Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  The popular view of Wallace was of a coolly cerebral writer who feared fiction’s emotional connection. But that’s not what he was afraid of. His stories have it the other way around: they are terrified of the possibility of no emotional connection. This is what his men truly have in common, far more than misogyny: they know the words for everything and the meaning of nothing. Which is a strange idea for fiction to explore, given that fiction has a vocational commitment to the idea that language is where we find truth. For Wallace, though, the most profound truths existed in a different realm: “I think that God has particular languages,” he said once, “and one of them is music and one of them is mathematics.” Certainly in Brief Interviews our everyday human language always falls short, even in its apparent clarity, especially in its clarity. The curious thing about these men is how they use their verbosity as a kind of armor, an elaborate screen to be placed between the world and the self. In B.I. #42, a man tries to come to terms with the fact his father was a lifelong toilet attendant in a public bathroom. Speaking of his case, he utilizes dozens of fancy words for excretions (flatus, egestion, extrusion, feculence, lientery, transnudation) yet his own basic emotions are not available to him:“Yes and do I admire the fortitude of this humblest of working men? The stoicism? The Old World grit? To stand there all those years, never one sick day, serving? Or do I despise him, you’re wondering, feel disgust, contempt for any man who’d stand effaced in that miasma and dispense towels for coins?”


  “ . . . ”


  “What were the two choices again?”

  In B.I. #59, a boy, inspired by the TV show Bewitched has a masturbatory fantasy of “freezing” real life with a wave of his hand so that he might have sex in public while all around him are “paused.” But with a mania for the consistency of propositions, he is forced to expand upon the fantasy’s “first premise or aksioma” in an infinite direction. First he needs only to freeze the room he’s in, but then what of the building? So then the building, and then the country, and then the continent, and then the planet, each stage necessitating the next until:In order not to betray the fantasy’s First Premise through causing incongruities in the scientifically catalogued measurements of the Solar Day and the Synodic Period, the earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun must itself be halted by my supernatural hand’s gesture, an orbit whose plane . . .

  But I’ll stop there. There are times when reading Wallace feels unbearable, and the weight of things stacked against the reader insurmountable: missing context, rhetorical complication, awful people, grotesque or absurd subject matter, language that is—at the same time!—childishly scatological and annoyingly obscure. And if one is used to the consolation of “character,” well then Wallace is truly a dead end. His stories simply don’t investigate character; they don’t intend to. Instead they’re turned outward, toward us. It’s our character that’s being investigated. But this is not quite metafiction. The metafictionist used recursion to highlight the mediating narrative voice; to say essentially “I am water, and you are swimming through me.” Recursion, for the metafictionist, means: looping back, recurring, in infinite regressions. This is not neutral, it is being written, I am writing it, but who am ‘I’? Et cetera. What’s “recursive” about Wallace’s short stories is not Wallace’s narrative voice but the way these stories run, like verbal versions of mathematical procedures, in which at least one of the steps of the procedure involves rerunning the whole procedure. And it’s we who run them. Wallace places us inside the process of recursion, and this is why reading him is so often emotionally and intellectually exhausting.

  The apotheosis of this technique is “The Depressed Person.” It’s not that the depressed person is an unforgettable character. She’s banal, typical. It’s that when you’re reading “The Depressed Person” you’re forced to run her recursive thought processes through your own head, to pursue her self-serving self-hatreds through those endless footnotes, to speak with her that absurd therapy-speak, to live with her in the suffocating solipsism of her mind. Many readers will object to this. And there are other problems, besides: sometimes in the attempt to capture a brain from the inside, Wallace aims too low, and patronizes. Much of the therapy terminology in “The Depressed Person” amounts to cheap laughs, gotten too cheaply. (“I have a grossly sentimental affection for gags,” he admitted.) Support System, Blame Game, Inner-Child-Focused Experiential Therapy Retreat Weekend . . . The idea that specialized language represents the fall within the tragic fall is not news and was territory already extensively covered by a slew of American writers: Thomas Pynchon, Bret Easton Ellis, A. M Homes, Douglas Coupland, et cetera. Wallace’s real innovation was his virtuosic use of the recursive sentence, a weird and wonderful beast that needs quoting at length to be appreciated:As a schoolgirl, the depressed person had never spoken of the incident of the boy’s telephone call and the mendacious pantomime with that particular roommate—a roommate with whom the depressed person hadn’t clicked or connected at all, and whom she had resented in a bitter, cringing way that had made the depressed person despise herself, and had not made any attempt to stay in touch with after that endless sophomore second semester was finished—but she (i.e., the depressed person) had shared her agonizing memory of the incident with many of the friends in her Support System, and had also shared how bottomlessly horrible and pathetic she had felt it would have been to have been that nameless, unknown boy at the other end of the telephone, a boy trying in good faith to take an emotional risk and to reach out and try to connect with the confident roommate, unaware that he was an unwelcome burden, pathetically unaware of the silent pantomimed boredom and contempt at the telephone’s other end, and how the depressed person dreaded more than almost anything ever being in the position of being someone you had to appeal silently to someone else in the room to help you contrive an excuse to get off the telephone with.

