Death is Not the End

I wrote the following notes in preparation for a group reading on a mailing list I belong to of the stories in David Foster Wallace’s collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. It’s not intended to be a coherent essay or polished paper. I volunteered to introduce to the list members the second story of the book, entitled “Death is Not the End.” The story describes a scene wherein a middle-aged poet with much success behind him lounges by his pool. That’s it.

APPEARANCE VS. UTILITY

The following things struck me as interesting details that deal with appearance vs. utility:

  • Unwet Speedo. The poet is next to the pool but not using it. The pool is part of a larger depiction of the leisurely life that the poet buys into but doesn’t really belong in.
  • The poet’s hair products, which are in theory supposed to hide his receding hair line, actually accentuate it. Artifice poorly executed in this case overrides utility. Ars celare artem indeed.
  • He’s not drinking his iced tea. Like the pool, it completes a picture (almost a post-card, in fact). (On the other hand, he does use the iced tea to wet his fingers for page-turning, which avoids a sort of icky habit, so bravo for him.)
  • He’s not using the umbrella. Again, it’s part of a picture. (Note that this observation is definitely weak, as it’s clear from his tan that he may not want the shade of the umbrella.) (And yet he sweats and already has a tan, so the shade of an umbrella might be a nice way to enjoy the poolside environment without the discomfort being overly hot.)
  • His fancy swimsuit doesn’t accentuate his penis, which is unflatteringly coiled back on itself. The absurdity of the poet’s wearing the Speedo (and his partaking of this lifestyle in general) is akin to the revelation in The Prince in the Pauper that the ruling pauper has had the king’s seal all along but, not knowing how properly to use it, has used it as a nutcracker. (I should admit that I only remember that detail from TPATP because I read it recently in a vastly condensed version of the book that Chick-Fil-A saw fit to give my daughter.)

ARTIFICE
More or less hand in hand with the tension between appearance and utility in the story goes the emphasis on things fashioned artificially (and where the artificialness is called out in particular, as most things in the scene are fabricated). For example:

  • Award-winning poems
  • The deck’s mosaic tile (later described as expensive Spanish filigree).
  • The poet’s chemically treated sun-glasses (this just seems to fit to me; they’re fancier than regular sunglasses and seem to have more innovation poured into their creation).
  • Simulated rubber thongs (emphasis on “simulated”)
  • Frosted glass (perhaps a stretch here)
  • Hair restoration products (and the restored hair one hopes they produce)
  • “Installed” shrubbery. Here we also go back to appearance vs. utility. “The trees and shrubbery, installed years before, are densely interwoven and tangled and serve the same essential function as a redwood privacy fence or a wall of fine stone.” On initial readings, I took this to mean simply that the shrubbery was a privacy shrubbery. Which it is. But how many of us have redwood fences or walls of fine stone? A simple wood fence serves just fine as a privacy fence. The fine quality and artifice of these other fences set them apart. (But in whose perception? More on this in a minute.)

DICTION
Things you see a lot of in the story:

  • Brand-awareness: Speedo-brand, Newsweek, Time, Hair Augmentation Systems-brand (as an aside, note the telling acronym HAS), USAir, the many and varied award and foundation names.
  • Dates. The story is set on May 15, 1995 (a Monday). The poet is reading a magazine from Sept. 19, 1994 (also a Monday).  The poet will be 57 in four months, so in Sept. of 1995. Why is he reading an old magazine?
  • “nearly hairless” (two times in reference to different areas of his legs)
  • “simulated-rubber” and “simulated rubber” (typos or significant differences? Note also different usages of “Speedo-brand and “Speedo”)
  • “still and composed” (at least twice)
  • “enclosed” at least twice
  • “still”, “idly”, “silent” and such words that describe in a word the entirety of the scene depicted.
  • The first two-thirds of the story are one sentence. In that sentence, references to objects are not made using the possessive pronoun unless the objects are part of the poet’s body. At the end of the first sentence, there’s the very emphatic third-person possessive “reading his magazine in his chair on his deck by his pool behind his home” (that Jack built?). After this sentence, the mood of the story changes. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

ENCLOSURE
In Infinite Jest, we see the recurrent image of circles in squares. It struck me in this story that we see a kidney-shaped pool in a square or rectangular back yard. The first footnote of the story is attached to the clause in a very long sentence about the kidney-shaped pool. The note has no direct relevance to kidney-shaped pool. (It points out that this poet was the first poet to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.) Is Wallace simply adding a sort of extra punctuation here to emphasize the circle-square thing? I doubt it. But what does it mean, the placement of this note?

