Short Story Study: The Soul is Not a Smithy

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The magical feeling of pure experience is what provokes in myself the unquenchable thirst to devour great literature. There is a moment that is beyond reading type on paper that words fail to capture. I can think of no other way to explain what a great read means to me than this: To be is to feel. The best writing is that which not only expresses such sentiment, but also demands its reader’s emotion and consciousness with every letter.

Now that I have finished ranting I must ramble on about what spurred me to write the above paragraph. David Foster Wallace’s The Soul is Not a Smithy is a short story that fully encompasses the entire range of existential fear. Its narration flows from a man who has perhaps missed the only real exciting event of his life. He recalls his childhood trauma in which he was inadvertently taken hostage by a substitute teacher who had gone mad. The narrative switches between that of his own filed report, his older self reflecting, and his younger self describing what was truly going on while he was taken hostage.

What is boredom? What is anxiety? What is procrastination? Those are what Wallace examines with full force in the story. What I felt most confronted by was simply his ability to point out what we do out of fear, or dread. In the process of our futile attempts at subverting this fear, we only ignore it, taking meaningless jobs and becoming gross consumers of retail that preys upon our subconscious dread that the abyss is actually right behind us. What does Wallace argue here? Not that the abyss is behind us, but that it consumes us while we think we avoid facing it.

Plainly speaking, The Soul is Not a Smithy is the one story by any writer that I would demand of anyone to read. I’ve never felt more spoken to by a story. I’ve felt the feeling it brought me only twice before. The first upon finishing John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and the other after completing DFW’s Infinite Jest. There is a feeling that arises within me whenever I encounter any reference to or quote from either of those masterpieces that refuses to quiet itself. Some stories just (im)perfectly get what it is to be human.

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