  Two simple syntactic units (“The depressed person had never spoken of the incident of the boy’s telephone call” and “The boy was pathetically unaware of the incident”) have been inserted into a third (“The depressed person dreaded being like the boy”) to make a recursive sentence in which prepositional phrases lie inside one another like Russian dolls: The depressed person, who had never spoken of the incident of the boy’s phone call of which the boy was pathetically unaware, dreaded being like the boy. (And that’s not even including the further recursion of the roommate.) In the process, the embedded “incident” is rerun in its entirety, here, and elsewhere in “The Depressed Person,” as the poor girl reflects on her “dread” and thus sets the procedure off again, running the whole story through once more. This is linguistic recursion—defined as the capacity to embed sentences in other sentences. For many linguists, notably Noam Chomsky, this form of recursion is fundamental to language; it’s recursion that permits extension without limitation and makes language a system characterized by “discrete infinity.”79 Infinity was of course a fruitful subject for Wallace (besides Infinite Jest, in 2003 he wrote a nonfiction book about it: Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity). He had a gift for articulating our conflicted response to this strangest of ideas. For if we feel a certain horror before infinity—because it transcends human scale and is unthinkable—we also hear in it the suggestion of the sacred. As a concept, infinity seems to bear the trace of God’s language, of Larkin’s “deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” Forever, overhead. In “The Depressed Person,” though, infinity is horrific: it has been turned inward and burrows wormholes in the self. The effect on the reader is powerful, unpleasant. Quite apart from being forced to share one’s own mental space with the depressed person’s infinitely dismal consciousness, to read those spiral sentences is to experience that dread of circularity embedded in the old joke about recursion (to understand recursion you must first understand recursion), as well as the existential vertigo we feel when we stand between two mirrors. One suffers to read it,
but suffering is part of the point:There’s always been a strong and distinctive American distaste for frustration and suffering. . . . It seems distinctly Western-industrial, anyway. In most other cultures, if you hurt, if you have a symptom that’s causing you to suffer, they view this as basically healthy and natural, a sign that your nervous system knows something’s wrong. For these cultures, getting rid of the pain without addressing the deeper cause would be like shutting off a fire alarm while the fire’s still going. But if you just look at the number of ways that we try like hell to alleviate mere symptoms in this country—from fast-fast-fast-relief antacids to the popularity of lighthearted musicals during the Depression—you can see an almost compulsive tendency to regard pain itself as the problem.

  For the depressed person pain has certainly been fetishized, pathologized: she can’t feel simple sadness, only “agony”; she’s not merely depressed, she is “in terrible and unceasing emotional pain.” Meanwhile, another kind of pain—the kind one feels for other people in their suffering—is inaccessible to her. When one of her Support System becomes terminally ill, the only pain this causes her (i.e., the depressed person) is the realization that she doesn’t really care at all, which in turn sparks in her mind the dreaded possibility that she might in fact be “a solipsistic, self-consumed, endless emotional vacuum and sponge.” She is disgusted by herself, and the disgust causes her yet more pain and pica-gnawed80 hands, and on it goes in its terrible cycle. The last lines of the story put the snake’s tongue in its own mouth: “How was she to decide and describe—even to herself, looking inward and facing herself—what all she’d so painfully learned said about her?”

  The spiral sentences, the looping syntax, the repetition, the invasion of clinical vocabulary—none of this is mere “formal stunt-pilotry.” Nor does it add up to nonsense, or “stream of consciousness” if sloppiness and incomprehensibility is meant by that term: however long they are, Wallace’s procedures are always grammatically immaculate. The point is to run a procedure—the procedure of another person’s thoughts!—through your own mind. This way you don’t merely “have” the verbal explanation. You feel it and know it:Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being. If you operate . . . from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still “are” human beings, now.

  A lot of Brief Interviews is tough and painful: it’s doing the first half of that job. The rest of Brief Interviews is doing the other.


  We’ve all got this “literary” fiction that simply monotones that we’re all becoming less and less human, that presents characters without souls or love, characters who really are exhaustively describable in terms of what brands of stuff they wear, and we all buy the books and go like “Golly, what a mordantly effective commentary on contemporary materialism!” But we already “know” U.S. culture is materialistic. This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. It doesn’t engage anybody. What’s engaging and artistically real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn’t have a price? And can these capacities be made to thrive? And if so, how, and if not, why not?

  One way out of this bind is to present, on the page, complex human beings. Sensitive souls, able to plumb their own emotional depths, capable of interesting thoughts despite the deadening times. How many of Roth’s and Bellow’s protagonists are academics, psychiatrists, intellectuals, or just motormouths? And when Henry James spoke of “fine awareness,” it was his contention that only characters in possession of this quality could elicit the same quality in their readers:Their being finely aware—as Hamlet and Lear, say, are finely aware—makes absolutely the intensity of their adventure, gives the maximum of sense to what befalls them. We care, our curiosity and our sympathy care, comparatively little for what happens to the stupid, the coarse and the blind; care for it, and for the effects of it, at the most as helping to precipitate what happens to the more deeply wondering, to the really sentient.

