Saturday, May 14, 2011
Good Old Neon by David Foster Wallace
I know that you know as well as I do how fast thoughts and associations can fly through your head. You can be in the middle of a creative meeting at your job or something, and enough material can fly through your head just in the little silences when people are looking over their notes and waiting for the next presentation that it would take exponentially longer than the whole meeting just to try to put a few seconds’ silence’s flood of thoughts into words.
This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time that we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc. - and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions.
What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. The internal head speed or whatever of these ideas, memories, relations, emotions and so on is even faster, by the way – exponentially faster, unimaginably faster – when you’re dying, meaning during that vanishingly tiny nanosecond between when you technically die and when the next thing happens, so that in reality the cliché about people’s whole lives flashing before their eyes as they’re dying isn’t that far off – although the whole life here isn’t really a sequential thing where first you were born and then you’re in the crib and then you’re up at the plate in Legion ball, etc. which it turns out that that’s what people usually mean when they say ‘my whole life’, meaning a discrete, chronological series of moments that they add up and call their lifetime.
It’s not really like that. The best way I can think of to try to say is that it all happens at once, but that at once doesn’t really mean a finite moment of sequential time the way we think of time while we’re alive, plus that what turns out to be the meaning of the term my life isn’t even close to what we think we’re talking about when we say ‘my life’. Words and chronological time create all these total misunderstanding of what’s really going on at the most basic level. And yet at the same time English is all we have to try to understand it and try to form anything larger or more meaningful and truer with anybody else…
The whole my life flashed before me phenomena at the end is more like being a whitecap on the surface of the ocean, meaning that it’s only at the moment you subside and start sliding back in that you’re really even aware that there’s an ocean at all. When you’re up and out there as a whitecap you might act and talk as if you know you’re just a whitecap, but deep down you don’t think think there’s really an ocean at all. It’s almost impossible to. Or liker a leaf that doesn’t believe in the tree it’s a part of, etc. There are all sorts of ways to try to express it…
The reality is that dying isn’t bad, but it takes forever. And that forever is no time at all. I know that sounds like a contradiction, or maybe just wordplay. What it really is, as it turns out, is a matter of perspective. The big picture, as they say, in which the fact is that this whole seemingly endless back-and forth between us has come and gone and come again in the very same instant that Fern stirs a boiling pot for dinner, and your stepfather packs some tobacco down with his thumb, and Angela Mead uses an ingenious little catalogue tool to roll cat hair off her blouse, and Melinda Betts inhales to respond to something she thinks her husband just said, and David Wallace blinks in the midst of idly scanning class photos from his 1980 Aurora West H.,. yearbook and seeing my photo and trying, through the tiny keyhole of himself, to imagine what all must of happened to lead up to my death in the fiery single-car accident he’d read about in 1991, like what sort of pain or problems might have driven the guy to get in his electric-blue Corvette and try top drive with all that O.T.C. medication in his bloodstream – David Wallace happening to have a huge and totally unorganizable set of inner thoughts, feelings, memories and impressions of this little photo’s guy a year ahead of him in school with the seemingly almost neon aura around him all the time of scholastic excellence and popularity and success with the ladies, as well as of every last cutting remark or even tiny disgusted gesture or expression on this guy’s part whenever David Wallace struck out looking in Legion ball or said something dumb at a party, and of how impressive and authentically at ease in the world the guy always seemed, like an actual living person instead of a dithering, pathetically self-conscious outline or ghost of a person David Wallace knew himself to be.
Verily a fair-haired, fast-track guy, whom in the very best human tradition David Wallace had back then imagined as happy and unreflective and wholly undaunted by voices telling him that there was something wrong with him that wasn’t wrong with anybody else and that he had to spend all of his time and energy trying to figure out what to do and say in order to impersonate and even marginally normal or acceptable U.S. Male, all this stuff clanging around in David Wallace 81’s head every second and moving so fast that he never got a chance to hold and try to fight or argue against it or even really feel it except as a knot in his stomach as he stood in his real parent’s kitchen ironing his uniform and thinking of all the ways he could screw up and strike out looking or drop balls out in right and reveal his true pathetic essence in front of this .418 hitter and his witchily pretty sister and everyone else in the audience in lawn chairs in the grass along the sides of the Legion field (all of whom already probably saw through the sham at the outset anyway, he was pretty sure)- in other words David Wallace trying, if only in the seconds his lids are down, to somehow reconcile what this luminous guy had seemed like from the outside with whatever on the interior must have driven him to kill himself in such a dramatic and doubtlessly painful way- with David Wallace also fully aware that the cliché that you can’t ever really 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 sort of an inbent spiral that keeps you from ever getting anywhere (considerable time having passed since 1981, of course, and David Wallace having emerged with quite a bit more firepower that he’d had at Aurora West), the realer, more enduring and sentimental part of him commanding that the other part to be silent as if looking it levelly in the eyes and saying, almost aloud, “Not another word.”