MAY 4, 2014
Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.
“GOOD OLD NEON” is a short story written by David Foster Wallace and originally published just three months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in an issue of the journal Conjunctions. The story was anthologized in the O. Henry Prize Stories 2002 and was included in Oblivion, Wallace’s final collection of short fiction, which was released four years before Wallace committed suicide in the fall of 2008.
“Good Old Neon” is about the life and the death (by suicide, in a car wreck) of a phony, successful, 29-year-old yuppie named Neal, whose ghost narrates the story from beyond the grave in a style that’s uncharacteristically (for Wallace) jargon free and conventionally told.
Much of “Good Old Neon” is about a disappointing round of therapy Neal has with a psychologist named Dr. Gustafson, “a big soft older guy with a big ginger mustache and a pleasant, sort of informal manner.” (A description that brings to mind Robin Williams’s bearded, warmhearted, therapist character from Good Will Hunting, a movie Wallace was fond of, the title of which sounds a lot like “Good Old Neon,” and the story of which is also about a talented young white guy raised by foster parents who is trapped in a cycle of inauthentic behavior.) Despite hoping otherwise, Neal soon finds that Dr. G. “didn’t appear to have anything close to the firepower I’d need to give me any hope of getting helped out of the trap of fraudulence and unhappiness I’d constructed for myself.”
The word “firepower” is used seven times in “Good Old Neon,” and it’s via a fiery explosion that Neal commits suicide and baptizes himself into the land where the hands of the clocks don’t move. “The reality is that dying isn’t bad, but it takes forever. And that forever is no time at all,” he says.
In the story’s final paragraph, just as Neal is crashing his blue Corvette into a highway bridge abutment in the outskirts of the suburbs of Chicago, and just as the car is going up in flames, the perspective jumps to and hovers over “David Wallace,” who’s looking at his 1980 high school yearbook and at a picture of Neal and trying “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.” The Wallace character is also trying to stifle the growling cynical awareness in him that says wanting to imagine your way empathetically into someone else’s psyche is not only impossible but also worthy of the most asshole-ish of smirks. The final lines of the story go: “the realer, more enduring and sentimental part of [Wallace] commanding that other part to be silent as if looking it levelly in the eye and saying, almost aloud, ‘Not another word.’”
As a short story about a doomed and miserable but intelligent American male, “Good Old Neon” has a number of now-canonized literary predecessors. There’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” which is about a Puritan who sees evil in the woods and the last lines of which could as well apply to Neal: “They carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.” Or there’s Hemingway’s Harry from “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in extremis while on a vacation in Africa, regretful and pissed off and feeling like his life has been one unendingly boozy distraction: “He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery […]. It was a talent all right but instead of using it, he had traded on it.” And too there’s J. D. Salinger’s Seymour Glass, a World War II combat veteran who, like Wallace’s Neal, chooses suicide at the end of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”
“Good Old Neon” also alludes to another piece of short fiction, Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych. The allusion comes in the form of a pocket watch heirloom that Neal receives from his stepmom, via her grandfather. Inscribed on the watch is a motto in Latin, respice finem, the translation of which — “Consider the end” — makes Neal’s skin crawl. Respice finem is what’s inscribed on a medallion that Ivan Ilych hangs from his pocket watch when he graduates from law school. And as the Honorable Judge Ilych is writhing and sick and only weeks from his death, he, too, feels, like Neal, that his life has been nothing but a farce. Tolstoy writes:
It occurred to him that what he had taken for a perfect impossibility — that he had not lived his life as one should — might in fact be the truth. It occurred to him that those scarcely detected impulses to struggle against what the people of highest social rank considered good, those feeble tendencies that he barely noticed and immediately suppressed, might in fact be what was real, and everything else what was false. His career, all the arrangements of his life and his family, his social and professional ambitions — each of them might be false. He tried to defend it all to himself, and suddenly the weakness of what he was defending became palpable to him. There was nothing, nothing to defend.
