21. Escaping Tulsey Town

It’s time now to at last free ourselves of the smothering atmosphere of Tulsey Town, with it’s all too obvious David Lynch allusions, reference to a novel I don’t really want to read, premonitions of dread that turn out to be vaguely correct but specifically off target. Other than changing the name from Dairy Queen to Tulsey Town, the scene is quite similar in the book, weird varnish smell and all.

They get back on the road and start bickering a bit. The young woman gets annoyed at Jake telling her to “look it up” when in fact it was her who last used that phrase in her Pauline Kael persona. When done arguing about nothing, much in the style of old married couples, the young woman muses that this is the last time they’ll be together in a car and maybe someday they’ll have fond memories of it all and will wonder why it had to end. This sounds very similar to the ending of “Annie Hall” that I brought up yesterday.

Soon afterwards, Jake has fully channeled the “Tulsey Town” advertisement (in black and white, probably from the late 50s or early 60s), complete with a jingle. He performs it flamboyantly. This makes a segue into the phrase “a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again” which brings us to the David Foster Wallace book of essays of the same title and a specific essay Jake has on his mind from that collection — E Unibus Plurum, an essay about television. Jake quotes from the book about gazes:

Pretty people tend to be more pleasing to look at than non-pretty people. But when we’re talking about television, the combination of sheer audience size and quiet audience intercourse between images and oglers starts a cycle that both enhances pretty images’ appeal and erodes us viewers’ own sense of security in the face of gazes.

I have thoughts about this, so many thoughts. For an essayist of my generation, we of course live under the shadow of Montaigne, as all essayists throughout history will because he invented the form, but also Wallace, because my generation anointed him the savior/expert. I just have to say up front, I think this is a really shitty essay from Wallace. It goes on for an intolerable length, ranging over way too many subjects, striking the most imperious tone possible, all to make the point that postmodernism kind of sucks and it’s made us slaves to gazing uncomfortably or being gazed back upon … or maybe he’s just confessing, as Nietzsche says all philosophers do, his own creepy sin, which is that he can’t stop making people (read, women) uncomfortable by starring at them and he wants to blame it all on TV.

Jake, I suspect, too wants to confess that he’s a creepy ogler too. It’s why the girls at Tulsey Town tease and mock him, because he probably walks the hallways of school glaring at them, and has done so for generations. We see this voyeurism of the janitor pop up at a key moment in the film, forcing Jake to confront the projected sin onto him instead of addressing the fault within himself in real time.

So, at least on some level, Jake gets his problem and tries, in a very oblique way, to confess it to the young woman … via a dead writer he somewhat resembles physically who also committed suicide, cleansing him of any living sins. Much of the glow has come off David Foster Wallace in recent years. An excellent book by his former girlfriend Adrienne Miller entitled “In the Land of Men” further deflated his reputation as a great novelist of his time.

What bothers me, however, is that Wallace continues to get a pass for his essays. I actually prefer Wallace’s fiction to his non fiction work. At least his hyperintellectualism in fiction seems to have a point. In his essays, it’s all an exercise in showing off and privileging his forcefully stated opinions as fact by sheer dint of big words and literary/philosophical asides adorning them. And this television one, most of all, is ponderous and self deceptive. What particularly annoyed me was Wallace’s pronouncement that writers are all both voyeuristic and self conscious. To be honest, I consider myself neither. I neither feel a need to visually possess people nor am I obsessed with how others view my appearance. What I spend far too much time worrying about is how people react to my words. I live in near constant fear that people take things I say the wrong way or that I didn’t express them with enough care to avoid eliciting an unfavorable response.

Wallace clearly doesn’t worry about such things because he expresses himself in such a way that puts up a fortress of invincibility around him. One must knock down so many intellectual defenses of adornment and supposed meaning in every Wallace phrase that he’s created a ready-made defense against any misunderstanding — any level of understanding at all is a gargantuan effort. In this essay in particular, DFW could have used a bit of Montaigne’s personal revelation, and maybe just a little bit of vulnerability. Instead, he gave us a blizzard of justification for particularly abusive behavior. And we know now that this was the real him.

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