Wallace's Death Is Not the End

Sun Mar 8, 2009

I’ve done some preliminary rummaging around on the internet for commentary on this short piece from Brief Interviews and have found little. The title appealed to people writing about Wallace after his death, I suppose, but I didn’t see much commentary on the story itself. (The archives of the wallace discussion list seemed to be closed to search engines, and I actually didn’t track that down and search the archives, which a good scholar would have done.)

Though the phrase is common, one possible source, given the main character’s profession, is William Carlos Williams’s “Asphodel, The Greeny Flower”:

I have learned much in my life
from books
and out of them

about love.
Death
is not the end of it.

If I were teaching this story, which I might in the fall, along with Oblivion, I would probably ask some leading questions about various ideas of artistic inspiration. The unworthy vessel of the body which breathes the air of genius, etc. The poet is clearly not meant to garner much sympathy from the reader (I seem to remember some shuddering remark about speedos from the cruise essay, for example, the footnote about the Guggenheim is realistic enough, but not inspirational). The crass materialism of the pool and the deck, combined with the aggressively low-middlebrowish reading material, suggest a very satisfied and complacent artist, who, according to prevailing interpretations (see the Cormac McCarthy interview I linked to in the last post, for example), is not, can not be, a good artist.

The final sentence of the story, which begins “It is the height of spring, and the trees and shrubbery are in full leaf and are intensely green and still,” shows sensory experience beginning to fold in of itself, producing ever-increasing abstraction, until at the end we have the kernel of another of the much-decorated poet’s Stevensian poems. All from a bloated suburban nightmare. (I say this somewhat mockingly, as I don’t really find the pool with its expensive Spanish tile to be very garish, though it’s hard not to see it that way within the context.)

The coy final footnote I think calls our attention to the fact that the thought so detailed will be inscribed into the form of the poem which will capture the thought-experience in appearance and suggestion. Another possibility is that the moment of increasing lucidity describes the poet’s death, but I don’t find that plausible. I think the immortality mentioned in the title is that of the words, poetry, art, in general, which is to be contrasted, inevitably, with the somewhat sordid (or at least banal) circumstances of its production.

Another difficulty is the narrator’s voice, which is unlikely to be confused with the poet’s. The detachment starts off from a great height, but, by the end, the narrator and the poet are very close, if not unified. Given Wallace’s interest in speaking with the dead (James Incandenza’s wraith, “Good Old Neon”), that might be another way of visualizing the level of access to the consciousnesses of the living possessed by the disembodied, an interesting metaphor in-and-of-itself for writing.