But whereas Ivan Ilych only fleetingly thinks himself a phony, Wallace’s Neal is so obsessed with his inauthenticity that he can seem to have more in common, consciousness-wise, with Dostoevsky’s Underground Man — the wretched, spiteful, rambling star of Notes from Underground — than he does with Tolstoy’s Ilych. (And in fact, Wallace dismissed Ilych in his review of a book about Dostoevsky, saying: “You need only compare the protagonists’ final conversions in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and FMD’s Crime and Punishment in order to appreciate Dostoevsky’s ability to be moral without being moralistic.”) You can almost hear a prophecy of Neal’s suicide when the Underground Man rails:
Even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive sufferings of all sorts, only to gain his point! He will launch a curse upon the world, and as only man can curse (it is his privilege, the primary distinction between him and other animals), maybe by his curse alone he will attain his object — that is, convince himself that he is a man and not a piano-key!
And as far as Russian references go, you wonder, too, if Neal’s name is not a coded reference to nihilism. If you pronounce nihilism with a long e sound at the beginning, (the way nihilo in ex nihilo is still often pronounced) then Neal is a homophone of the Latin word nihil (“nothing”). As if Neal is, like the name of that Pearl Jam song, the “Nothingman.” The American nihilist, par excellence.
While Neal has stuff in common with a variety of unhappy, 19th-century Russian protagonists, he suffers and dies in a way that’s unique to a latter-day American techno-consumerist, i.e., he’s a junky, but what he’s addicted to is himself.
Neal says that what’s driving both his phoniness and his success is “the fraudulence paradox,” the viciously cyclical logic of which goes:
The more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside — you were a fraud. And the more of a fraud you felt like, the harder you tried to convey an impressive or likable image of yourself so that other people wouldn’t find out what a hollow, fraudulent person you really were.
In a 2011 article for The Awl, Maria Bustillos went through David Foster Wallace’s archive at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas and found a number of self-help and psychology books that he owned, highlighted, and marked up. One of these books was The Drama of the Gifted Child by the psychologist Alice Miller, a passage of which describes in similar language Neal’s problem:
Quite often I have been faced with people who were praised and admired for their talents and their achievements, who were toilet-trained in the first year of their lives, and who may even, at the age of one and a half to five, have capably helped to take care of their younger siblings. According to prevailing attitudes, these people — the pride of their parents — should have had a strong and stable sense of self-assurance. But the case is exactly the opposite. They do well, even excellently, in everything they undertake; they are admired and envied; they are successful whenever they care to be — but behind all this lurks depression, a feeling of emptiness and self-alienation, and a sense that their life has no meaning. These dark feelings will come to the fore as soon as the drug of grandiosity fails, as soon as they are not “on top,” not definitely the “superstar,” or whenever they suddenly get the feeling they have failed to live up to some ideal image or have not measured up to some standard. Then they are plagued by anxiety or deep feelings of guilt and shame.
Miller says a symptom of this “self-alienation” is having dreams in which you see yourself as “at least partly dead.” At one point in “Good Old Neon,” Neal has a dream in which he sees a statue of himself in a suburban town square. He’s cleaning and carving the statue as the people from his life come and go around him and as the sun and the moon spin through the sky. “I’m condemned to a whole life of being nothing but a sort of custodian to the statue,” he says. “I’d somehow chosen to cast my lot with my life’s drama’s supposed audience instead of with the drama itself.”
Narcissus was in love with his idealized picture, but neither the grandiose nor the depressive “Narcissus” can really love himself. His passion for his false self makes impossible not only love for others but also, despite all appearances, love for the one person who is fully entrusted to his care: himself.
Likewise, Neal wonders toward the end of the story if his problem isn’t so much one of being phony and self-centered all the time as really just being incapable of love. He says,
Being unable to really love was at least a different model or lens through which to see the problem, plus initially it seemed like a promising way of attacking the fraudulence paradox in terms of reducing the self-hatred part that reinforced the fear and the consequent drive to try to manipulate people intro providing the very approval I’d denied myself.
