SHORT STORIES IN FOCUS – The Soul Is Not A Smithy (David Foster Wallace)

David Foster Wallace, who already appears to have secured himself a spot in America’s wing of the Western Canon, was a writer possessed of so many dazzling and unlikely faculties it is only to be expected that some of them should so far have gone unnoticed, or under-noticed, or subsumed in the fog of wholesale veneration. One of these somewhat neglected gifts was for a certain kind of highly tense, expertly imagined set-piece, the kind of cinematic rush of cuts and manoeuvres at which Ian McEwan excels quite consistently, and at which Don DeLillo excels quite inconsistently. Recall the excruciatingly protracted burglary-gone-wrong near the beginning of Infinite Jest, or the violent confrontation between Don Gately and the Canadians in the same novel, or think of the powerful description in the essay ‘Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley’ of an approaching hurricane (and how the writer’s famously polysyllabic style gets whipped up into a string of curt frantic nouns as the big wind hits: “Then the whole knee-high field to the west along Kirby Avenue all of a sudden flattened out in a wave coming toward us as if the field was getting steamrolled”).

As Wallace matured, though, his writing grew denser, more gnomic, harder to read and love, often harder to follow in the simplest sense. Slowly, and at no certain point, the movie-style escapades gave way to a deadening mental stasis. The technicolour landscapes and horizons of the early stories and Infinite Jest began to darken under the spiralling mists of the self, reaching a kind of degree-zero of blackness in the stories collected as Oblivion (of which ‘The Soul is Not A Smithy’ stands as the most emotionally bleak and linguistically byzantine). After the author’s suicide, this thickening in the skies was read by some critics as innately apocalyptic, as an omen of the Bad Thing to come. I don’t think this is right. Wallace’s late-career retreat into the razorish, obscure cave of the self has plenty of precedents, from Leonardo to Rothko, from Gogol to Joyce, and as a phenomenon, it seems to come about whenever an artist is proclaimed as a historical genius before he has undergone the usual, decent necessity of dying (Ulysses draws some of its cosmic power from being the work of a writer in the process of discovering he’s a genius; Finnegans Wake feels like the work of someone who was absolutely and already convinced of the fact).

I mention Wallace’s cinematic tendencies because ‘The Soul Is Not A Smithy’ – in summary, at least – sounds like it is a product of them. The central storyline is as luridly compelling as anything by, say, Wes Craven (indeed, the logic of the horror film informs, or infects, almost every aspect of ‘Smithy’). It is 1960 in Columbus, Ohio. Mr Richard Allen Johnson, substitute Civics teacher, stands before his class of thirty-odd students. Mechanically he copies out the Bill of Rights on the chalkboard. The students are all nine years old or thereabouts; some of them are taking notes, some are slumped boredly on their desks, one boy is looking towards the window, daydreaming. It is a cold, unexceptional day in March and there is dirty snow melting on the ballfields outside. Johnson writes the phrase “due process of law” in order to highlight its importance, as it appears in two separate amendments to the US constitution. Except he hasn’t written that. What he has written is “due process KILL of law”. Evidently surprised, he steps back from the board, and frowns, and erases the unintended word. Some of the students, in their diligence, have reproduced it, too, and quickly scribble it out. The next line Johnson attempts is similarly blemished; it comes out as “the powers not delegated KILL to the United States THEM by the constitution…” Eventually the teacher finds himself unable to write anything but the troubling words KILL THEM KILL THEM ALL, which soon cover every inch of the board. The children, who are already unnerved, finally break into mass panic when their teacher’s body starts to twist itself into weird diabolical angles, and even more so, when a loud, atonal screech exits his distorted mouth. One of the boys vomits. Another rocks back and forth, trembling. The teacher’s chalk-stained hand now stretches out and hardens into a frightening claw, and the screeching gets louder. All but four of the children race out of the classroom, one of them banging his head and drawing blood amidst the chaos. Those who remain are either too shocked or too confused to move. The window-gazing boy continues to daydream. Later, when the police arrive, they construe the four remaining children as hostages, and, seeing the blood on the wall, and the troubling words on the chalkboard, decide to act immediately. They shoot and kill Mr Johnson.

Now, were it presented by Wallace with such bland efficiency, this succession of events might really look like the outline for some “nerve wracking” or “nail biting” TV thriller, with a comeback star, for sure, in the scandalous role of Mr J. But ‘Smithy’ isn’t “about” a teacher going mad, not really, just as Infinite Jest wasn’t “about” a film so entertaining it could kill you. At its heart, this is a story about attention, mindfulness, presence. It is not a hymn to these things, but a slow and very serious meditation on these things. Its seriousness derives not from the surreal violence of its content, but from the alluring, richly patterned contours of its structure. The narrator, for one, is not some invisible Chekhovian eyeball, nor is he Johnson himself, nor is he even a perceptive child; he is an unusually unperceptive child – the window-gazing boy mentioned above, who spends the whole incident captivated by a series of daydreams. Apparently an autistic savant, this nameless child devotes long passages to the layout of the classroom, its bolted-down desks and relief maps and coathooks and its “portraits of all 34 US presidents evenly spaced around all four walls”. But he devotes even more space to the daydreams themselves, which are all narratively connected, and revolve around a blind girl and her missing dog, her mother’s search for it through the snow, and her father’s seemingly unrelated labour. The daydreams (although he rejects them as such) are in fact suffused with images of blindness, absence, work, loss and pain, and often grotesque violence, and might well provide an eerie skeleton key to everything else in the story:

