11/26 David Foster Wallace & Sherman Alexie

Joe Pfister

While I wasn't a fan of the title, I very much enjoyed the rest of "What You Pawn I Will Redeem." The story has a frenetic energy, and reminded me of the stories from Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son (i.e., told from the perspective of an outsider, sometimes on a quest, often involving drugs and/or alcohol). I liked Alexie's clipped sentences and rapid, untagged dialogue, which really drove the story forward for me. Each character we encounter is vividly drawn, and like Denis Johnson stories in Jesus' Son, I soon discovered that this would be a tale where the protagonist—while a, more or less, good person—gets in their own way at every turn.

I realize I'm probably in the minority on this, but I've struggled quite a bit with every DFW story I've read. As writers, I believe that every sentence we write should strive to provide the reader with some new nugget of information. That's how narrative develops. However, that is a "rule" that DFW continually breaks, and I feel we'll arrive at the same point he made six pages earlier (i.e., the narrator believes he's a "fraud," etc.). Especially now, when readers have such a short attention span, conciseness is something I think needs to be embraced.

I had many of the same problems I had with "Good Old Neon" that I had with "Forever Overhead": namely, a lack of concision. How many times do we need to have the rungs on the ladder, the sky and the pool and people below described again—only in a slightly different way—before the story can move forward? While I had more patience, knowing this was a much shorter story, I found myself with the same irritations.

Sheila Traub

“Forever Overhead” -- 1999 

David Foster Wallace

It’s frightening to come to David Foster Wallace tabula rasa, which is what I’m doing today.  I read “Forever Overhead” after I read “Good Old Neon.” We have been asked to comment on each story entirely apart from the other.  That’s hard: I can’t unknow the thoughts “Good Old Neon” has already produced in me. I’m unsure if the fact that I read “Forever Overhead” filled with the fear of suicide by the 13-year old at the end was informed by my having come to it second. I don’t think so.  I feel desperation in this story, which a quick Google search indicated may be Wallace’s most optimistic story.  I think Wallace already knew the end he would seek himself when he wrote this story.  You can read “hello” as positive and a triumph for the 13-year old.  Another reading could be that he has just taken a plunge himself towards oblivion.

Just who the narrator is fascinates and alarms.  Not knowing gives a powerful feeling of irony to his words.

One of the things that kept running through my mind is how The Screwtape Letters might have affected David Foster Wallace -- or not.  That book is a satire that is often given to young boys on their 13th birthday.  I wish I could wind time  backwards and see that DFW read it. 

“Good Old Neon” -- 2001
David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace’s protagonist, Neal, adopts his own “fraudulence” as a key driver for his decision to self-destruct, but inability to communicate with other people is the real deal, I suspect.  The fraudulence theme feels like one of the ultimate manipulations in the story.  He announces it so early on in the story, maybe less than a third of the way in and directly Neal does so, the reader is manipulated into his hanging onto his words even more intently.  The reader is manipulated into intense desire to see what happens when Neal kills himself, and what happens afterwards.  It’s a primal need, I think, to understand death.  The final turn of the screw -- of many turns of the screw here -- in this brilliant, brilliant story occurs when David Wallace suddenly puts himself smack into it.  It is the one part of the story that doesn’t feel manipulative to me.  The final sentence of the footnote that serves as an epilogue as well as the story is simply brilliant. 

“Not another word.” 

What we’ve got here is the ultimate in discrepant awareness; it’s an acrostic that cannot be solved.  Words cannot admit any of us fully into the mind of others. 

“What You Pawn I Will Redeem” -- 4/21/2003
Sherman Alexie
New Yorker

I’m a sucker for a good odyssey tale and this one is no exception.  The author pulls you into the wacky logic of Jackson Jackson, the native American who mentions asocial disorder in self-describing.  His voice is consistent and credible.

Just before Jackson starts his 24-hour odyssey, he talks about how he is disappearing piece by piece.  He ends it by reclaiming the yellow bead (on his grandmother’s ceremonial regalia) which he sees is “part of me.”  So by his standards, he has won.  In the process, he is generous to others and the recipient of others’ generosity in return.  He makes a few wisecracks that are appealing:  Sherman Alexie’s sense of humor is fun.  (Jackson claims that the two funniest tribes are “Indians and Jews.”)

One thing that eluded me was how at the Seven Eleven he could buy liquor.  Maybe Washington State is different from the east or maybe it’s sold under the counter -- or maybe I just missed the point.

I’m glad Alexie stopped the story before Jackson either pawned the regalia or had it stolen from him while he was unconscious.

Sara Arnell

Forever Overhead

I like how DFW connects space and time.  When he finally jumps, he not only jumps into the water, he jumps into a new reality for himself.  “Hello” is his greeting to the new world he has entered.  The stream of consciousness and his observations are highly descriptive of what he thinks and sees. The reader gets a very complete picture.

