...an excerpt from...
by David Foster Wallace
[Text added in brackets is my addition for the purpose of clarity. Text in parentheses is part of the author's text. Footnotes at the bottom are also the author's footnotes. Any areas where text has been omitted for clarity are indicated with an ellipsis.]
And the wraith on the heart monitor looks pensively down at Gately from upside-down and asks does Gately remember the myriad thespian extras on for example his beloved ‘Cheers!,’ not the center-stage Sam and Carla and Nom, but the nameless patrons always at tables, filling out the bar’s crowd, concessions to realism, always relegated to back- and foreground; and always having utterly silent conversations: their faces would animate and mouths would move realistically, but without sound; only the name-stars at the bar itself could audibilize. The wraith says these fractional actors, human scenery, could be seen (but not heard) in most pieces of filmed entertainment. And Gately remembers them, the extras in all public scenes, especially like bar and restaurant scenes, or rather remembers how he doesn’t quite remember them, how it never struck his addled mind as in fact surreal that their mouths moved but nothing emerged, and what a miserable fucking bottom-rung job that must be for an actor, to be sort of human furniture, figurants the wraith says they’re called, these surreally mute background presences whose presence really revealed that the camera, like any eye, has a perceptual corner, a triage of who’s important enough to be seen and heard v. just seen. A term from ballet, originally, figurant, the wraith explains. The wraith pushes his glasses up in the vaguely sniveling way of a kid that’s just got slapped around on the playground and says he personally spent the vast bulk of his own former animate life as pretty much a figurant, furniture at the periphery of the very eyes closest to him, it turned out, and that it’s one heck of a crummy way to try to live. Gately, whose increasing self-pity leaves little room or patience for anybody else’s self-pity, tries to lift his left hand and wiggle his pinkie to indicate the world’s smallest viola playing the theme from The Sorrow and the Pity, but even moving his left arm makes him almost faint. And either the wraith is saying or Gately is realizing that you can’t appreciate the dramatic pathos of a figurant until you realize how completely trapped and encaged he is in his mute peripheral status, because like say for example if one of ‘Cheers!’’s bar’s figurants suddenly decided he couldn’t take it any more and stood up and started shouting and gesturing around wildly in a bid for attention and nonperipheral status on the show, Gately realizes, all that would happen is that one of the audibilizing ‘name’ stars of the show would bolt over from stage-center and apply restraints or the Heineken Maneuver or CPR, figuring the silent gesturing figurant was choking on a beer-nut or something, and that then the whole rest of that episode of ‘Cheers!’ would be about jokes about the name star’s life-saving heroics, or else his fuck-up in applying the Heineken Maneuver to somebody who wasn’t choking on a nut. No way for a figurant to win. No possible voice or focus for the encaged figurant. Gately speculates briefly about the suicide statistics for bottom-rung actors. The wraith disappears and then reappears in the chair by the bed’s railing, leaning forward with its chin on its hands on the railing in what Gately’s coming to regard as the classic tell-your-troubles-to-the-trauma-patient-that-can’t-interrupt-or-get-away position. The wraith says that he himself, the wraith, when animate, had dabbled in filmed entertainments, as in making them, cartridges, for Gately’s info to either believe or not, and but in the entertainments the wraith himself made, he says he goddamn bloody well made sure that either the whole entertainment was silent or else if it wasn’t silent that you could bloody well hear every single performer’s voice, no matter how far out on the cinematographic or narrative periphery they were; and that it wasn’t just the self-conscious overlapping dialogue of a poseur like Schwulst or Altman, i.e. it wasn’t just the crafted imitation of aural chaos: it was real life’s real egalitarian babble of figurantless crowds, of animate world’s real agora, the babble* of crowd’s every member of which was the central and articulate protagonist of his own entertainment. It occurs to Gately he’s never had any sort of dream where somebody says anything like vast bulk, much less agora, which Gately interprets as a kind of expensive sweater. Which was why, the wraith is continuing, the complete unfiguranted egalitarian aural realism was why party-line entertainment-critics always complained that the wraith’s entertainments’ public-area scenes were always incredibly dull and self-conscious and irritating, that they could never hear the really meaningful central narrative conversations for all the unfiltered babble of the peripheral crowd, which they assumed the babble(/babel) was some self-conscious viewer-hostile heavy-art directorial pose, instead of radical realism. The wraith’s grim smile almost disappears before it appears. Gately’s slight tight smile back is the way you can always tell he’s not really listening. He’s remembering that he used to pretend to himself that the unviolent and sarcastic accountant Nom on ‘Cheers!’ was Gately’s own organic father, straining to hold young Bimmy [Gately’s nickname as a youngster] on his lap and letting him draw finger-pictures in the condensation-rings on the bartop, and when he was pissed off at Gately’s mother being sarcastic and witty instead of getting her down and administering careful U.S.-Navy-brig-type beatings that hurt like hell but would never bruise or show. The can of foreign Coke has left a ring on his forehead that’s colder than the feverish skin around it, and Gately tries to concentrate on the cold of the ring instead of the dead cold total ache on his whole right side—DEXTRAL—or the sober memory of his mother Mrs. Gately’s ex-significant other, the little-eyed former M.P. in khaki skivvies hunched drunk over his notebook’s record of his Heinekens for the day, his tongue in the corner of his mouth and his eyes scrunched as he tries to see a unitary enough notebook to write in, Gately’s mother on the floor trying to crawl off toward the lockable bathroom quietly enough so the M.P. wouldn’t notice her again.
The wraith blows its nose in a hankie that’s visibly seen better epochs and says he, the wraith, when alive in the world of animate men, had seen his own personal youngest offspring, a son, the one most like him, the one most marvelous and frightening to him, becoming a figurant, toward the end. His end, not the son’s end, the wraith clarifies. Gately wonders if it offends the wraith when he sometimes refers to it mentally as it. The wraith opens and examines the used hankie just like an alive person can never help but do and says No horror on earth or elsewhere could equal watching your own offspring open his mouth and have nothing come out. The wraith says it mars the memory of the end of his animate life, this son’s retreat to the periphery of life’s frame. The wraith confesses that he had, at one time, blamed the boy’s mother for his silence. But what good does that kind of thing do, he said, making a blurred motion that might have been shrugging. Gately remembers the former Navy M.P. telling Gately’s mother why it was her fault he lost his job at the chowder plant. ‘Resentment Is The #1 Offender’ is another Boston AA cliché Gately’d started to believe. That blame’s a shell-game. …
The wraith reappears slumped back in the chair with his weight on his tailbone and his legs crossed in that Erdedyish upscale way. He says Just imagine the horror of spending your whole itinerant lonely Southwest and West Coast boyhood unsuccessfully to convince your father that you even existed, to do something well enough to be heard and seen but not so well that you became just a screen for his own (the Dad’s) projections of his own failure and self-loathing, failing ever to be really seen, gesturing wildly through the distilled haze, so that in adulthood you still carried the moist flabby weight of your failure ever to make him hear you really speak, carried it on through the animate years on your increasingly slumped shoulders—only to find, near the end, that your very own child had himself become blank, inbent, silent, frightening, mute. I.e. that his son had become what he (the wraith) had feared as a child he (the wraith) was. Gately’s eyes roll up in his head. The boy, who did everything well and with a natural unslumped grace the wraith himself had always lacked, and whom the wraith had been so terribly eager to see and hear and let him (the son) know he was seen and heard, the son had become a steadily more and more hidden boy, toward the wraith’s life’s end; and no one else in the wraith and boy’s nuclear family would see or acknowledge this, the fact that the graceful and marvelous boy was disappearing right before their eyes. They looked but did not see his invisibility. And they listened but did not hear the wraith’s warning. Gately has that slight tight absent smile again. The wraith says the nuclear family had believed he (the wraith) was unstable and was confusing the boy with his own (the wraith’s) boyhood self, or with the wraith’s father’s father, the blank wooden man who according to family mythology had ‘driven’ the wraith’s father to ‘the bottle’ and unrealized potential and an early cerebral hemorrhage. Toward the end, he’d begun privately to fear that his son was experimenting with Substances. The wraith keeps having to push its glasses up. The wraith says almost bitterly that when he’d stand up and wave his arms for them all to attend to the fact that his youngest and most promising son was disappearing, they’d thought all his agitation meant that he had gone bats from Wild Turkey-intake and needed to try to get sober, again, one more time.
