I admit I had not heard of David Foster Wallace (1962 to 2008-USA) until the publicity generated by his suicide. I learned he had written a massive book, Infinite Jest (1996) that was said to rival Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow in terms of complexity. Most of the blog posts I have seen on Wallace centered on his life and not his work. I was glad to find that the New Yorker had recently published one of his short stories. Short stories are often a good way to "try out a writer".
"Backbone" is about a peculiar young boy who early on develops an ambition that will dominate his life. He wants to press his lips against every square inch of his own body. Any story that starts out like that will at least make us go "Hum". The boy's ambition is compared in very scientific terminology (as if from a medical case study) to extreme religious devotees who spent a life time mortifying their bodies. The boy is subject to extensive medical and psychological examinations but no understanding of his obsession is ever obtained.
We meet the boy's father, a famous motivational speaker given to quoting the literary canon in his speeches, who does not seem overly concerned or even interested in his son's problem. His mother never enters the picture. The entire story is pretty much taken up with a very scientific sounding account of why the boy has the obsession he has. The language used is that of a medical practitioner with an advanced education in compulsions such as the boy's. We never learn why he developed his compulsion-we see him through maybe ages 6 to 9 or so.
To me this story was interesting, it was a very creative and interesting concept. I would call it clever. I read it because I was curious about Wallace and I am glad I did. Based on this story, I feel no great push to read Infinite Jest. Maybe next year I can work it in my reading life. If any reader has a greater experience with Wallace, please leave a comment
You can read it for free online here