But then Neal is awake one night watching TV and comes across a rerun of Cheers. The psychologist characters Frasier and Lilith walk down into the bar and Frasier asks Lilith how her day was. She says, “If I have one more yuppie come in and start whining to me about how he can’t love, I’m going to throw up.” The audience bursts into laughter. Neal decides it’s time to die.
Just as Neal’s about to get in his car and go crash it into the bridge abutment, he says,
All right, now we’re coming to what I promised and led you through the whole dull synopsis of what led up to this in hopes of. Meaning what it’s like to die, what happens. Right? This is what everyone wants to know. And you do, trust me. Whether you decide to go through with it or not, whether I somehow talk you out of it the way you think I’m going to try and do or not.
Who is Neal talking to here? Talking who out of doing what?
Early on in the story, Neal says,
What I mean is that it doesn’t really matter what you think about me, because despite appearances this isn’t even really about me. All I’m trying to do is sketch out one little part of what it was like before I died and why I at least thought I did it, so that you’ll have at least some idea of why what happened afterward happened and why it had the impact it did on who this is really about.
Who is Neal referring to here about the story having an impact on? To the “David Wallace” character who’s looking at his high school yearbook and at a picture of Neal in the final page and a half of the story?
If you read “Good Old Neon” and then read D. T. Max’s biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (the epigraph of which is a line from “Neon”), you see one example after another of stuff from Wallace’s life that Neal says happened to him. Being raised by people “of high ideals and values, humanists”; making fun of his sister as a kid and pretending like she was obese and jumping out of the way when she passed him in the hallway; having a knack for mathematical logic and logical paradoxes; having “a killer G.P.A.”; playing a varsity sport; being a philanderer with women; being on the professional fast track by the time he was in his 20s; getting into religion and meditation as a way of dealing with his troubles; living in the vicinity of the cornfields of Illinois; committing suicide. At the end of the story, when Neal’s ghost is hovering over Wallace and their high school yearbook, and as the latter is thinking about how impossible it is to try and pass through the exterior image of a person and to enter into the realm of his psyche, you wonder if what’s really going on in this story is something more akin to what happens between Dorian Gray and his picture, or William Wilson and his double, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk, or the two Tyler Durdens in Fight Club, or even between Martin Sheen and his reflection in the mirror in Hearts of Darkness, which is to say, you wonder if what’s going on here is a sort of a spiritual/philosophical death match, a duel between two opposite tendencies that are internal to a psyche but in the world of these stories are teased into two separate but similar-looking characters, into doubles or doppelgängers who both need each other and then perversely also try to destroy each other. And the dialectic that these characters are working out is Apollo v. Dionysus, the superego v. the id, the false self v. the true self, the rational civilized scientific order v. spontaneity and passion and a community of spirit. The drama that makes these stories interesting is that there’s no boring, middling, mediating ego term to calm things down and to make concessions and to prevent the dialectic from exploding. Hence: Dorian Gray stabs himself; William Wilson stabs himself; Mr. Hyde is either going to be executed or to commit suicide; The Hulk goes Smash; Tyler Durden shoots himself; Martin Sheen has a heart attack and has to be flown off the set of Apocalypse Now. And as for “Good Old Neon,” the struggle is between Neal, the golden child, against the “real, more enduring and sentimental” David Wallace who’s looking at their pictures in the high school yearbook. It’s the struggle between a nihilist who’s yet actively making the society function, and a believer who has a desire for solid, non-alienated, human relationships, but who’s quietly, sadly, sitting in a recliner and watching the nihilists run.
When the Grand Inquisitor and Jesus face off in The Brothers Karamazov (and if there were ever a literary dialectical death match, this is it: Christ v. Anti-Christ), the Inquisitor talks and talks and talks, explaining with precision and with logic why the elaborate lies and laws and ideology of the Church are necessary to keep people happy and at peace. Jesus listens, says nothing, then embraces the Inquisitor.
Is that what’s going on in “Good Old Neon”? That Neal is talking, and David Wallace is listening? And that what’s darkly, deceptively tragic about all this is that “Good Old Neon” itself is still more or less a symptom of a self-centered need to perform, to show off, to be impressive to others (even if it’s with the most excruciating, impeccable, brutal honesty)? That to explain and to show very clearly in elegant prose what a phony, self-centered piece of shit you are doesn’t make you any less of a phony, self-centered piece of shit?
