David Foster Wallace: “Backbone”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.  “Backbone” was originally published in The New Yorker‘s March 7, 2011, issue.

Click for a larger image.

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.

10 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace: “Backbone””

  1. Trevor says:

    I just found out why these three excerpts from Wallace’s new novel are so different (one takes place in an IRS office, one describes a young boy’s attempts to figure out a new Christmas toy, and then there’s this one about a young, budding contortionist): it turns out The Pale King begins with a series of looks at difficult childhoods and then the characters come together at an IRS office in 1985. There you go. I’m actually more interested in the book as a whole now.

  2. Tim says:

    I should have known this was an excerpt, it explains why some aspects clearly don’t work well for a short story. The quiet driven nature of the boy was unique and enjoyable, but toward the end the comparisons with the father seemed too overt. Also, as an idea it’s funny how the father is unable to extricate himself from affairs and instead just keeps meeting more women. That was my overall impression of “Backbone,” there are moments and ideas I enjoyed, but feel like the story doesn’t progress in a meaningful way.

  3. Betsy says:

    Trevor, thanks for explaining that “Backbone” is part of a novel. I also appreciate knowing that you, too, have not read his longer fiction.

    You mention that you like some of David Foster Wallace’s short stories and non-fiction. I wonder if you have in mind his graduation address. It took my breath away when I read it for the first time this week. In it, Wallace espouses the practice of compassion. He even goes so far as to recommend sacrifice and small kindnesses in the service of others. It’s a most unusual speech.

    Having so recently read the graduation address, I read “Backbone” within its context.

    Let me say at the outset that I resisted “Backbone” from beginning to end, but couldn’t put it down, and it keeps sticking me with its vivid and puzzly strangeness.

    Compassion is an absentee in this story: the missing mother, the might-as-well-be missing father, and the unmentioned grandparents make up a completely missing family, all of whom ought to be a source of compassion and affection for the boy but are not. Dr. Kathy briefly stands in for them, healing the boy with her momentarily comforting hands, hands that seem to ask and answer questions at the same time. She is also a guide, as a mother or father might be. But she, too, is mostly absent, present only in some printed guides she has given the boy, guides with which he surrounds himself. It seems as if one prompt for the boy’s commitment to contortionism is an attempt to recreate Dr. Kathy’s presence. He soothes himself with this project, much as a family might soothe a child with its routines,its rituals, its explanation of the world, and its embrace.

    Mostly, I think children react to abandonment with profound sadness and anger. This boy, instead, mysteriously, has chosen to supply the missing comassion by pursuing a total blessing of himself. I wonder here if his abandonment also stands in for the multiple abandonments we all feel in our adult existence in this world, and how like a child we feel when these abandonments are acute.

    In a way, the boy is not a boy; he is a yogi who has dream-like appeared in the body of a child; he is the side of ourselves that yearns for peace and acceptance, he is the mystic for whom everyday sorrows and pain are just an everyday, natural, part of his progress towards his goal.

    The entire excerpt seems to me most similar to the intensity, the obdurate strangeness, and the metaphor of a dream. What you call “maximalist specificity” (!) seems in service to making the dream seem as real as possible – which, of course, we don’t buy. But the specificity does provide the dream a mooring. In fact, the maximalist nature of the specificity actually makes the piece even more dreamlike.

    Viewed as a dream, the father and the boy can be set loose to function as representations of two parts of existence: the father, flighty, jaded, trying to follow maxims, never satisfied, absent, involved in repeated betrayals, unsuccessful, guilty, “tortured; the boy, focused, possibly innocent, present, successful, selfless, quiet, determined, ordinary, possibly at peace.

    Of course, the boy’s ambition to apply his lips to every part of his body strikes us as just downright strange. Hieronymous Bosch strange. Frightening. We worry about such a possessed boy, a boy who doesn’t play. But we identify with a boy who seems to be motherless, who seems bereft of kisses, who solves his solitariness by practicing a kind of total acceptance of himself. Nonetheless, we are appalled at the way the boy must de-form himself to achieve his goal.

    We have no evidence that the boy blames his parents or any one else. It is as if this story is a mirror of how the practice of total acceptance or compassion for oneself and others might appear to be – a contortion, a de-formation of reality.

    Of course, the contortionism is a stumbling block. How could it be a good thing? And yet, the boy seems more well adjusted than his father. The contortionism might be a trope for how a daily practice of compassion might force us to contort ourselves – our habits, our allocation of time, our beliefs, our selfishnesses.

    There is no real resolution in this story – it ends much as a dream does – abruptly – leaving the reader/dreamer puzzling over its visions. But of course, “Backbone” is a just small part of a much larger, unfinished, novel, and so what resolutions are in store are still a mystery.

    Hope I haven’t contorted the story as I wander about with this idea. I may be totally off base. Would love a little more perspective here.

    I think it was reading that graduation address that did it.

  4. Joe says:

    Yoinks! I hated every word of this and most of the commas and periods, too.

