“Good Old Neon” is the title of an incredible short story by David Foster Wallace. Initially I thought I’d use it because it sounds unique and obscure. But then I thought, hmmm, that’s a bit superficial, so I recently I reread the story and recalled why it impressed me so much.
Since it is not available online and I don’t know many people willing to give DFW a try, I’m going to go ahead and ruin it for you now. How else can I explain myself? How can I explain why I took the title of that story without giving away at least a few juicy details? Please understand that I’m “ruining it” for you because I love it.
“My while life I’ve been a fraud,” is the first line. Isn’t that great? Seriously, you need a gripping first line and I think that works. The story is basically the confessed imaginings of a “David Wallace” regarding the suicide of “Neal” as he looks at Neal’s picture in their high school year book. They were not friends; all we really know is that “David Wallace” thought of Neal as impressive and intimidating. In short, he was better, and yet, years later, in the height of his continued success, he committed suicide.* In the words of Neal (or rather the words of David Wallace pretending he’s Neal), he does the terrible deed because he is, and always has been, a fraud and cannot seem to stop.
What I find really interesting is that we’re all frauds. We’re all social animals who need other people, and we all make that pretentious effort to appeal to others. We dress to be attractive. We sell ourselves at the job interview. We tell certain jokes to our friends that we won’t tell to our parents. We maintain a certain level of decorum in specific venues. I remember in high school, I intentionally attempted to not follow the reigning hegemony, but in hind sight, even that was still a put on. You can’t get around it. You do it, whether you think you do or not. We all do. Is it possible to do otherwise? (Diogenes the Cynic made an honest effort and for that, he is one of my heroes.) Perhaps some people could make the effort, but at what cost? Even if it is desirable, is it possible?
The assumption here is that there is a “true you” that is hidden. And perhaps this is what the story is challenging its readers with. Is there a “true you”? How do you know? Why do you think that? Most people, I think, believe in a soul, in some unchanging (immortal even!) and unique thing that you can call your own. It makes you feel safe, but is it real? You don’t actually have any proof of your soul do you? What if you fool yourself with the belief that you have a soul in order to avoid the terror of the alternative? And why should we feel this terror at all?
I know the answer. At least I think I know, but telling you that would just ruin this moment. We’re all better off suffering a little uncertainty.
*On a related note… in researching this article, I found out that David Foster Wallace recently committed suicide, 9-12-2008, which is not especially surprising, but still very, very sad. I like the picture of him on my book with that large scary-looking dog. He looks like a disgruntled lumberjack. I imagine him reluctantly taking care of a kitten with a broken leg. Except that he’s not really reluctant; he just pretends it’s a huge, off-putting ordeal, and secretly he loves it. RIP.