Good Old Neon

Oblivion: Stories
David Foster Wallace, 2004

Greatly shortened

            My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired. It’s a little more complicated than that, maybe. But when you come right down to it it’s to be liked, loved. Admired, approved of, applauded, whatever. You get the idea. I did well in school, but deep down the whole thing’s motive wasn’t to learn or improve myself but just to do well, to get good grades and make sports teams and perform well. To have a good transcript or varsity letters to show people. I didn’t enjoy it much because I was always scared I wouldn’t do well enough. The fear made me work really hard, so I’d always do well and end up getting what I wanted. But then, once I got the best grade or made All City or got Angela Mead to let me put my hand on her breast, I wouldn’t feel much of anything except maybe fear that I wouldn’t be able to get it again.The next time or next thing I wanted. I remember being down in the rec room in Angela Mead’s basement on the couch and having her let me get my hand up under her blouse and not even really feeling the soft aliveness or whatever of her breast because all I was doing was thinking, ‘Now I’m the guy that Mead let get to second with her.’ Later that seemed so sad. This was in middle school. She was a very big-hearted, quiet, selfcontained, thoughtful girl — she’s a veterinarian now, with her own practice — and I never even really saw her, I couldn’t see anything except who I might be in her eyes, this cheerleader and probably number two or three among the most desirable girls in middle school that year. She was much more than that, she was beyond all that adolescent ranking and popularity crap, but I never really let her be or saw her as more, although I put up a very good front as somebody who could have deep conversations and really wanted to know and understand who she was inside.

            Later I was in analysis, I tried analysis like almost everybody else then in their late twenties who’d made some money or had a family or whatever they thought they wanted and still didn’t feel that they were happy. A lot of people I knew tried it. It didn’t really work, although it did make everyone sound more aware of their own problems and added some useful vocabulary and concepts to the way we all had to talk to each other to fit in and sound a certain way. You know what I mean. I was in regional advertising at the time in Chicago, having made the jump from media buyer for a large consulting firm, and at only twenty-nine I’d made creative associate, and verily as they say I was a fair-haired boy and on the fast track but wasn’t happy at all, whatever happy means, but of course I didn’t say this to anybody because it was such a cliché — ‘Tears of a Clown,’ ‘Richard Cory,’ etc. — and the circle of people who seemed important to me seemed much more dry, oblique and contemptuous of clichés than that, and so of course I spent all my time trying to get them to think I was dry and jaded as well, doing things like yawning and looking at my nails and saying things like, ‘Am I happy? is one of those questions that, if it has got to be asked, more or less dictates its own answer,’ etc. Putting in all this time and energy to create a certain impression and get approval or acceptance that then I felt nothing about because it didn’t have anything to do with who I really was inside, and I was disgusted with myself for always being such a fraud, but I couldn’t seem to help it. Here are some of the various things I tried: EST, riding a ten-speed to Nova Scotia and back, hypnosis, cocaine, sacro-cervical chiropractic, joining a charismatic church, jogging, pro bono work for the Ad Council, meditation classes, the Masons, analysis, the Landmark Forum, a right-brain drawing workshop, celibacy, collecting and restoring vintage Corvettes, and trying to sleep with a different girl every night for two straight months (I racked up a total of thirty-six for sixty-one and also got chlamydia, which I told friends about, acting like I was embarrassed but secretly expecting most of them to be impressed — which, under the cover of making a lot of jokes at my expense, I think they were — but for the most part the two months just made me feel shallow and predatory, plus I missed a great deal of sleep and was a wreck at work — that was also the period I tried cocaine). I know this part is boring and probably boring you, by the way, but it gets a lot more interesting when I get to the part where I kill myself and discover what happens immediately after a person dies. In terms of the list, psychoanalysis was pretty much the last thing I tried.

