1.31.2007

"Good People" by David Foster Wallace

New Yorker fiction -- February 5, 2007 issue

yellow light
I'm going to try and get back into reviewing stories, and this'n here will be a baby step. I feel like I'm getting rusty -- all I read are novels now. Anyway, this'n here is a baby step because this this'n here isn't much of a story. Nothing happens in the action -- literally nothing. What we get are the thoughts of Lane A. Dean, Jr., a student at a junior college, as he sits with his girlfriend on a park bench. She is pregnant and they have scheduled an abortion. They are devout Christians. They are torn. He has an imaginary conversation with her in his head. He doesn't love her -- or does he?

A certain member of our class was once told dismissively in workshop by Frank Conroy: "That's not a story -- that's a dilemma." Ding ding ding ding ding! This particular dilemma, of course, was covered many years ago in "Hills Like White Elephants." One difference is: Hemingway made it into a story. One thing that helped make that a story was that the woman got to say stuff -- out loud. Her character got to be developed in the action, producing dramatized conflict. Still, the writing here is excellent, as you would expect. DFW gets way, way into his character's head, and the piece can be sucked profitably for that kind of juice, but that's the sole reason this doesn't get a red light.

Is this very short piece an excerpt from a forthcoming novel? Would it be published if the author's name were Delbert Fawcett Walcott? These are questions that sprang to this rusty story-reader's mind.

7 comments:

shadow-boXa said...

No way. This may not be a green light as green lights go, but it's one of the best stories to appear in ye olde venerable NYer for some time. Why? Because it challenges the idea of SS mainstays without ever being anything but rigorous, good-faithed and clear-sighted. The attitude underlying this story tries to get to the guts of the (relatively on-paper simple) situation at hand - to X or not to X (substitute 'abort,' 'love,' or 'marry,') - in a way that smacks of psychological verisimilitude as well as moral excitement. As for its not being a 'story' per se - I doth protest! It begins, middles and ends, it slices life, has characters and settings, things change, decisions and realisations are made ... okay, so it's no plot-tastic, firecracking munro or trevor or updike more commonly found in these hallowed pages. But to call it a mere dilemma? Nay, it's more than tht,in the way that Bovary or Crime and Punishment is more than that (but hold, you'll cry, things happen in those books - well, things happen here too, they just don't make it far past the epiglotis - and honestly, nowhere since Revolutionary Road or Gilead have I recently seen things happening in a person's head with such lucidity, complexity and scouring honesty). It has about as complete a storyline as you can get, and the project allow (none of that flim-flam it-could-really-end-here, -or-earlier, or-later, or-jusut-plain-elsewhere) if you apply any of the hoary indices of emotional arc or epiphany (unfashionable notions, maybe, but successfully engineered here precisely because they're not subverted or ironised or commented on - rather seen through with the single-mindedness of a pot- and psych-committed poker player in a big hand. Sheer force of will - isnt that what they call a tour-de-force?)

But perhaps one of the things which really roared alive for this reader was the fact that, in 3 pages, this narrator, through the assiduous and clunkyish mind of Lane Dean (what Frank, to rightbackatcha ya, might call a 'demeaned sensibility'), comes convincingly to psychological ratiocination and linguistic eloquence that fires up the story bit by bit - until its fucking volcanic last section (structurally, too, that subtle convergence of future flash with final now!) where he sees quick as light into her heart, where he realises her values block either way, where she is "gambling that he is good." My God, this last in particular is the end product of a moral matrix put to the hard work more often seen in fat Russian novels than the anaemic simulacra of 'Well Made Short Stories' (or, for that matter, the stereotypical New Yorker Story). And I'll admit it, that "That Lane should please please sweetie let her finish" just killed me.

Moral matrix, you sy? I know we're not dealing with theology at the level of Aquinas or Donne or Calvin or Hopkins here - but who among us does? Does the average young couple dealing with such a huge question at the start of a sort-of relationship - even one that is earnestly, bravely (on DFW's part) Christian? It's not their fault they're trapped in the perfect ethical labyrinth: how, here, to know what the right thing is to do, and how, then, to do it? - which, incidentally, sounds remarkably like the traditional purview of powerful fiction - but boy, does DFW ever not shy from these questions. He never uses weapons tht would be outside Lane's mental armamentarium, but the movement of thought accomplished nonetheless is a real feat of old-school empathy (which is always tied up with compassion) - these characters think with depth and elegance and philosophical rigour and, most importantly, emotional punch and, mostest importantly, do so in a way that makes the reader believe the person next to them, and that dude over there, could also (must also!) think like tht.

Am I being rambling and repetitive? I reckon so. I just reckon such short shrift is nowadays given to instances of good characters dealing in good faith with big issues - instead we have - well, you know what we have: ellipsis, indirection, wan metaphors that take Eliot's objective correlatives or Ruskin's pathetic fallacies to small, pointed, 'freighted' deferments (or cheeks wherein also reside tongues.)