Good Old Neon

The first thing I thought is who the narrator is?  Is it DFW?  A spirit?
This piece actually makes you question yourself as you read it….and think about if you say and do things only to please others.  It makes you look at the idea of authenticity in human to human interactions. The Fraudulence Paradox is a never-ending twisting idea that flip-flops on itself. It is an eerie story knowing the author committed suicide.

What You Pawn I Will Redeem

Jackson Jackson is a homeless, alcoholic Indian who lives in Seattle.  He spends all his money on food and alcohol.  All his friends seem to disappear.  He is alone and on a mission to get his Grandmothers outfit from a pawn shop.  I think he feels trapped in his “Indian-ness” which makes him part of a larger, repressed culture that he identifies with.  It is his Grandmother’s outfit that finally sets him free and allows him to experience at least a moment of joy.

Micah Weiss

Good Old Neon:
I think this is a truly great story.
I had read this story earlier this school year, and my thoughts on it have remained.  I see this story as DFW struggling with the death of a former acquainted  someone whom DFW thought had his shit together, and whose suicide seemed to make little sense to DFW.  Also, I think DFW thought of the guy as a fraud when DFW knew him, and that this construction of self-discovery is how DFW sort of made sense of it. 
Its probably the worst sort of intellectual practice to project my own experience onto an interpretation of another author's work, particulaly a dead author whom I cannot ask if I am correct, but in my own life, when I was 27, an old classmate of mine died under mysterious (not mentioned in the obit) circumstances (drug overdose, I believe, though I have never had any confirmation).  It just so happened that this former class mate bullied me for many years, over three and a half, spanning grades 7-10, and when he died, I kind of had a bit of a time working through my feelings (I was happy he was dead, guilty about that happiness, and sad when I learned the man I hadn't seen in over ten years had a daughter), and I can see DFW working out something like that in this story, though it probably isn't there, and I am likely projecting.
To take the fraudulence a step further, this character is clearly a sociopath.  In my other class, during the discussion there was disagreement on this, but a sociopath is technically someone who lacks empathy.  Usually people use the word sociopath when they mean something more sinister.  A sociopath can have sympathy, and morality, and lots of other complex personality traits to make up for the lack of empathy.  I think this character is like that, and realizes how he hurts people, and having sympathy, rather than true empathy, and being self-reflective, I think he takes the only action open to someone who is broken and dangerous, but essentially good.  I am reminded somewhat of Seymour Glass' suicide in the Salinger story "A good Day for Banana Fish," where an essentially good person has become monstrous and does the only good thing.  Crazy shit,I know, but the story is pretty crazy. 

Forever Overhead: 
I did not like this story as much as Good Old Neon, I thought it was less interesting over all.  Though the writing, as I have found with all DFW I've read, was spectacular.  The third paragraph about wet dreams might have been the best paragraph I've read this year with the best sentence.  I had a fine time reading the story because of that, even though the story was little more than an embarrassing moment writ large, expanded to the extent of absurdity.  I like the story as an exercise in that way, and the way it touches on the issues of adolescence and his family, and other minor sociological things shows me that there is a little more at stake, but it didn't have the kind of awe-inspiring depth that Good Old Neon had.  
And I just remembered we aren't supposed to be comparing the stories, but honestly, I find that nearly impossible the way a weekly class is structured.  
By itself, Forever Overhead is beautifully written, expanding the micro world of a jump off a diving board into a macro level experience.  I think this is the essential brilliance and yet the essential lie of the story that in the end causes it to fail for me.  Though I'll read it again only for the sentences, and that alone makes it a good story, its hard for me to take it too seriously based on what's at stake.  

What You Pawn I Will Redeem:
This is the first story of the year where I had a real emotional reaction to the ending.  There was a lot in the story that i might have not liked had the ending gone down the more predictable path of the narrator not getting the regalia.  In a lot of ways, allegorical, symbolic, and sadly real, the story was drenched in the tragic politics of being Indian in America, but the ending seemed to be trying to move away from that intellectual content, or maybe to add to it a deeper non-political agenda, and for me the story was a stunning success.  There was a train wreck element to it, you watch the narrator fritter away his opportunities, and blow his chances on booze and nonsense, a great deal of sympathy for the character is earned through his constant fuck-ups, and you just know he won't get the money, even while you root for him to get the money.  
I am somewhat familiar with his work, having read "Lone ranger. . ." and I thought this story was an interesting change from those stories.  While he deals with lying and mythologizing in those stories he is really surreal in this story on a level I didn't see (or don't remember) from that earlier collection.   I suppose I am comparing again, but I can't help it.  Either he is making a stylistic transition, or its been a longer amount of time than I remember since I read the "Lone ranger. . ." stories.