This gets Gately’s attention. Here at last could be some sort of point to the unpleasantness and confusion of the dream. ‘You tried to get sober?’ he thinks, rolling his eyes over to the wraith. ‘More than once, you tried? Was it White-Knuckle?** Did you ever Surrender and Come In?’
The wraith feels along his long jaw and says he spent the whole sober last ninety days of his animate life working tirelessly to contrive a medium via which he and the muted son could simply converse. To concoct something the gifted boy couldn’t simply master and move on from to a new plateau. Something the boy would love enough to induce him to open his mouth and come out—even if it was only to ask for more. Games hadn’t done it, professionals hadn’t done it, impersonations of professionals hadn’t done it. His last resort: entertainment. Make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life. A magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy, to make his eyes light and toothless mouth open unconsciously, to laugh. To bring him ‘out of himself,’ as they say. The womb could be used both ways. A way to say I AM SO VERY, VERY SORRY and have it heard. A life-long dream. The scholars and Foundations and disseminators never saw that his most serious wish was: to entertain.
Gately’s not too agonized and feverish not to recognize gross self-pity when he hears it, wraith or no. As in the slogan ‘Poor Me, Poor Me, Pour Me A Drink.’ With all due respect, pretty hard to believe this wraith could stay sober, if he needed to get sober, with the combination of abstraction and tragically-misunderstood-me attitude he’s betraying, in the dream.
He’d been sober as a Mennonite quilter for 89 days, at the very tail-end of his life, the wraith avers, now back up on the silent heart monitor, though Boston AA had a humorless evangelical rabidity about it that had kept his attendance at meetings spotty. And he never could stand the vapid clichés and disdain for abstraction. Not to mention the cigarette smoke. The atmosphere of the meeting rooms had been like a poker game in hell, had been his impression. The wraith stops and says he bets Gately’s struggling to hide his curiosity about whether the wraith succeeded in coming up with a figurant-less entertainment so thoroughly engaging it’d make even an in-bent figurant of a boy laugh and cry out for more.
Father-figure-wise, Gately’s tried his best these last few sober months to fend off uninvited memories of his own grim conversations and interchanges with the M.P.
The wraith on the monitor now bends sharply at the waist, way over forward so his face is upside-down only cm. from Gately’s face—the wraith’s face is only about half the size of Gately’s face, and has no odor—and responds vehemently that No! No! Any conversation or interchange is better than none at all, to trust him on this, that the worst kind of gut-wrenching intergenerational interface is better than withdrawal or hiddenness on either side. The wraith apparently can’t tell the difference between Gately just thinking to himself and Gately using his brain-voice to sort of think at the wraith. His shoulder suddenly sends up a flare of pain so sickening Gately’s afraid he might shit the bed. The wraith gasps and almost falls off the monitor as if he can totally empathize with the dextral flare. Gately wonders if the wraith has to endure the same pain as Gately in order to hear his brain-voice and have a conversation with him. Even in a dream, that’d be a higher price than anybody’s ever paid to interface with D.W. Gately.
* Or possibly Babel.
** Boston AA slogan meaning trying to quit addictive Substance-use without working any kind of Recovery Program.