            The analyst I saw was OK, a big soft older guy with a big ginger mustache and a pleasant, sort of informal manner. I’m not sure I remember him alive too well. He was a fairly good listener, and seemed interested and sympathetic in a slightly distant way. At first I suspected he didn’t like me or was uneasy around me. I don’t think he was used to patients who were already aware of what their real problem was. He was also a bit of a pill-pusher. I balked at trying antidepressants, I just couldn’t see myself taking pills to try to be less of a fraud. I said that even if they worked, how would I know if it was me or the pills? By that time I already knew I was a fraud. I knew what my problem was. I just couldn’t seem to stop. I remember I spent maybe the first twenty times or so in analysis acting all open and candid but in reality sort of fencing with him or leading him around by the nose, basically showing him that I wasn’t just another one of those patients who stumbled in with no clue what their real problem was or who were totally out of touch with the truth about themselves. When you come right down to it, I was trying to show him that I was at least as smart as he was and that there wasn’t much of anything he was going to see about me that I hadn’t already seen and figured out. And yet I wanted help and really was there to try to get help. I didn’t even tell him how unhappy I was until five or six months into the analysis, mostly because I didn’t want to seem like just another whining, self-absorbed yuppie, even though I think even then I was on some level conscious that that’s all I really was, deep down.

            Right from the start, what I liked best about the analyst was that his office was a mess. There were books and papers everyplace, and usually he had to clear things off the chair so I could sit down. There was no couch, I sat in an easy chair and he sat facing me in his beat-up old desk chair whose back part had one of those big rectangles or capes of backmassage beads attached to it the same way cabbies often put them on their seat in the cab. This was another thing I liked, the desk chair and the fact that it was a little too small for him (he was not a small guy) so that he had to sit sort of almost hunched with his feet flat on the floor, or else sometimes he’d put his hands behind his head and lean way back in the chair in a way that made the back portion squeak terribly when it leaned back. There always seems to be something patronizing or a little condescending about somebody crossing their legs when they talk to you, and the desk chair didn’t allow him to do this — if he ever crossed his legs his knee would have been up around his chin. And yet he had apparently never gone out and gotten himself a bigger or nicer desk chair, or even bothered to oil the medial joint’s springs to keep the back from squeaking, a noise that I know would have driven me up the wall if it had been my chair and I had to spend all day in it. I noticed all this almost right away. The little office also reeked of pipe tobacco, which is a pleasant smell, plus Dr. Gustafson never took notes or answered everything with a question or any of the cliché analyst things that would have made the whole thing too horrible to keep going back whether it even helped or not. The whole effect was of a sort of likable, disorganized, laid-back guy, and things in there actually did get better after I realized that he probably wasn’t going to do anything to make me quit fencing with him and trying to anticipate all his questions so I could show that I already knew the answer — he was going to get his 65 dollars either way — and finally came out and told him about being a fraud and feeling alienated (I had to use the uptown word of course, but it was still the truth) and starting to see myself ending up living this way for the rest of my life and being completely unhappy. I told him I wasn’t blaming anybody for my being a fraud. I had been adopted, but it was as a baby, and the stepparents who adopted me were better and nicer than most of the biological parents I knew anything about, and I was never yelled at or abused or pressured to hit .400 in Legion ball or anything, and they took out a second mortgage to send me to an elite college when I could have gone scholarship to U.W.