…his mind distracted by concern over his blind daughter’s sadness and the hope that his wife, Marjorie, was OK driving in the blizzard to look for Cuffe, Mr Simmons, using his blue collar strength to easily turn the stalled Snow Boy device over onto its side, reached into the system of blades… the Snow Boy sprang into life on its side while Ruth Simmons’ father had his hand deep inside the intake chute, severing not only Mr Simmons’ hand but much of his forearm… a horrifying full color spray of red snow and human matter jetting at full force straight into the air…

These brightly coloured internal cartoons, which the narrator projects with near-psychic skill onto the classroom’s gridded window, are what he remembers most as an adult (he speaks sometimes as a child and sometimes as a grown-up). So consumed is he by these elaborate visions that he only ever catches quick peripheral glimpses of his teacher’s unfolding breakdown. In fact, Johnson’s eventual death at the hands of the police might well be a consequence of the narrator’s mental and spiritual nonattendance (had he been observant enough to evacuate the room with everyone else he would not have been mistaken for a hostage, and the man might not have been shot), a possibility that never occurs to the narrator, even decades later, when he is an adult haunted by other things.

On the surface, the whole thing might look a bit messy and arbitrary and underworked (these are old charges against Wallace), or even like a form of Dadaist anti-narrative, wherein the potentially meaningful and jauntily meaningless sit side by side, and layers and yet more layers of digression, second-guessing, dream-telling and fantasy intertwine and threaten to obfuscate, and then do obfuscate, the deliciously compelling event at its core.

There probably is an element of that at work (Wallace was, after all, an avant-garde writer to the bone), but as I mentioned, what is really being gestured at here is the dialectic between seeing and not seeing, between presence and absence. Towards the end of the story, in what sounds initially like yet another needless digression, the narrator recounts a trip he and his girlfriend took to the cinema, thirteen years after the Johnson Incident, to see “the traumatic film The Exorcist”. They both leave early in protest. It isn’t Linda Blair’s devil-howls, though, nor her chilling anatomical contortions (with their obvious correspondence to what he had seen in the classroom in 1960) that upset him most. In fact, it is a tiny, split-second moment in the middle of Father Karras’ dream scene:

But spliced very quickly into the sequence is a brief flash of Father Karras’ face, terribly transformed. The face’s white, reptilian eyes and extrudent cheekbones and root-white pallor are plainly demonic – it is the face of evil. This flash of face is extremely brief, probably just enough frames to register on the human eye, and devoid of sound or background, and is gone again and immediately replaced with the Catholic medal’s continued fall. Its very brevity serves to stamp it on the viewer’s consciousness.

The “flash of face” immediately takes residence under his skin and remains there. His girlfriend, however, doesn’t see it. “She may have sneezed, or looked away from the screen for a moment”, he speculates. Orwell considered one of his credentials as a writer to be a “power of facing unpleasant facts”, and we know that Wallace cared deeply about the battle for awareness in our media-drenched world (“this is water” and so on). But Wallace, the most self-aware of writers, knew that even the highest disciplines of attention, the deepest ways of looking, could bring forth hideous things. Hence the ‘plainly demonic’ face in The Exorcist, which is visible only to those who watch closely enough, and pleasantly missed by those who do not. If there is a genuine Orwellian power in facing unpleasant facts, then there is also a kind of negative power in turning away, in looking away from the face of evil. The struggle, for so many of Wallace’s characters, who limp and shuffle through adult life, is finding a humane and survivable balance between the two.

‘Adult life’. That phrase, with its connotations of responsibility, citizenship and slow decay, shows up again and again in Wallace’s work. It occurs in Infinite Jest, and again in his celebrated commencement speech at Kenyon College, and it forms the titles of two conjoined stories in the collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. And, in the gorgeous final movement of ‘The Soul Is Not A Smithy’, it appears once more: “For my own part, I begun having nightmares about the reality of adult life as early as perhaps age seven”. These last pages seem to me some of the most accomplished Wallace ever produced, indeed among the loveliest I have found in recent American fiction. They distinguish him from the pomo pack with whom he’s so commonly bracketed (Coover, Gaddis, DeLillo, etc.) and place him closer to those clear-eyed surveyors of the varieties of American sadness: Frost, Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver. With wonder one watches the story’s dominant devil-tormented complexities give way to a remarkably sincere portrait of the narrator’s father, and of the lifetime he used up in a “quiet, bright room” at his insurance firm, working all day, six days a week, to provide for his wife and children. The father has already been described, but only in passing, and only through the narrow prism of childhood, effectively as the family’s off-stage “breadwinner”, this man called Daddy, who is sometimes home but usually isn’t. Now, at the close of his perplexing little tale, the narrator is ready to account for the other great victim of his inattention, the man who sacrificed the majority of his conscious life (he was often too exhausted to get up for church on Sunday mornings, we are told early on) with the kind of constancy and care that would soon be sneered at, as the Sixties approach like a rude storm. With a plainness of style and emotional generosity we haven’t encountered before (from the narrator, and perhaps also from Wallace), he recalls the old man’s almost tragically modest nightly routine, the quiet rituals that followed every unfulfilling day of work, evening after evening, year after year. I’m going to quote at length, because I think it is appropriate:

