When I woke up this morning, I got out of bed, put on a pot of coffee, checked my twitter feed, and saw that the amazing lit blog, Electric Literature had posted David Foster Wallace’s short story, “The Soul is Not a Smithy” for their Recommended Reading selection. To say I was over the hill with excitement was an understatement. This Wallace story is in Oblivion, one of the few books of his I have yet to read, and having a chance to read new Wallace is kind of like finding an extra Christmas present in your house in mid-July. I dove into the story straight-away, even though I was over tired and under caffeinated.
Jump to one and a half hours, 19,000 words, and a pot of coffee later, and my brain felt like an overheated radiator. This is the David Foster Wallace reading experience.
The story of “The Soul is Not a Smithy” is one that takes place inside a grade school classroom, where a substitute teacher has a psychotic episode. Our main character and nameless narrator, a student who spends most of his time in his Civics class staring out out of window and creating elaborate stories out of what he can see, is creating an entire novella round the identity and lives of the owners of two dogs he see’s copulating on the baseball diamond. While our narrator is winding an increasingly graphic yarn in his mind, the teacher is starting to write increasingly more off putting things on the chalkboard. The other kids in the class our beginning to worry. The teacher is starting to write, “Kill Them, Kill Them All” on the board over-and-over, and eventually all but four of the children leave the flee the classroom, a couple of which get trampled in the process. Our narrator is one of the children who stay in the room, because as the teacher is reaching his own manic climax, our narrator is arriving a at crescendo of disturbing images in his own mind.
There is a third plot line that works it’s way in at the narrative near the near the end of the tale, in which the narrator talks about a recurring nightmare he has a child. In the dream the narrator envisions himself working the same insurance job that his dad worked at for thirty years. There’s a great sense of irony in a kid being more traumatized by the tedium of his dads life than having experienced first hand a man going through a psychotic episode. There is a great passage of the story in which the narrator explains the dead look that is in his fathers eyes every time he comes in the front door when he gets home from work. I find it fascinating that Wallace was already so concerned with the ideas like tedious labor and boredom, two idea which would become staples of his posthumous novel, The Pale King.
It’s hard to touch on everything that happens in this not-so-short story; 19,000 words is a lot of ground to cover, but there is propulsion to this work that makes it feel like watching two thrillers at the same time. Neither one of the narratives in the story have a happy ending, and the narrators describes how he is unable to to remember all of the events that happened in the classroom because of the shock that set in after days events, of which I will not spoil now, but it’s interesting that the narrator is able to recall the equally graphic and disturbing tale (there’s an unfortunate scene with a old snowblower that brings the movie Fargo to mind, for example) that he is putting together while staring out of the classroom’s window. The genius here of course is how seamlessly Wallace is able to tie the narratives together, creating one hell of a reading experience. Anyone who has read Infinite Jest could tell you that Wallace is a master of keeping a lot of narrative plates spinning,
There’s a kind of gauntlet that Wallace throws down to his readers, at least as far as his fiction is concerned. This story has all the touchstones of DFW’s style: the marathon sentences, mammoth paragraphs, monstrous vocabulary and multiple plot threads are all here. If you are anything like me, you will be absolutely exhausted by the end of “Smithy.” I honestly felt more worn out reading this story than I did after running two miles on the treadmill today, but I also felt mentally satiated, or perhaps satisfied would be the better word by the experience. My mind has continued to chew on the themes and images of the story all day. That’s just how it is with Wallace. I’ve never read a work of his that didn’t linger in my consciousness for days after reading it. There are those that criticize DFW for having a cold, clinical writing style, but there is nothing cold or clinical about the terrors in this story. For a man who has been dead for six years now, he has a way of creating characters and moments that will live forever in my mind. He is a smithy for my soul.
If you have been thinking about dipping your toes into some of Wallace's fiction, I can think of no better place to start. This is a highly concentrated dose of what makes DFW such an iconic writer. If you come away from the story, bored or disappointed, then his fiction is probably not for you, but if you put in the work I think you'll be hooked.