David Foster Wallace: “Backbone” from The New Yorker, 03/07/11

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

I have a very brief and very strange history with David Foster Wallace. No, I never met him, it’s not that. But I checked Infinite Jest out of the library on the recommendation of a friend (a story in itself, but I’m not going there) and when I was on Page 6, news of his suicide broke. I didn’t read any further; I just couldn’t, though I always figured I’d pick it up again sometime. But time passed and that didn’t happen. A couple of years later, I was sitting on the bench outside the supermarket with my organic herb salad and my multigrain bread and my Betty Crocker Milk Chocolate Frosting-in-a-Can (because a foolish consistency and all that) reading New Sudden Fiction and happened upon “Incarnations of Burned Children” which had me sobbing, other bus patrons asking if I needed help, and I just shook my head and tried to think about baseball. I’ve been afraid of him, and in awe of him, ever since.

So this week’s New Yorker story, “Backbone,” had me nervous. I read it anyway. It’s another excerpt from the forthcoming “The Pale King” and is available online. And in fact you can hear David Foster Wallace read it as two fragments, separated by the fragment about Leonard’s 11th Birthday Blowout Bash which I swear I’ve read somewhere but can’t remember where, at the Lannan Foundation website. Along with… “Incarnations of Burned Children.” This recording was astonishing to me for several reasons. First, he sounds so normal. I always thought of him as a raving madman, a sort of literary Charlie Sheen, or maybe more accurately Mozart from Amadeus on a bad day. But he sounds exactly like any articulate, young writer might sound. This just made me feel sadder, somehow. I was also surprised as the audience chuckled and laughed as he read the “Backbone” fragments (it plays from minute 1 to 13, then again after Leonard’s birthday from minute 24 to 30; the short story, which he prefaces with warnings about how disturbing it is, takes up the last six minutes). I thought of “Backbone” as strange and, of course there’s a humorous element, but it isn’t something I’d laugh at, it’s more of a sad humor.

The plot is stated in the opening paragraph: Boy wants to be able to press his lips to every part of his body. Why? Shrug. Maybe something about being totally accessible to himself. He injures himself during an early attempt to reach his lateral malleolus, and gets some helpful information from the friendly neighborhood chiropractor. His father is absorbed in his own affairs – literally, since he has an aversion to breaking off an affair once started, but grows bored rather quickly, so he amasses many paramours.

Mother is never directly mentioned; I am not sure if she exists or not, if she died, left, or is just there and is completely ignored. Father married at age 20 and became stifled by fidelity, and thus began his affairs. But whether Mother puts up with this, doesn’t know about it (perhaps she has her contortionist abilities as well, and has her head firmly up her ass), or has died or left, we do not know. “The family home” is referred to, as well as the father’s frequent absences (he sells motivational tapes, how interesting, since his son is highly motivated) but there’s no reference to anyone caring for the boy in his absence. How interesting.

And, what is most interesting to me, none of these people have names. Only the chiropractor has a name. The boy and his father do not. I find that interesting. There’s a lot of historical and arcane medical information sandwiched in, about pain, about contortionism, about stigmata; being a medical junkie, I appreciate that. But mostly it’s the story of this kid’s efforts to increase the reach of his lips (to 10.4 cm, which is quite a pucker – measure it!) and the flexibility of his spine and joints, so that he can accomplish this task. We travel with him until puberty at which time the excerpt ends, and we just assume there is a reason for all this – and wonder, what does he look like, how does he function physically (and emotionally and socially) as an adult? His father just figured he was very limber and took spinal hygiene seriously, the result of his early injury – how does Dad feel later on? And of course, the primary question – does the boy finally kiss his eyelids, his forehead, the top of his head? If so, how? And if not, what does that do to him?

But I guess we’ll just have to buy the book to find out. Good thing it’s coming out next month. I wonder where he’ll take me next.

2 responses to “David Foster Wallace: “Backbone” from The New Yorker, 03/07/11

  1. Pingback: Previously Published Excerpts from The Pale King « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: David Foster Wallace: “The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax” (Madras Press, 2013) | A Just Recompense

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