  But Wallace’s fiction cares what happens to the stupid, the coarse, and the blind. In fact, it is preoccupied by the stupid, the coarse, and the blind to a peculiar degree, as if the necessary counterpoint to the overintellectualized self is the ingenuous self. He seemed to spy in such characters—so unlike himself!—an escape from the “postmodern trap.” Take the simple fellow in “Signifying Nothing,” a young man whose very coarseness is the apparent key to his salvation. The story opens like this:Here is a weird one for you. It was a couple of years ago, and I was 19, and getting ready to move out of my folks’ house, and get out on my own, and one day as I was getting ready, I suddenly get this memory of my father waggling his dick in my face one time when I was a little kid.

  As pure event, this feels no more or less traumatic than the depressed person’s original complaint.81 But in the young man’s case it is a wound he doesn’t even know how to worry: “I kept trying to think about why my father would do something like that, and what he could have been thinking of, like, what it could have meant.” He is without answers. In his confusion he becomes angry, but when he finally confronts his father with the memory, his form of interrogation is amusingly direct: “What the fuck was up with that?” In response his father gives him only a silent look of “total disbelief, and total disgust,” and the silence grows; an estrangement occurs; for a year the young man does not see his family. Then something strange. Without extensive analysis, without endless debate, without indulging in bouts of self-interrogation, he heals himself:As time passed, I, little by little, got over the whole thing. I still knew that the memory of my father waggling his dick at me in the rec room was real, but, little by little, I started to realize, just because I remembered the incident, that did not mean, necessarily, my father did. . . . Little by little, it seemed like the moral of a memory of any incident that weird is, anything is possible.

  Generally, we refuse to be each other. Our own experiences feel necessarily more real than other people’s, skewed by our sense of our own absolute centrality. But this young man in his simplicity does the difficult thing: he makes a leap into otherness. This empathic imaginative leap—into his own father’s head—miraculously bypasses the depressed person’s equivalent recursive maze. This simple thought—that his father’s (non)experience of the memory might be as real to his father as the young man’s own positive memory of it is real—turns out to be revelatory. It’s another recursive sentence, but this time, instead of tunneling inward, it leads out—to the infinite unknowability of other people. Maybe the incident is, after all, the kind of narrative Macbeth described: “A tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.”

  You don’t hear the word parable much in connection with Wallace, but I don’t know why not—he wrote a lot of them. What else do you call a story like “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (XI)?” A man has a dream that he is blind, and then, the next day:I’m incredibly conscious of my eyesight and my eyes and how good it is to be able to see colors and people’s faces and to know exactly where I am, and of how fragile it all is, the human eye mechanism and the ability to see, how easily it could be lost, how I’m always seeing blind people around with canes and strange-looking faces and am always just thinking of them as interesting to spend a couple seconds looking at and never thinking they had anything to do with me or my eyes, and it’s really just a lucky coincidence that I can see instead of being one of those blind people I see on the subway.

  Here “other-blindness” has been actualized. A simple route to a great revelation. And again, in “The Devil Is a Busy Man,” a country hick who can’t get anyone to take, for free, an “Old Harrow With Some Teeth A Little Rusted,” attracts avid consumers as soo
n as he lists it in the classifieds for five dollars:I asked Daddy about what lesson to draw here and he said he figured it’s you don’t try and teach a pig to sing and told me to go on and rake the drive’s gravel back out of the ditch before it fucked up the drainage.

  Another lesson might be: value in capitalism is measured not by real worth but by lack.

  The coarse, the blind, the stupid. As effective as these parables are, there is something sentimental about them—albeit a sentiment as old as fiction itself. As city dwellers yearn for Virgil’s pastoral, so intellectuals will tend to romanticize the pure relations they imagine exist between simple people. Wallace was on guard against this as he was against everything (“Yes and do I admire the fortitude of this humblest of working men? The stoicism? The Old World grit?”), and yet still it slips through, here, as well as in the nonfiction, where we find instinctive sportsmen, service-industry workers, farmers, and all kinds of down-home folks (usually from his home state of Illinois) receiving that warmness Wallace could never quite muster for hyperreflexive intellectuals more or less like himself.82

  But in their defense it should be said that the philosophical significance of these tales is not really that the selves involved are purer than the rest of us in their stupidity, coarseness, and blindness. It’s that they have sought—even momentarily—relationships that look outward, away from self. When the young man in “Signifying Nothing” finally reconnects with his father, it is at the birthday of his sister, in his family’s “special restaurant,” and the ice is broken not by anguished discussion or a sudden moment of personal insight but by a lame family joke shared by all. Which brings us finally to Wittgenstein’s second option, the way out of solipsism into communality:And so he trashed everything he’d been lauded for in the “Tractatus” and wrote the “Investigations,” which is the single most comprehensive and beautiful argument against solipsism that’s ever been made. Wittgenstein argues that for language even to be possible, it must always be a function of relationships between persons (that’s why he spends so much time arguing against the possibility of a “private language”). [My italics]

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