This essay was written about two months before David Foster Wallace’s suicide. In other words, it wasn’t written to be a tribute. My intention was simply to comment on the way Wallace’s ideas and style are one and the same, how in the same way a person is inextricable from the deeds of his life, so Wallace’s ideas are inextricable from the way he presented them. And then how, in trying myself to become one with my own thoughts and the life I am leading, I turn to, among other things, the work of David Foster Wallace. It hurts knowing there will be no new work by him to read, but there is still inspiration to be found in rereading his words, which have lost none of their power. As I said, this was not meant to be a tribute, but I do hope the sentiments expressed herein are what Wallace would have wanted for his work’s impact. And his life’s. Hopefully, more than anything, this essay makes clear that through his work, David Foster Wallace lives on.
“. . . on many mornings he steered by these 30 minutes outdoors the way mariners out of sight of land use stars.”
Growing up is eliminating possibilities. Who I am is as much what I am not and what I will not be. That’s not meant to be a dour take on things; growing up, I mean really growing up, acting the part and filling the role, is an accomplishment, its own reward. But with it comes mortgage payments and home repairs and a car note with car repairs and insurance and gas and not-yet-born-but-planned-for children and their braces, tuition, etc., and so on. I was going to live in a one-stoplight town and then in New York City and on an island where I would lead snorkeling trips. I was going to live in a western city and a foreign one; and I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to live in Tornado Alley. I was going to join a band and the NBA and go teach English to kids in the Far West. I was going to drink more and drink less. I was going to be an actor. I was going to do nothing but do it somewhere else where it’d be something. Etc., and so on. As it is, I am a technical writer, by which those aforementioned bills, with the help of my wife’s salary, are paid. So, a technical writer I’ll remain. Because once amongst your responsibilities, there is no going back to being tether-free. You can always start again, as it were, but you can never really start over.
That’s what creates the void books fill. In them all possibilities still exist and I can live with them and in them. Which is why every day at lunch I bring a book to one of the benches along a footpath that wraps around the manmade pond and its two active fountains out in front of my office. It’s my favorite part of the day, my lunch hour, time spent outside not only my cubicle but my own life. It’s funny when I say it that way, because I know when I look forward to it, it is myself, book in hand by the pond, that I picture, more than the characters and their worlds that I am reading about. I am not escaping so much as I am infusing my life with the experience of temporary escape, the joy of reading a good book, aided by the swooshing water fountains that provide perfect white noise and the sight of the water shining like little jewels in blips atop the small lapping waves. Not to mention the feel of the sun on my skin.
One day recently, while at my bench, I actually stopped and saw myself as a character, not in the story I was reading but in one I had previously read. When the thought hit me, it thrilled me. The story, “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” by David Foster Wallace and from his story collection Oblivion, is about a child held hostage in a school shooting situation, who escapes the trauma of the event by daydreaming about his father at work. His daydream, which is just one paragraph and only part of the bigger story, puts forth and brings to the main character’s consciousness his father’s workaday loneliness. It’s in the dream that I saw myself, in the shoes of the father, not the child. I remember reading where noted literary critic Northrop Frye said, “The poet’s job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place.” This is exactly what Wallace, as fiction writer, does when he describes the father’s office as a big, quiet room, bright but windowless, with rows of gray cubicles and men making calculations and filling out forms. I’ve been in that room. I work in that room.
The father was an actuary, but the child knew little more than that about the details of his dad’s worklife. “There was something of a cover-your-eyes and stop-your-ears quality to my lack of curiosity about just what my father had to do all day,” which had something to do with the way his “father’s eyes appeared lightless and dead, empty of everything we associated with his real persona” when he returned home from work. It wasn’t until he was older that the child knew his mother had made his father’s lunch everyday and that in mild weather, his father liked to eat at the same bench every afternoon in a small park with a few trees. He liked that time so much in fact that when he died of a coronary, when the boy was sixteen, the mother insisted that his burial plot be in view of some trees.
This, his love of the park and the trees at lunchtime, is a characteristic, a nuanced trait, an idiosyncrasy that is absent from the boy’s dream about his father’s work, where “part of the terror of the dream’s wide angle perspective was that the men in the room appeared as both individuals and a great anonymous mass.” Wallace describes little movements, individual habits—”some feeling at their jaw or forehead or the crease of their tie, or biting dead skin from their thumbnail, or tracing along their lower lip with their pencil’s eraser or pen’s metal cap” —but such that they all fade into general movements, indistinct from the whole group, mindless habits inextricable from the context of the office.