It’s interesting to look at the differences in the endings of “Good Old Neon” and Good Will Hunting. Both stories have their talented young men alone in their cars, driving off westwardly into a new state of being. The closing credits of Good Will Hunting show Will on his way to California in order to try and have an actual, full-on, loving relationship with Minnie Driver’s character, Skylar, while Elliott Smith’s “Miss Misery” plays on the soundtrack. In “Good Old Neon,” Neal is driving into the cornfields in the exurbs of Chicago in order to kill himself privately and to, as it were, run through life’s fire escape. Will decides to grow up. Neal decides to give up. It’s all very similar to what happens in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, in which Binx Bolling is, like Neal, 29 years old and is going through an apocalyptic life crisis and feeling like he’s living in “the great shithouse of scientific humanism.” Binx says, “On this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.” But Percy doesn’t make his Binx commit suicide or go permanently on the run. He has him get married and commit his energy to someone who’s other than himself.
Is “Good Old Neon” then a sort of vivid, pessimistic prophecy? A vision of a psyche that for some troublingly deep, fundamental, almost a priori reason is both unable and unwilling to grow up and to evolve and to participate in the world as a responsible adult? Could it be that this anxiety is also what’s hiding behind prose fiction’s societal malaise, and behind the troubles Wallace was having while he worked on The Pale King? That plain old unadorned narrative prose has just become more or less culturally impotent and exhausted and unable to extricate itself from the spiral of inauthenticity? Could it be there’s a not-arbitrary reason the David Wallace character at the end of “Good Old Neon” is looking at a picture of his doppelgänger Neal, one that’s embedded in the concatenation of little pictures that constitute the page of a high school yearbook, a text that in combining images and words is basically a proto-graphic novel? As if, for whatever obscurely Hegelian dialectical reasons, the psyche of the society has taken a very clever atavistic twist and is unfolding from itself a kind of reversion to the era of the ideogram, the hieroglyph, the pictograph? And that a reader today just can’t trust or take seriously or have a mature, adult, non-solipsistic relationship with an author who doesn’t know how to build something necessarily visual into the stuff that they make? And could it be that if you’re a writer who is unwilling or unable to mix design and to mix images into the fiber of the material you’re working on, then, reader-writer rhetoric-wise, you will be Talking to a Wall? That you’ll be like WALL-E, sorting through the detritus, left behind on the withered husk of an earth, while your youthful, tech-savvy, image-fluent usurpers will be up in their orbiters, preparing for the mission to Jupiter?
There’s more than a few young readers out there who, when really getting into the thick of the plot of Infinite Jest, thought secretly to themselves, “Jesus, it’s over. Prose fiction is over. And this book is its elegy.” Wallace’s footnotes were a way to build a fractal structure visually into a work of prose, and thereby to communicate through a method that was mimetic of his readers’ daily state of mind. But Wallace was part of the last generation of writers to grow up without video games or PCs or the Internet, and for those of us whose minds were structured in imitation of all that unhealthily febrile textual kinesis, we are craving desperately a literary movement that can express itself in just those terms. Cartoonists like Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Seth, Adrian Tomine, Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, and Alison Bechdel have been doing this since the ’90s via the tradition of comics and the graphic novel (and Art Spiegelman and Alan Moore and Frank Miller did it before them as predecessors in the 1980s), but the circumstances have never been better/more dire/more fecund for the children of the ’80s and the children of the ’90s to shoulder some responsibility and to just fucking grow up already and, in the still-smoldering wreckage of Wallace’s demise, to fuse together a new kind of writing, a new kind of reading, and a new kind of escape from the good old consumerist death trap.
Tim Peters is a writer and graphic designer whose work has appeared in The Point, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and The McNeese Review, and online at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.
*The photographs in this article were discovered in October 2013, at the Champaign County Historical Archives, located within the Urbana Free Library, in Urbana, Illinois.