The privacy shrubbery elaborated on in the second part of the story (after the first sentence) keeps people out but also contains things. One can’t see in unless one is in. (On a perhaps-related side note, isn’t there a Eudora Welty story called “A Curtain of Green” or something about a death in a garden walled in by plants?)

IDLENESS
The story is about nothing if not idleness. The subject of the story is a poet with many years ahead of him (he’s only 56, after all) who has already done it all. Is there anything else for him to look forward to? Accordingly, he lives out his life in a sort of pantomimed leisure that he may not know how to appreciate (see the Speedo comments, the postcardish feeling of the scene absent any real utility of the trappings of the lifestyle). I can’t help thinking here of Wallace’s assessment of the cruise he documented in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” In fact, the postcard I keep mentioning could just about be a snapshot in a cruise brochure. Noteworthy from the last sentence of the essay: “subsequent reentry into the adult demands of landlocked real-world life wasn’t nearly as bad as a week of Absolutely Nothing had led me to fear.”

So then one fairly shallow reading of the story makes of the poet someone who has succumbed to the temptation promised by things like cruise ship ads and real estate brochures for fancy estates that you can retire to after winning all the laurels you can. Death is not the end; the end comes once you fully succumb to this ultimately despair-filled sort of life; death follows only later. Carpe diem, etc., etc.

That’s kind of a boring and pat reading, though. So let’s explore another avenue that’s not quite as tidy.

THE NARRATOR
As I began reading the story more closely, I noted that in the first 2/3 of the story, the tone is almost one of jealousy or envy. Note the brand-awareness, the emphasis on construction/purpose of fine fences (as touched on above) and the attention to the fine accoutrement of a life of leisure, the nearly-full C.V. given for the poet, the rather snide insight in footnote 2 about the poet’s failed applications for Guggenheim fellowships, the repetitive awareness of the poet’s age, the return to phrases of honor given the poet (e.g. “the poet’s poet”), and finally the direct derision of the poet for things like missing leg hair, a less-than-flattering penis arrangement, the hair thing. Then there’s the closing of the first sentence, which rings with an almost childish, pouting accounting of possessions: “his magazine in his chair on his deck by his pool behind his home.” These observations are of a sort that might be made by someone speaking of someone he either detests or is jealous of (or both).

Further, the story is very much a depiction story. It describes with some precision the physical layout of the scene, the (few) sounds. Wallace even uses the word “tableau,” which has definitions (OED) including “a picturesque or graphic description,” “used elliptically to express the sudden creation of a striking or dramatic situation, a ‘scene’, which it is left to the reader to imagine” (!), and “a table, a schedule, an official list” (see the catalog of honors, the attention to dates; this is incidental, I think). It’s hard not to think of tableaux vivants (compare to death in the title), which depict some other scene (which is sort of contradicted by the final sentence and its footnote, which probably means that there’s some literary or historical reference that this tableau plays out pretty well). The point I’m finally coming around to is that the way the scene is described combined with the sort of jealous tone of the first part of the story makes it very voyeurish and pretty disturbing.

Which brings us back to enclosure. If I stretch just a little, I can imagine some jealous grad student or colleague (or anonymous would-be-poet wackjob) peeking in through the elaborate shrubbery fence. Does he want to confront the poet or hurt the poet or kill the poet, or has he already killed the poet, pausing now to view and synthesize the scene?

In the first reading I suggested, the title speaks of lingering nullity: The poet’s value ended long ago and he’s just hanging around basically being useless until he dies. Death is not the end (because succumbing to despair-inducing complacency is). In this second reading, perhaps the poet’s not such a vacuous guy after all. Why should we be tempted to assign to someone clearly in possession of a great voice the sort of emptiness depicted in the story? Perhaps the poet is simply having a morning off before going into his office to write more wonderful poems. Thus the observation that death is not the end and its attendant (de)valuation of the poet belongs to the observer and not to the broader world of facts. That is, if we adopt the first reading, we take the story as a sort of moralization. If we adopt the second (or something more like it), we read the story as one about a hideous person looking in on a valued poet and acting based on his own narrow understanding of the facts of the world. Within the context of the collection, something closer to the second reading may make more sense, and from where I’m sitting (lounging idly?), it’s more satisfying than a pat moralization by an author whom I know can do much better.

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