relief and release.

Elias KellerElias Keller has published fiction in FewerThan500, The 3288 Review, Atlas+Alice, Oblong, Literary Orphans, Crack the Spine, Wordhaus, Every Day Fiction, APIARY, and elsewhere. He grew up in Philadelphia and currently lives in New Orleans.

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