CR’s reaction nails mine. Wallace was a brilliant, unpredictable author whose next book always could’ve been—what I mean to say, if Philip Roth dies, I’ll be upset, but it wouldn’t tie my stomach in knots. Roth’s entered the late-James stage of his career—his works refine and distill and what readers expect from them. With Wallace, there was still potential—his next book could’ve been another Infinite Jest, his next story could’ve been utterly unlike Oblivion, his next article could’ve done to McCain what Wallace’d done to lobsters. In short, his unwritten work could’ve been differently brilliant.
Thoughts on suicide from a man who’s already committed it, in Oblivion‘s “Good Old Neon”:
I simply said, without going into anything like the level of detail I’ve given you (because my purpose in the letter was of course very different), that I was killing myself because I was an essentially fraudulent person who seemed to lack either the character or the firepower to find a way to stop even after I’d realized my fraudulence and the terrible toll it exacted . . . I also inserted that there was also a good possibility that, when all was said and done, I was nothing but another fact-track yuppie who couldn’t love, and that I found the banality of this unendurable, largely because I was evidently so hollow and insecure that I had a pathological need to see myself as somehow exceptional or outstanding at all times. Without going into much explanation or argument, I also told Fern that if her initial reaction to these reasons for my killing myself was to think I was being much, much too hard on myself, then she should know that I was already aware that that was the most likely reaction my note would produce in her, and had probably deliberately constructed the note to at least in part prompt just that reaction, just the way my whole life I’d often said and done things designed to prompt certain people to believe that I was a genuinely outstanding person whose personal standards were so high that he was far too hard on himself, which in turn made me appear attractively modest and unsmug, and was a big reason for my popularity with so many people in all different avenues of my life . . .” (173)
Of this story, Dan Green wrote:
At its core, “Good Old Neon” is indeed a story about a story, although we don’t know that until its conclusion. We do then discover, however, that “Good Old Neon” has been an impersonation by “David Wallace” of one of the latter’s high school classmates who died in a “fiery single-car accident he’d read about in 1991,” an attempt by the fictionalized author of Oblivion to “imagine what all must have happened to lead up to” that crash, why someone “David Wallace had back then imagined as happy and unreflective and wholly unhaunted by voices telling him that there was something deeply wrong with him that wasn’t wrong with anybody else and that he had to spend all his time and energy trying to figure out what to do and say in order to impersonate an even marginally normal or acceptable U.S. male” would drive into a bridge abutment.
It is a wholly convincing impersonation, and emotionally charged in a way we perhaps don’t expect from David Foster Wallace. And it is precisely in the act of “baring the device”—the story self-reflexively disclosing that it is indeed a story—that “Good Old Neon” produces its greatest emotional effect. For in addition to the genuine human feeling for the distress of its imagined protagonist the story encourages in us, even more compelling is the revelation that it was some such feeling on its author’s part that led “David Wallace” to write the story in the first place.