Kevin Zambrano

Forever Overhead

I'm a big fan of DFW, but for some reason I've always considered this story overrated. It was one of the first stories I read of his, and I reread his stories a lot. This one I've read maybe twice. For some reason, it hit me differently this time. The intellectual stuff about time and coming of age seemed to slip away and I got caught up in the beauty of the language, the way each sentence seems so perfectly crafted in itself and perfectly placed in the story. I enjoyed reading it quite a lot. As much as I've read DFW I forget sometimes how great he is at making sentences.

Good Old Neon

This is one of my favorite short stories. I've lost count of how many times I've read it. The switch in perspective at the end has always been what sealed this story's greatness for me. And it's really easy to identify with the narrator, at least for me, because who doesn't feel sometimes (or most of the time) like everything you do is empty and false, and the realization that so many people feel that way is comforting, I guess. This is the first time I've read this since reading DT Max's biography of DFW, and I noticed a lot of autobiographical stuff in this story, not from the "David Wallace" parts, but in Neal's own life story. This story has always felt very autobiographical to me, like DFW was sitting there wrestling with his own demons (and in no small part because he killed himself, too), and seeing the little details line up here and there convinced me even more that this was a very personal story for Wallace.

What You Pawn I Will Redeem

I've never read Sherman Alexie before. I loved this. I'm going to buy an Alexie book next chance I get. It reminded me a lot of Jesus' Son, that sort of realism with a little bit of soulfulness and magic. Very simple writing but totally lively and full of character. Well structured, well paced. And the story itself moved wonderfully. The only real "Native American writer" — I mean, someone with that heritage who writes about that heritage — I've read is Louise Erdrich. She's not my taste, really. Too dry. The couple things I've read of hers seem like they're written by someone who thought for too long about what a "good" story entails. I found Alexie a lot more humane (perhaps this is the wrong word, but I can't think of another) in an honest way, and his writing much more alive. It's pretty unfair to compare them though, I think, but that's the first thing that came to my mind: "This is a lot better than Louise Erdrich." I just finished the story right now so the thematic stuff I'm still mulling over, but I got the general sense of it being about the burden of history, especially as it relates to Native Americans in modern times. I need to think about it more, though. I have a feeling that this is a story I'll be thinking about for a long time, and rereading often.

Ryan Strong

1. Forever Overhead by David Foster Wallace 

In my experience, very few people can pull of an effective second person story. David Foster Wallace did a fantastic job in "Forever Overhead." With the exception of Junot Diaz, I can not think of another contemporary author with a tight handle on the second person method of storytelling. David Foster Wallace's prose made the experiences of this thirteen year old child believable. There was nothing disingenuous about this piece. I am not sure how old David was when he wrote this story, but it worked. He captured the mind of a child.  

2. Good Old Neon by David Foster Wallace 

In general, I do not care for word repetition in fiction. It is just a personal matter of taste. In his second short story David, he repeated "I'm a fraud" too much for me. It reminded me of J.D Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. I absolutely hated that novel. It's clear our narrator feels guilty for his privileged existence and can not understand his depression. That's understandable and believable. Everyone knows money and affluent lives do not always equate to a happy life. (These factors do not hurt, but I digress) That said, David Foster Wallace did a lot of a fantastic job at highlighting mental disorders and depression among upper middle class America. I'm sure people from well-to-do suburbs have problems too. These are the only two stories I have read by David Foster Wallace, but he appeared to be the voice of this aspect of America.  

3. What You Pawn I Will Redeem by Sherman Alexie

I am a huge fan of Sherman Alexie, but this short story is completely new to me. I believe it was published in Noon Magazine, which I was unfamiliar with prior to your class. I thought the pacing and structure of the story worked well. Our main character has 24 hours to come up with the money. Alexie broke the segments down hour by hour which adds to the momentum of the piece. The only aspect of this story I did not care for was the recycling of themes. If the reader is new to Alexie's work he or she may have missed it. However, the themes of Native American identity and , perhaps more noticeably, alcoholism appears in a lot of the author's fiction. Once a reader is familiar with his work, it may come off as predicable and overused.


Forever Overhead

A million strung together similes and metaphors make up a thirteen year old boy’s perception of the world. It seemed more like a poem than a story.

Good Old Neon

This story had me going back and forth between liking it and disliking it. At parts I would find myself getting really bored and having trouble focusing in the middle of a massively long paragraph, and then something would pop out at me and I would think wow that was really insightful. The ending surprised me when David Wallace appears as a minor character.

What You Pawn I Will Redeem

I liked this story the best. I thought the pacing was good, the characters were interesting and the dialogue rocked.


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