Short Story Study: Good Old Neon


No book review this week as I’ve simply not found myself in the right mood for devouring novels. However I do my best to read one short story per day, resulting in a potential post at any moment. Anyway, I’m working my way through David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion and I find that it has crushed my plans to go slowly through it and a few other collections of short stories. Perhaps the only real “miss” of this collection so far (of course, it may only be missing its mark because I am completely unfamiliar with the entire premise and subsequent meaning of the story) has been the opening story, “Mister Squishy.” Following that, however, have been four stellar stories, all of which I will cover in a review that I should have up next week. I can confidently say that even if the final two stories are truly terrible that “The Soul is Not a Smithy” and “Good Old Neon” make the collection of stories worth double of what it costs to buy the book. So, uh… you should go do that… yeah.

“Good Old Neon” is a story about a man who feels that his entire life has been his own acting a fraud. He reveals quickly that he is telling the reader about what it was like to be alive, but that he has already killed himself. The story consists of his quickly going over moments in his life where his condition was the most dreadful and his pain the most poignant. These memories trace from his childhood to his eventual meeting with a psychoanalyst, culminating in his own suicide (this is not a spoiler, as he tells you from the beginning that the payoff of reading the story is finding out what it is like to die). The insights into the human condition that Wallace offers in this story are enough to affect the most stoic of readers. While his ramblings on paradoxes and time may be lost on some readers, or seen as irrelevant (which would actually mean that they were indeed lost on these hypothetical readers), the troubles that the narrator, Neal, goes through are universal. This is one point that the story is trying to make: these feelings of inadequacy, or existential dread, are something every human being feels, yet the experience of them is totally subjective, forming a paradox.

The story feels disturbingly personal at times. Its ending perhaps being shocking to many, including myself. I will defer to an incredibly accurate quote from the beginning of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel:

It is an extremely common mistake. People think the writer’s imagination is always at work, that he’s constantly inventing an endless supply of incidents and episodes; that he simply dreams up his stories out of thin air. In point of fact, the opposite is true. Once the public knows you’re a writer, they bring the characters and events to you. And as long as you maintain your ability to look, and to carefully listen, these stories will continue… to seek you out over your lifetime. To him, who has often told the tales of others, many tales will be told.

There are some fictions that are soberingly anecdotal.


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