Friday, February 4, 2011

Form or Content? - Some Thoughts - David Foster Wallace

Reading an essay by Pavic (thanks Sid) and chatting with Sid on form and content got me thinking more about it. This is a very old argument and I am not going to take sides here. So why this post? The past 2 days, I have been thinking of some stories which mix both of them, with more emphasis on form. So I thought I would put my thoughts on some of them, starting with this story 'The Soul Is Not A Smithy' by David Foster Wallace. (From the collection 'Oblivion')

The main story line here is this, a substitute school teacher has a mental breakdown while taking a class and holds the entire class room as hostage. Mixed with is the story imagined by a student, who is completely in a world of his own, unaware of what is going on around him and the serious situation in which he has been trapped. He is creating a story in his mind and is in that world. This student could be any one of us, after all, most of us would have, at some of time, tuned out of the class and started living in a world that we create for ourselves. But that is beside the point here. Now, this is not a case of story within story or a single story fragmenting into multiple ones, rather this is a much rare case in fiction where 2 stories are happening simultaneously, in the same time line, with 2 people in the same place and who are bound to each other (teacher-student).It's like seeing two different scenes in a split screen, but as a reader, we read them only one after the other and for us there is a time lag, however small it may be. As the teacher's mental breakdown descends into a madness, the student's imagined story too lurches towards an end.

At some point, I found myself caring more for the story imagined by the student than the actual real time happenings and stopped for a minute. But I thought again, hang on, what is reality and imagination here? Both the stories are fiction here by the same author and so where did the boundary of real story and imagined story come here for me. I think, this is where the author came into play, messing with my mind and blurring the boundary of fiction and reality. Even as the story ended with the student's imagined story left hanging, I was left thinking about it equally as the main story. The main story does not end on a happy note anyway.

The narrative technique, strings along the user. For instance, while reading the student's imagination, you want to know what is happening in the simultaneous timeline and vice versa and as such is a good narrative technique for holding the interest of the user. It may be seem as a gimmick, but it sure requires a certain talent to write without ending up looking like a clumsy idiotic work. For instance, the teacher never says anything directly to the students, he  justs starts writing the words 'Kill Them' again and again in the board. This is more chilling than if we had actually told them directly to the students. Just think about the impact it would have on a classroom when they see their teacher writing this.

I also feel that the narrative technique is not just a simple gimmick. The story could very well be told as a linear one, but I doubt if the impact it had would have been the same. The student's imagined story is also a very dark one and one can infer that he is already a troubled kid. Maybe the story that the kid imagines, is his way of detaching from the problems he has in his life, with this imaginary world being his refuge. The teacher unfortunately does not seem to have this ability. What happens in the class room serves to push him over the edge that he was tottering on. (This is borne out by the epilogue which tells what happened after the incident). The end of childhood for a kid, who is in his own world of creation is bought out implicitly and more poignantly than if it had been a linear story. One also feels for the teacher. Why did he have the breakdown and did what he did. The reason is never told. That he is a substitute teacher, makes us think several things, maybe his job was about to be terminated, he did not have any other job in the offing, or some another completely different problem.
I wouldn't say this is a great story, but one that tries (again as usual with DFW), to push the boundaries of the manner of writing a little bit more.

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