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“Good Old Neon” and the problem with thinking

I just finished reading David Foster Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon” from Oblivion (2004) while commuting to work. I’ve always been an appreciator of Wallace while not always feeling like I could go down the rabbit hole with him. Everything I’ve ever read about him coupled with his nonfiction endears him to me. His creative prose has always felt either too alienating or like too much work (i.e., Pynchon). But this one here, it’s found me at the right time.

Someday soon I’ll write publicly and in more detail about the ball of emotional confusion and chaotic events that have surrounded the mental health crisis that I’ve watched and been connected to in the last several months. It’s colored everything else I’ve done, and when I started this Wallace story about a guy who commits suicide, written by a guy who committed suicide, it was almost too much to imagine finishing it. I wincing through the first couple of pages in a psychological, thriller, horror jumpscare kind of way. But I settled in and stuck with it. Here are my takeaways.

It’s a curse to be intellectual, or, more appropriately, to think you are. As Wallace’s character illuminates, it creates a kind of distance from yourself that makes everything feel like a fraudulent performance. What a tragedy. This bulk of fatty cells in our skull can get us to the moon on rocket, cure disease, compose a sonata, or investigate a detailed corruption story, but sometimes it can’t find its way out of a paperbag when it comes to emotional balance, self-awareness, and forgiveness. It can be just unrelenting in terms of turning things over for the sake of watching them break, and it can be an echo chamber the isolates the most self-punishing narratives. The narrator in “Good Old Neon” moves through all of these states (hyper) (self) (un) awareness while narrating the moments leading up to his fateful choice. The language is rich with irony, but I go back and forth about whether it’s the narrator being ironic or Wallace himself or both.

In an earlier essay titled “E Unibus Pluram Television and U.S. Fiction” (1993), Wallace writes “Irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down . . . All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I say” . . . And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.” And if that’s true, then the irony of “Good Old Neon” is either deployed on itself (as in “look at destructive this irony is”) or represent some later stage of Wallace’s thinking.

I read “Good Old Neon” last night/this morning because it was chosen for a presentation by a group of my students. It was a fantastic addition to the course we’re all in together (Metanarrative in Contemporary Storytelling) — as has been every text that student groups have chosen to present. The “Good Old Neon” group is presenting on their work today; among other things, they will be discussing the story’s metanarrative and/or metafictional characteristics. At this point we have consumed literary works by Louise Erdrich, Ted Chiang, Tim O’Brien, Toni Morrison; visual programming like AtlantaBlack MirrorStranger Than Fiction; and audio material like Serial and Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. It’s been a fun semester, and we still have more to come.

An additional resources:

“David Foster Wallace — The Problem With Irony,” a great video by Will Schoder

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