When I first read “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” a few years ago, I was floored by the part about the child’s father’s office life. I hadn’t remembered that that part of the story was only one paragraph, but I thought of it one afternoon as I closed another book I was reading on the bench and lingered just a moment longer before I had to go back into the office. I realized that I had just finished the best part of my day. Serene and replenished, it made me happy just to anticipate the next day at the bench with a book, too. I remembered the line about the father as a mariner using the time at his bench like stars to map the hours of his day in Wallace’s short story. I thought it’d be fun to read about that man at his bench while sitting at mine, easy access to that wonderful I’ve-felt-that-too experience I seem only to get from fiction, and a story within a story, or rather really a story outside a story—I’d be writer as reader so as to layer the experience. I’ve often given thought to how appropriate it seems for me to be reading fiction by the fake pond, but I’m not sure I’m a good enough writer to make that thought truly engaging.
Regardless, the first time I read “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” I was working, but not in a career, just working a job to pay my student loans and rent while I figured out what I really wanted to do with my life. I was living in an apartment, one of several I lived in before we got our house. My wife was my girlfriend. In other words, at my bench I would be reading “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” again for the first time.
It was a sunny day, hot and not real breezy, when I brought Oblivion with me to my bench. I felt almost cheeky, book in hand, making my way to the pond, like I knew something everyone else at the office didn’t know. It was easy to find the part of the story I loved so much because I had marked it off and marked it up, underlining my favorite bits, the first time I had read it. I had remembered the line about the mariner almost exactly as it was written. I hadn’t remembered this, though: “The men’s expressions were somehow at once stuporous and anxious, enervated and keyed up—not so much fighting the urge to fidget as appearing to have long ago surrendered whatever hope or expectation causes one to fidget.”
I had underlined that sentence, too, as if my younger self was in cahoots with David Foster Wallace to crush me. I used to sit alone a lot with my books and my thoughts when I was younger, too, but it feels different looking out at a life than actually stepping back from one. It was beautiful out and I was happy now, but I never pictured this being the best part of my day when I was younger, even just a few years ago. Quite frankly, I imagined some bigger things for myself, a little more excitement. My favorite part of each day, the part I most look forward to, is an hour on a bench by a fake pond, where I feel serene and replenished. It’s a good life I’m living, a very good life, but yeah, I do get fidgety—although less so than before. I can’t afford the urge. How did Wallace know? I didn’t bring the story with me to my bench to feel like this.
The dream’s being only one paragraph, albeit a long paragraph, seven pages in fact but just one paragraph nonetheless, enhances its claustrophobia-inducing effect. It’s not an allergy to the tab key or an uncertainty of when to use it but in fact an interesting choice by Wallace, and one that wouldn’t allow me to escape the paragraph once I was inside it. The description of his father’s day and his father’s loneliness is cloying, yet how it is said to be a dream made me, the reader, feel not a part of the office but a witness to it, which created distance between me and the scene, a disconnect. Or seemed to. The deeper I got into the seven pages, the more the words clung to me; I felt them viscerally. I was feeling at my jaw and tracing a finger along my bottom lip before I realized there had still been no paragraph break and I’d already read six pages, up to the part about fighting the urge to fidget.
When I finished reading, I took a deep breath, and I took in my surroundings as best I could, made the fountains no longer white noise but primary and felt the sun actually crisping my skin. The story’s title is a play on a line that closes James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” A smithy, according to Webster’s, is a workshop. However, Wallace is countering that the soul is, in fact, not something to be built or worked upon or improved, but rather, it just is. And it is us, individually; it is each person’s sole true possession. Wallace’s paragraph broke my soul for me to feel it, to embrace it as it is. It made me see what I have and made me wonder what we lose when we work so hard to achieve the simple tenets of a secure American life, when we become specialized and do one thing over the time that spans a career.
Growing up is growing into one life.
That’s what broke my soul. Not being upset with my lot but seeing the lines, the boundaries that limn it, and knowing I’m small and replaceable, as just this one thing, as we all are in this great anonymous mass. Yet I do have my bench by the pond, and that time with my books by great authors like Wallace. And I have my soul, which is mine and which is not a smithy, and which drives me to write my own stories; but that is why my soul hurts still: for fear I’ll never be able to write something quite so devastating as to break another soul.
Billy Thompson is a writer living in Media, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Confluence and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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