"Backbone" by David Foster Wallace Originally published in the March 7, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Well, I still haven’t finished last week’s story (you can see how excited I am to read it — as if any of the comments have been encouraging), but when I saw that this week’s story was another excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s forthcoming The Pale King, I had to read it as quickly as I could. I was a big fan of “Wiggle Room” and (though to a lesser extent) “And All That,” both also excerpts that were published in 2009. I’ve never read a David Foster Wallace novel (not sure I will), but I do like his essays and short fiction. I had a bit of a harder time with this one, though.
“Backbone” is the strange story of a boy who, at the age of six, has the singular goal of being able “to press his lips to every square inch of his body.”
There is little to say about the original animus or “motive cause” of the boy’s desire to press his lips to every square inch of his own body. He had been housebound one day with asthma, on a rainy and distended morning, apparently looking through some of his father’s promotional materials. Some of these survived the eventual fire. The boy’s asthma was thought to be congenital.
On that day, the boy begins his first contortions. Lacking any direction, though, he is soon injured. The chiropractor who helps nurse him back to health offers him some books on stretching and on the spine, and then this story dives straight into a fairly detailed and, seemingly, scientifically acurate description of how the boy worked little by little, whether through contortion of his spine or exercise of his lips, to reach that strange goal.
Radical increase of the lips’ protrusive range requires systematic exercise of the maxillary fasciae, such as the depressor septi, orbicularis oris, depressor anguli oris, depressor labii inferioris, and the buccinator, circumoral, and risorius groups. The zygomatic muscles are superficially involved. Praxis: Affix string to Wetherly button of at least 1.5-inch diameter borrowed from father’s second-best raincoat; place button over upper and lower front teeth and enclose with lips; hold string fully extended at ninety degrees to face’s plan and pull on end with gradually increasing tension, using lips to resist pull; hold for twenty seconds; repeat; repeat.
I can handle passages like that in short segments like this. Wallace is very talented at keeping a steady pace despite this maximalist specificity. Injected into this is the story of a boy who is, “among his classmates, the sort of marginal social figure who was so marginal he was not even teased.” While reading, I had to acknowledge the boy’s dedication. Wallace also peppers the segment with small passages about famous contortionists and even stigmatics, as if to show that the human body is nothing if not an object potentially malleable through sheer will.
And then there’s the boy’s father. He takes up a rather short ammount of space, even for such a short piece. However, in that small space we get a sad summary of the father’s love life, which is one affair soon violated by another affair, all of them ongoing because he cannot handle the thought of the women with someone else, though he must find someone new. I’m not sure what to make of the father’s role here.
Which brings me to one of my common gripes about segments published as short stories. Surely the book explores the relationship between the father’s and son’s very different narratives, but there’s not much here to go on. Furthermore, we get only a quick glance (quoted above) of some fire that is never brought up again. Such ellipses work well in short stories, but they don’t work well in excerpts. I left the story happy to have spent some time with David Foster Wallace’s unique temperament (all that scientific specificity mixed with an informal voice and all the underlying emotino), but I was disappointed in the week’s offering. It doesn’t make me want to read The Pale King, as much as I enjoyed following the boy’s goal.