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Four comments on ‘Octet’

We offer a few thoughts about 'Octet'
Newton's cradle with scrunched-up light bulbs, one of which is lit up


‘Octet’ has no defined genre. At the start of ‘Pop Quiz 9’ Wallace says he intends it to be a ‘cycle’ of ‘belletristic pieces’ (that is, an artistic piece that does not fit into major categories such as novels, short stories, etc.). He denies the pieces are flash fiction, short stories, fables, allegories or contes philosophiques (that is, a sort of philosophical fairy tale intended to make a moral point). Wallace is trying to do something new: use postmodern, metafiction to be genuine and moral and connect directly with his readers. Hence alerting us to the fact ‘Octet’ does not fit into any existing category, because he is trying to do something new with postmodernism.

The final pop quiz is, in one sense, outside the cycle of eight pieces (we don’t actually have eight), because it did not fit the original plan of an organic cycle whose parts interact to create a greater whole. In Pop Quiz 9, Wallace directly addresses the reader, though at first the reader feels they are in another scenario, until it seems Wallace is describing his difficulty in writing ‘Octet.’ Wallace adds footnotes that read like notes to himself, or an internal dialogue between himself as writer and editor. This section now seems to combine a direct address from author to readers, an author’s internal dialogue, and the metafictional games of postmodern authorship.

Challenge to reader

One feature of the stories is they are presented as pop quizzes, an American educational strategy of short tests given without prior warning (and which count towards the final grade). Wallace is testing his readers, challenging them, trying to discover if they have the same moral/anthropological intuition as him.

One feature of the stories is that their questions are unanswerable on the information given. In Pop Quiz 4, readers are asked a ‘factual’ question they cannot know. In Pop Quiz 6, there is no question because the whole scenario collapses in ambiguity. In Pop Quiz 9, the back and forth between metafiction and seemingly honest address makes it undecidable whether Wallace is honestly addressing the reader or playing a metafictional game. The final sentence, ‘So decide,’ therefore asks the reader to make an impossible decision. This echoes Sartre’s famous claim in Existentialism is a Humanism that moral theories cannot guide our moral choices and we must therefore simply choose or decide not only what to do but what values to have. It is also reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s notion of the ‘leap of faith’ in which a person chooses to have faith without sufficient evidence.

Zadie Smith, in an essay, writes of ‘Octet’: ‘How you feel about ‘Octet’ will make or break you as a reader of Wallace, because what he’s really asking is for you to have faith in something he cannot possibly ever finally determine in language.’ (‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace’ in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays). What the reader decides will perhaps be influenced by what they think of Wallace’s wider work but within ‘Octet’ itself, another challenge for the reader is negotiating the structure of the text. Not only is there the question of how the pieces relate to one another but some footnotes are so long and involved that they pull the reader out of the stories and require re-reading to find one’s place again. There is a tension between head and heart, between the intellectual work required to understand what Wallace is doing and the emotional pull of the scenarios. The former can seem to interrupt the latter but the two come together at the end when Wallace reduces the barriers between reader and writer.

Readers and writer

At the end of ‘Octet’ Wallace puts the writer in the place of the reader, in the ‘mud of the trenches’ rather than some Olympian height, after he has been putting the reader in the shoes of the writer, by inviting the reader to consider some of the compositional and editorial decisions Wallace faced in writing the piece (e.g., footnotes 7 to 11). This is a way of connecting to the reader by revealing to us the complex and angsty workings of his mind who is not in fact full of ‘unwavering conviction’. Form, rather than being a technical game, is used to open up to the reader. However, highlighting these authorial decisions also involves making the reader very aware of the form, in a metafictional way and we may also suspect a manipulation of the reader in the very act of revealing his vulnerabilities.

Place within the book

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men comprises 23 stories, with ‘Octet’ the middle story. Wallace has made it structurally central (with 11 stories either side of it), suggesting it is the most important. There is lots of metafiction in this book, and lots of genre-bending or unclassifiable pieces. Wallace’s use of metafiction in ‘Octet’ can therefore be seen as a statement about how he wants us to read the rest of the work. These stories are not just games or intellectual showing off, they are attempts at genuine moral communication. For example, the repeated interviews are with men who are hideous precisely because the use or manipulate women and are unwilling to pay the price to be with them. ‘Octet’ also serves as a comment on, and almost direct opposite to, other stories in the collection. For instance, the first story, ‘A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,’ contains two characters trying to be liked by the other:

‘When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.’

This story contains characters who want to be liked by others but dare not say so explicitly (c.f. Wallace’s party metaphor in ‘Octet’), and suffer loneliness because they are unable to make an authentic connection with each other.

The third character does not like others, but pretends to do so, perhaps in order to have a greater chance of obtaining something from them later. The character who introduces the other two simultaneously represents the postmodern author who does not actually like or care for his/her characters but uses them to preserve good relations with readers.

Wallace is thus asking readers to think about their society and place in it through his philosophical fiction.

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David Foster Wallace: Literature and Philosophy

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