–Eau Claire, etc. Nobody’d ever done anything bad to me, every problem I ever had I’d been the cause of. I was a fraud, and the fact that I was lonely was my own fault (of course his ears pricked up at fault, which is a loaded term) because I seemed to be so totally self-centered and fraudulent that I experienced everything in terms of how it affected people’s view of me and what I needed to do to create the impression of me I wanted them to have. I said I knew what my problem was, what I couldn’t do was stop it. I also admitted to Dr. Gustafson some of the ways I’d been jerking him around early on and trying to make sure he saw me as smart and self-aware, and said I’d known early on that playing around and showing off in analysis were a waste of time and money but that I couldn’t seem to help myself, it just happened automatically. He smiled at all this, which was the first time I remember seeing him smile. I don’t mean he was sour or humorless, he had a big red friendly face and a pleasant enough manner, but this was the first time he’d smiled like a human being having an actual conversation. And yet at the same time I already saw what I’d left myself open for — and sure enough he says it. ‘If I understand you right,’ he says, ‘you’re saying that you’re basically a calculating, manipulative person who always says what you think will get somebody to approve of you or form some impression of you you think you want.’ I told him that was maybe a little simplistic but basically accurate, and he said further that as he understood it I was saying that I felt as if I was trapped in this false way of being and unable ever to be totally open and tell the truth irregardless of whether it’d make me look good in others’ eyes or not. And I somewhat resignedly said yes, and that I seemed always to have had this fraudulent, calculating part of my brain firing away all the time, as if I were constantly playing chess with everybody and figuring out that if I wanted them to move a certain way I had to move in such a way as to induce them to move that way. He asked if I ever played chess, and I told him I used to in middle school but quit because I couldn’t be as good as I eventually wanted to be, how frustrating it was to get just good enough to know what getting really good at it would be like but not being able to get that good, etc. I was laying it on sort of thick in hopes of distracting him from the big insight and question I realized I’d set myself up for. But it didn’t work. He leaned back in his loud chair and paused as if he were thinking hard, for effect — he was thinking that he was going to get to feel like he’d really earned his $65 today. Part of the pause always involved stroking his mustache in an unconscious way. I was reasonably sure that he was going to say something like, ‘So then how were you able to do what you just did a moment ago?,’ in other words meaning how was I able to be honest about the fraudulence if I was really a fraud, meaning he thought he’d caught me in some kind of logical contradiction or paradox. And I went ahead and played a little dumb, probably, to get him to go ahead and say it, partly because I still held out some hope that what he’d say might be more discerning or incisive than I had predicted. But it was also partly because I liked him, and liked the way he seemed genuinely pleased and excited at the idea of being helpful but was trying to exercise professional control over his facial expression in order to make the excitement look more like simple pleasantness and clinical interest in my case or whatever. He was hard not to like, he had what is known as an engaging manner. By way of decor, the office wall behind his chair had two framed prints, one being that Wyeth one of the little girl in the wheat field crawling uphill toward the farmhouse, the other a still life of two apples in a bowl on a table by Cézanne. (To be honest, I only knew it was Cézanne because it was an Art Institute poster and had a banner with info on a Cézanne show underneath the painting, which was a still life, and which was weirdly discomfiting because there was something slightly off about the perspective or style that made the table look crooked and the apples look almost square.) The prints were obviously there to give the analyst’s patients something to look at, since many people like to look around or look at things on the wall while they talk. I didn’t have any trouble looking right at him most of the time I was in there, though. He did have a talent for putting you at ease, there was no question about it. But I had no illusions that this was the same as having enough insight or firepower to find some way to really help me, though.

