David Foster Wallace’s description of soulless monotony is my wake-up call

David Foster Wallace is my favorite writer in that typical way where his stories feel written with me in mind and I associate his work with specific moments in my life. One story, “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” stands out in particular. I return to it once or twice per year as a mental grounding.

In it, the protagonist jumps between a few real and imaginary storylines. One storyline is the author being held hostage in elementary school by a substitute teacher who has a breakdown while instructing civics class. Another is a daydream of the protagonist who, as a child, cannot stay focused and his imagination bleeds into reality. The central daydream is composed like a comic book where the story continues from pane to pane, eventually becoming nightmarish. However, interspersed between the real and imagined traumas are daydreams about his father’s suffocatingly monotonous office and home life.

This sequence in particular grips me and requires re-reads and then minutes to put the book down and think. It is the protagonist imagining his father at his office and then suddenly himself being warped into the office:

The dream was of a large room full of men in suits and ties seated at rows of great grey desks, bent forward over the papers on their desks, motionless, silent, in a monochrome room or hall under long banks of high lumen fluorescents, the men’s faces puffy and seamed with adult tension and wear and appearing to hang slightly loose, the way someone’s face can go flaccid and loose when he seems to be staring at something without really seeing it. I acknowledge that I could never convey just what was so dreadful about this tableau of a bright, utterly silent room full of men immersed in rote work. […]

Then…

And at a certain point in the interval, in the middle of removing a paper clip or opening a desk drawer (there is no sound), I look up and into the lens of the dream’s perspective and stare back at myself, but without any sign of recognition on my face, nor of happiness or fright or despair or appeal — the eyes are flat and opaque, and only mine in the way that a very old album’s photo of you as a child in a setting you have no memory of is nevertheless you — and in the dream, as our eyes meet, it is impossible to know what the adult me is seeing or how I am reacting or if there is anything in there at all.

I’m especially drawn to the detail DFW gives to faces in these passages (“…seamed with adult tension and wear”). There’s quiet panic and indifference simultaneously, like a trap that’s gone off but is no longer alarming.

I remember reading these excerpts for the first time and having to set the book down. I had the kind of sudden energy burst that you want to let out all at once. It’s not unlike the feeling I had every so often as a kid, where I was in the basement and suddenly ran up the stairs as fast as I could, two steps at a time, because of some imagined threat.

What Wallace wrote above is my adult version of the boogeyman. I get it every so often as a gut check. If I caught my reflection, is the face looking back at me dead-eyed and indifferent?

Wallace’s body of work looks at how we handle the absence created by boredom.We use entertainment or drugs to escape. If we choose to be conscious, we can see the beauty in mundane moments. Boredom might even be a transcendent experience.

“The Soul is Not a Smithy” doesn’t offer any positive revelations in this storyline. It’s arresting in its dullness. It captures the spectatorship which so many of us extend to our entire lives.

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