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These details are important because they create a disconnect between the character of David Wallace and the author. David Foster Wallace has lured us to believe that the fourth wall has been broken when in fact it hasn’t. We thus cannot view the story as an allegory of Wallace’s struggle with the process of writing as to do so would be to conflate David Wallace the character and David Foster Wallace the author, which are clearly distinct entities.
Our attention, then, must stay focused on the relationship between Neal and the character of David Wallace, one that is purely fictional. As Hudson states, ‘Wallace is not in a position to make any definitive statements about what drove Neal to kill himself.’ Their relationship was clearly a distant one: Wallace sees him as just some two-dimensional ‘guy a year ahead of in school’ (180) – ‘happy and unreflective and wholly unhaunted by voices telling him that there was something deeply wrong with him.’ It is clear, through his tenuous connection to Neal and only knowing him through appearances, that Wallace’s conception of Neal’s thoughts is pure conjecture. This then leaves open to question just how Wallace constructed the avatar of Neal. Toon States raises an interesting ‘question for Wallace readers to ponder: since we attribute feelings to others when we put ourselves in their shoes, is empathy but a projection of the self?’ In trying to ‘reconcile what [Neal] had seemed like from the outside with whatever on the interior must have driven to kill himself,' Wallace seems to have transferred his own experience of ‘literally indescribable war with himself’ onto Neal. Hudson sees this as ‘a recursive act of solipsism,’ but such a reading seems to discount the theme of human connection within the story. Whilst trying to empathise with Neal, we are told that David Wallace was ‘also fully aware that the cliché that you can’t ever truly know what’s going on inside someone’s head is hoary and insipid,’ and then has ‘the realer, more enduring and sentimental part of him commanding that other part to be silent as if looking it levelly in the eye and saying, almost aloud, ‘Not another word.’’ Neal’s suicide came about from his adherence to the part of him that recognised clichés as ‘hoary and insipid’, and how he found the ‘banality’ of his life ‘unendurable.'. David Wallace, by silencing this part of himself and allowing a commonality between him and a man he never really knew take hold, refuses to do the same. His mirroring of himself onto Neal is not solipsistic. On the contrary: in doing it, he is attempting to establish a human connection, a binding truth that he will not allow to be dismissed as mere cliché. The ‘cliché that you can’t ever truly know what goes on inside someone’s head’ is true, but, the story suggests, we should at least try.
“Good Old Neon” is not an advocate for the incessant use of clichés. Instead, it is a story that highlights the importance of the emotions beneath them and demonstrates how the frame of mind that dismisses clichés is one that has the potential to enchain emotion and inhibit expression. It illustrates the importance of finding common feelings between people and one that teaches to be ‘willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes…, accusations of sentimentality,' to find a new sincerity.
Image Credits: npr.org