    It seems to me that one element of good writing is generosity. By that I mean that the writer is willing to give something to the reader, whether it’s imparting knowledge, sharing wisdom, or the desire to make someone laugh or nod in recognition. With David Foster Wallace, it’s all about taking. In this case, he took my time, and he took my participation in demonstrating how smart he is.

    I’ve been a fan of Wallace’s nonfiction, which I often think is insightful and funny, but have always found his fiction insufferable, and this story was no exception. To me, this felt like an extended exercise in using the word “subluxated.”

  5. Tim says:

    Trevor and Betsy, I read Infinite Jest last year, and definitely recommend it.

  6. Aaron says:

    Joe, I haven’t read “Backbone” yet — I’m thinking I might just wait to read it as part of the whole “The Pale King” — but I can say that Wallace wasn’t interested in demonstrating how smart he was. Nor was he interested in taking. His fiction attempted to do what his non-fiction did, which was — as Betsy points out about his graduation speech — to communicate a sort of empathy and need for understanding among people. Yes, “Infinite Jest” is challenging, disturbing, humorous, and highly intelligent, but it’s also filled with a lot of interesting observations and foibles about characters and communities, be they tennis academies, halfway houses, or the world itself.

  7. Trevor says:

    Infinite Jest . . . someday, Tim and Aaron, someday.

  8. Ken says:

    I’m going to be indulgent and write this even though maybe it’s long past the time these comments are read by anyone. I also will (indulgently) explain that I am long between weighing in here because once I get started on a novel, I don’t read short-stories until it’s finished. A bit of compulsiveness makes me not want to mix strands of fiction together. That said, I agree about the problems of excerpts but I still enjoyed this and I’m a fan of Wallace and enjoyed Infinite Jest and also his short-story collection “Oblivion.” I thought he was dealing with addictive behavior and how there is a fine line between addicitve behavior and spiritual devotion and also between addictive behavior and the mere “hobby.” Anyway, that’s what I thought about. This actually struck me as pretty conventional for Wallace (at least stylistically).

  9. Colin says:

    I’d like to add to Betsy’s interpretation, and add on what I view as Wallace juxtaposing the father and son’s relationship as two opposites. The father is inspired by entrepreneurial, he believes the key to his happiness is to place all his effort into working as hard as he can in order to increase his material standing in the world which he believes will allow him to accept himself. He’s a fairly materially successful man, capable of wooing and maintaining relationships with multiple women, as well as managing his own business in which he can be assumed to preach his own confused motives. He finds himself unhappy however, and incapable of loving others as he is incapable of loving himself.

    He is the opposite of his son, who calmly works to love himself, dedicating hours to his strange goals of contortion. The boy is clearly the more virtuous of the two, and this stands in a sense to compare and contrast the two natures of those who are patient with themselves (those who allow themselves to love themselves) and those who look for external happiness in order to ease the pain they feel from not loving themselves.

    Contorted as the boy may seem, chasing his strange passion of loving himself which does not bring him money, sex, or any other of the externalized forms of “success” Wallace believably poses his father as chasing.

    I think what Wallace is trying to say is that the path to virtue and happiness begins with loving thyself as we are all beautiful people who feel that we are ugly, and so we project our perceived ugliness out onto the world, when the father loses interest in his first affair and she starts to leave him, instead of acknowledging to himself that that was what he wanted in the first place, he instead worries that he is not good enough and that he needs to compensate and win her back, when really the problem is that he was not accepting himself…this causes him pain and hardships as he keeps his affair with her and adds another affair on, then repeats the process until he is stuck with more pain and depression.

    The boy may seem contorted, but in actuality his behavior is saint-like. Which is where the writing on stigmata and accounts of men who are capable of popping their eyes from their heads in order to make them dance come into play.I think Wallace does this in order to try to suggest to the reader that seemingly impossible things can happen when one opens the doors to accepting and loving themselves. This is the path that the boy is following.

    Wallaces writing is extremely intelligent and well designed, a truly great man and author.

    I think a video I found that is pertinent to this Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability, I urge anyone that reads this to watch it, it may start out a little awkward, but it progresses into a very great summary of the same point that I believe Wallace was trying to make. That by loving ourselves we are actually working towards accepting and loving everyone, moving forward in our existence here on Earth.

    Here’s the link:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

  10. Abdul Adan says:

    I thought ‘Backbone” was about the idea of possessing. Wallace attempts to get the reader into the literal physiology of possessing an object, person. The human body, suggests the story to me, is a bunch of malleable objects put together, which can be controlled, owned (by kissing) as the boy’s father thought it was only by sexing that he owned the women in his affairs. For the father, the women, coinciding with his promotional materials, were simply one goal and after another. The boy’s desire to kiss every square inch of his body begins on the day he was ‘housebound’ with ‘congenital’ asthma, and read ‘his father’s promotional materials’. Ambitions to possess, goals, & the elusiveness of the desired object go hand in hand in this story. Asthma is sickness, as well known, where a person breathes in but doesn’t get sufficient oxygen, and breathes in harder, emitting this squeaky sound. Like the boy’s elusive goal which takes him much pain and hard work, maintenance of the women (because they are only his while he has sex with them) is parallel to each other… Possess, own, touch it, fee it, then you own it…

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