His arrival was always between 5:42 and 5:45, and it was usually I who was the first to see him come through the front door. What occurred was almost choreographic in its routine. He came in already turning in order to press the door closed behind him. He removed his hat and topcoat and hung the coat in the foyer closet; he clawed his necktie loose with two fingers, took the green rubber band off of the Dispatch, entered the living room, greeted my brother, and sat down with the newspaper to wait for my mother to bring him a highball… He was a kind, decent, ordinary looking man. His voice was deeply pitched but not resonant. Softspoken, he had a sense of humor that kept his natural reserve from seeming remote or aloof. Even when my brother and I were small, we were aware that he spent more time with us and took the trouble to show us that we were important to him a good deal more than most fathers of that era did (it was many years before I had any real idea of how our mother felt about him)… He had to put his side into the door somewhat in order to make it close all the way, and I would not see his face until he turned to remove his hat and coat, but I can recall that the angle of his shoulders as he leaned into the door had the same quality as his eyes. I could not convey this quality now and most assuredly couldn’t have then, but I know that it helped inform the nightmares. His face was not at all like this on weekends off. It is in hindsight, now, that I believe the dreams to have been about adult life. At the time, I knew only their terror—much of the difficulty they complained of in getting me to lie down and go to sleep at night was due to these dreams. Nor could it always have been dusk at 5:42, though that is what I recall its being, and the inrush of outside air he brought with him as cold, and scented with burnt leaves and the sad way the street smelled at twilight, when all of the houses became the same color and all of their porch lights came on like bulwarks against something unnamable. His eyes when he turned from the door didn’t scare me, but the feeling was somehow related to being scared. Often I still had a truck in my hand. His hat went on the hatrack, his coat shouldered out of, then the coat was folded over his left arm, the closet opened with his right, the coat transferred to right hand while the third wooden coathanger from the left is again removed with the left hand. There was something about this routine that cast shadows deep down in parts of me I could not access on my own. I knew something of boredom by then, of course—at Hayes, and Riverside, or on Sunday afternoons when there was nothing to do—the fidgety type of childhood boredom that is more like worry than despair. But I do not believe I consciously connected the way my father looked at night with the far different and deeper, soul-level boredom of his job, which I knew was actuarial because in 2nd grade everyone in Mrs. Claymore’s homeroom had had to give a short presentation on what our father’s profession was. I knew that insurance was protection that adults applied for in case of risk, and I knew that it had numbers in it because of the documents that were visible in his briefcase when I got to pop its latches and open it for him, and my brother and I had had the building that housed the insurance company’s HQ and my father’s tiny window in its face pointed out to us by our mother from the car, but the actual specifics of his job were always vague. And remained so for many years. Looking back, I suspect that 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.

The narrator’s “lack of curiosity” about his father’s work takes on a melancholy significance when he begins to discern just how unhappy the man was, how exhausted he was so much of the time, and how he never found any relief from the job that was the source of both his unhappiness and his exhaustion (we find out later that he died of a coronary when the boy was sixteen). Mr Johnson’s dramatic collapse and death turns out to be far less affecting than the lifelong toil of this “kind, decent, ordinary-looking” figure, for whom adult life assumes the shape of a gradual suicide, a kind of appallingly protracted blood sacrifice. Anyone who has had or still has a very hardworking and quietly persistent parent will recognise the tender pain the narrator feels when he contemplates the magnitude of the sacrifice that was made for him, and will understand, too, the poignant muddle of admiration and pity which accompanies such pain. The notion that our hero has neglected his own father, and that neglect in such a form might carry real and terrible import, is what animates this last act swerve, throwing a degree of frail, sad, emphatically unsentimental light on the grand guignol that has preceded it. Just before his memorable nightmare, Father Karras mumbles these words: “I should have been there, I wasn’t there, I should have been there…”

‘The Soul Is Not A Smithy’ is a story so clotted with narrative arabesques it would take a review twice this long to even begin to address them all (I have not, for instance, remarked on the mysterious figure of Terence Velan, or on the turmoil that surrounds the loss of a supposedly million-dollar family table, or on the potential significance of contemporary US politics (constantly referred to throughout), or, indeed, on the closing image, which features a disastrous school-play, at once funny and implacably sinister, and which is comprised entirely of one page-long virtuoso sentence (nor have I even mentioned just how flexible and beautiful Wallace’s long sentences are here, how right they feel so much of the time)), but deeper down, way down deep at its heart, I think it has all the simplicity of a dream, of a dream in which you are confronted with something familiar and dreadful and vague, and you don’t know if you should keep looking or turn away.

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