image info            There was a basic logical paradox that I called the ‘fraudulence paradox’ that I had discovered more or less on my own while taking a mathematical logic course in school. I remember this as being a huge undergrad lecture course that met twice a week in an auditorium with the professor up on stage and on Fridays in smaller discussion sections led by a graduate assistant whose whole life seemed to be mathematical logic. (Plus all you had to do to ace the class was sit down with the assigned textbook that the prof was the editor of and memorize the different modes of argument and normal forms and axioms of firstorder quantification, meaning the course was as clean and mechanical as logic itself in that if you put in the time and effort, out popped the good grade at the other end. We only got to paradoxes like the Berry and Russell Paradoxes and the incompleteness theorem at the very end of the term, they weren’t on the final.) The fraudulence paradox was that the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside — you were a fraud. And the more of a fraud you felt like, the harder you tried to convey an impressive or likable image of yourself so that other people wouldn’t find out what a hollow, fraudulent person you really were. Logically, you would think that the moment a supposedly intelligent nineteen-year-old became aware of this paradox, he’d stop being a fraud and just settle for being himself (whatever that was) because he’d figured out that being a fraud was a vicious infinite regress that ultimately resulted in being frightened, lonely, alienated, etc. But here was the other, higher-order paradox, which didn’t even have a form or name — I didn’t, I couldn’t. Discovering the first paradox at age nineteen just brought home to me in spades what an empty, fraudulent person I’d basically been ever since at least the time I was four and lied to my stepdad because I’d realized somehow right in the middle of his asking me if I’d broken the bowl that if I said I did it but ‘confessed’ it in a sort of clumsy, implausible way, then he wouldn’t believe me and would instead believe that my sister Fern, who’s my stepparents’ biological daughter, was the one who’d actually broken the antique Moser glass bowl that my stepmom had inherited from her biological grandmother and totally loved, plus it would lead or induce him to see me as a kind, good stepbrother who was so anxious to keep Fern (whom I really did like) from getting in trouble that I’d be willing to lie and take the punishment for it for her. I’m not explaining this very well. I was only four, for one thing, and the realization didn’t hit me in words the way I just now put it, but rather more in terms of feelings and associations and certain mental flashes of my stepparents’ faces with various expressions on them. But it happened that fast, at only four, that I figured out how to create a certain impression by knowing what effect I’d produce in my stepdad by implausibly ‘confessing’ that I’d punched Fern in the arm and stolen her Hula Hoop and had run all the way downstairs with it and started Hula-Hooping in the dining room right by the sideboard with all my stepmom’s antique glassware and figurines on it, while Fern, forgetting all about her arm and hoop because of her concern over the bowl and other glassware, came running downstairs shouting after me, reminding me about how important the rule was that we weren’t supposed to play in the dining room. … Meaning that by lying in such a deliberately unconvincing way I could actually get everything that a direct lie would supposedly get me, plus look noble and self-sacrificing, plus also make my stepparents feel good because they always tended to feel good when one of their kids did something that showed character, because it’s the sort of thing they couldn’t really help but see as reflecting favorably on them as shapers of their kids’ character. I’m putting all this in such a long, rushing, clumsy way to try to convey the way I remember it suddenly hit me, looking up at my stepfather’s big kindly face as he held two of the larger pieces of the Moser bowl and tried to look angrier than he really felt. (He had always thought the more expensive pieces ought to be kept secure in storage somewhere, whereas my stepmom’s view was more like what was the point of having nice things if you didn’t have them out where people could enjoy them.) How to appear a certain way and get him to think a certain thing hit me just that fast. Keep in mind I was only around four. And I can’t pretend it felt bad, realizing it — the truth is it felt great. I felt powerful, smart. It felt a little like looking at part of a puzzle you’re doing and you’ve got a piece in your hand and you can’t see where in the larger puzzle it’s supposed to go or how to make it fit, looking at all the holes, and then all of a sudden in a flash you see, for no reason right then you could point to or explain to anyone, that if you turn the piece this one certain way it will fit, and it does, and maybe the best way to put it is that in that one tiny instant you feel suddenly connected to something larger and much more of the complete picture the same way the piece is. The only part I’d neglected to anticipate was Fern’s reaction to getting blamed for the bowl, and punished, and then punished even worse when she continued to deny that she’d been the one playing around in the dining room, and my stepparents’ position was that they were even more upset and disappointed about her lying than they were about the bowl, which they said was just a material object and not ultimately important in the larger scheme of things. (My stepparents spoke this way, they were people of high ideals and values, humanists. Their big ideal was total honesty in all the family’s relationships, and lying was the worst, most disappointing infraction you could commit, in their view as parents. They tended to discipline Fern a little more firmly than they did me, by the way, but this too was an extension of their values. They were concerned about being fair and having me be able to feel that I was just as much their real child as Fern was, so that I’d feel maximally secure and loved, and sometimes this concern with fairness caused them to bend a little too far over backward when it came to discipline.) So that Fern, then, got regarded as being a liar when she was not, and that must have hurt her way more than the actual punishmentdid. She was only five at the time. It’s horrible to be regarded as a fraud or to believe that people think you’re a fraud or liar. It’s possibly one of the worst feelings in the world. And even though I haven’t really had any direct experience with it, I’m sure it must be doubly horrible when you were actually telling the truth and they didn’t believe you. I don’t think Fern ever quite got over that episode, although the two of us never talked about it afterward except for one sort of cryptic remark she made over her shoulder once when we were both in high school and having an argument about something and Fern was storming out of the house. She was sort of a classically troubled adolescent — smoking, makeup, mediocre grades, dating older guys, etc. — whereas I was the family’s fair-haired boy and had a killer G.P.A. and played varsity ball, etc. One way to put it is that I looked and acted much better on the surface then than Fern did, although she eventually settled down and ended up going on to college and is now doing OK. She’s also one of the funniest people on earth, with a very dry, subtle sense of humor — I like her a lot. The point being that that was the start of my being a fraud, although it’s not as if the broken-bowl episode was somehow the origin or cause of my fraudulence or some kind of childhood trauma that I’d never gotten over and had to go into analysis to work out. The fraud part of me was always there, just as the puzzle piece, objectively speaking, is a true piece of the puzzle even before you see how it fits. For a while I thought that possibly one or the other of my biological parents had been frauds or had carried some type of fraud gene or something and that I had inherited it, but that was a dead end, there was no way to know. And even if I did, what difference would it make? I was still a fraud, it was still my own unhappiness that I had to deal with.

            This story goes on for 30 more pages. The rest is worth reading but less related to mimesis/desire.

    Notes on Desire
I Flattering Delusions
II The Funhouse
III Just Called to Say I Love You
IV American Psycho
V Models
VI Good Old Neon
VII Living Like Weasles
VII Goodbye