Okay, so I've done what i always do, which is to overpush something i don't really think is 'all that'. Technically, yeah, I could do with a fair bit less of the scenic description and the heavy shadow stuff. I groaned at the start of the 2nd para when we're told "One thing Lane Dean did was to reassure her again that he'd go with her and be there with her." As you so rightly point out: it seems then to be "Hills Like White Elephants" meets every student exercise of interior obliqueness on this topic in which the 'A' bomb, according to some arbitrary, formal rule, is never dropped.

But we go past this in this story. We end up at the station past Irony which is the one after Ellipsis on Papa H's line to ... shiet, stretching the metaphor ... Manville??

It comes through. No, no green light, but, let's say, for this reader, an orange light for this writer whose novels this reader hasn't read, but who is becoming more and more convinced from reading other stuff by this writer that this writer has both the guts and smarts (but more significantly the attitude) to bring fiction to a closer, more scrupulously interrogated relationship with how we actually live and think and make decisions in this crazy badass world.

And that's why, to disagree one last time, I reckon the question of whether the NYer wouldve published this if the writer's name wasn't DFW is a red herring: no-one but DFW seems to be writing this strain of stuff (precious coming from someone who hasnt really read him!) and we should be glad they published it at all.

Grendel said...

I think it's awesome, shadow-boxa, that you got so much from this li'l 3-pager. I could not share your enthusiasm regarding the attempt, intention, or follow-through of this particular piece, but I sure have felt the unexpected excitement you convey -- though about other stories, and not recently. I hope you do go on to read and enjoy DFW. I haven't, and was looking forward to this story as a kind of long-delayed introduction. SOunds like you read this more closely than I did -- as I said, I was taking a baby step. Maybe more than that should be required for writing even a short review. I'm going to read it again and see if any of what you say seems stronger second time around. (Though another thing Frank once said was "You can't count on a second read from the reader.")

It's actually short enough to read online, for those who don't subscribe.

Now I'm really curious what others think.

the plunge said...

Green light, easy. I agree very much with shadow-boxa, though I did take exception with 1 or 2 of his 17,000 parentheticals.

This story did something which I, as barely a journeyman writer, find exceedingly difficult or even impossible to do, which is to effortlessly carry out a clear and full-figured emotional arc. Let alone in 3 pages, let alone in one static scene.

There is so much genuine and earnest confusion in this story--nothing is clear, and things seem both right and wrong, depending on where you're looking from. Hypocrite or Just Human? Sin or integrity? He hasn't loved her, even though he might liked to've. Does this mean he's lied? But he doesn't feel like a liar..but is he?

At the end he wants to do the right thing so badly that we see the gathering of a very dangerous self-deception--he's going to try to convince himself he loves her...and maybe succeed long enough to really screw things up. Watch out!

This story has all the complexity and all the simplicity you could ask for, and I agree with shadow-boxa that no one else could've written it. DFW is an inimitable stylist, and when his subject matter is worthy--which is by no means always--he is nonpareil.

Check out "Good Old Neon" if you want more good fiction by him. That story is absolutely peerless. In fact, it inspired the great work of literature from which I derive my name.

Chuck said...

I agree with the yellow light. Solid writing, but I didn't really like or dislike it. Although it brought to mind "Hills," it reminded me more of Roddy Doyle's "The Joke," which was also in the NYer about two years ago.

I think - as do many - that Hemingway's talent was more evident in his short stories than his novels. But I'm somewhat confused by Grendel's assertion that "Hills" is a story and not simply a dilemma because "the woman got to say stuff -- out loud. Her character got to be developed in the action, producing dramatized conflict."

While "Good People" is as deliberately internal as "Hills" is external, I don't think Hemingway's story is necessarily any better because it has dialogue. Both stories leave
the reader hanging. Both stories
are tight, surreal excerpts set in
ordinary places -- a train station, a public park -- that involve unsure characters struggling with an enormous moral decision. Perhaps the drama of "Hills" is more appealing than the kind in "Good People" because the man in "Hills" had already made up his mind (before the story began), and thus tries to exert his will upon his companion, who calmly resists him. Even though she lets on that she wants to keep the baby she never manages to convince herself -- or the reader -- that that is what she wants do.

"Good People" has that same of ambiguity, but it's more attenuated, too attenuated for my sensibilities in fact; I found the story more tedious than delicate.

One recent NYer story I did like a lot was Lorrie Moore's "Paper Losses." It was very short too, and, like DFW, I hadn't read her work either. Still, I'll take "Good People" over "The Year of Spaghetti" any day.

Dexter said...

It's a little unfair to say of his name wasn't so-and-so would it mbe in the New Yorker. Couldn't that be said about much of what is published? I tend to think of DFW as a solid essayist and I enjoy his attempts at unfootnoted works too.

the plunge said...

Agreed, Dexter. People used to frequently say the inverse about stories that had received poor workshops: "If this story had been in the New Yorker, would it have gotten so ripped apart?"

My answer was always, "Yes, but it would never have been in the New Yorker."

(Anyway, as if being in the New Yorker even means a story is good -- who believes that anymore??)

the plunge said...

Present company obviously excluded.

--Foot in Mouth Sufferer