Short story: “Forever Overhead”

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“Forever Overhead,” by David Foster Wallace

From his collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; I also found it online here; also, there’s a three-part audiorecording by the author (1/2/3)

3,956 words

I had no idea this was over 2,000 words. Actually, to be honest, my first guess (before rereading) was 1,000. I remember it felt like flash fiction when I first read it.

I read it again and it still felt like flash fiction. There’s certainly very little action, but by rights that ought to make the story feel long and slow—we get a lot of detail about the changes in the main character’s thirteen-year-old body, his relationship with his family, paragraphs and paragraphs of descriptions of everything around him, and it somehow takes 2,087 words for him to get out of the pool and walk over to the ladder of the diving board, then another 778 to climb onto the actual platform. And yet the whole thing feels compressed. You can feel how the boy’s entire life and consciousness is getting narrowed down to this one brief experience, his first time jumping off the high board.

And that narrowing is deliberate on his part, because he has decided that “being scared is caused mostly by thinking.” I got very tense reading this. The boy’s fear is barely mentioned, but every description (the thinness of the ladder rungs, the divers’ violent disappearances into the water) is both sensuous and ominous. He notices how everyone standing in line to dive looks bored: “It seems impossible that everybody could really be this bored.” He sees the two dark spots at the end of the board, left by people’s feet, and knows their significance. He understands what makes it possible for a person to jump: “She was part of a rhythm that excludes thinking. […] The rhythm seems blind. Like ants. Like a machine.” The danger is palpable. I don’t know if the danger is that he will lose himself in the line of mindless, jumping people, or that (as the title suggests) he’ll be humiliatingly paralyzed by his own thinking and never make it to the end of the board. Or maybe it’s something else that waits for him after he takes that leap.

Miscellaneous notes:

1. I’ve never heard a really good explanation of how second-person narration works. A lot of people like to interpret it as somehow addressing and implicating the reader, but this makes very little sense to me. Maybe I haven’t played enough role-playing games. To me, second person mostly feels like first person minus the “voice,” or with a muted voice—first person once removed. It’s like the way you might talk to yourself in your head, and probably that’s why it feels more intimate than first person. “I” seems to imply a definite sense of self and therefore of the boundaries of the self. “You,” addressed to a point-of-view character, is less definite.

The book Understanding David Foster Wallace says the boy’s “new self-consciousness […] has split him into a self and an entity conscious of that self,” which I guess is similar to what I’m saying. “You” self-consciousness and “I” self-consciousness are different animals, though.

2. On this reread, I was surprised to realize that even as Wallace gets inside this thirteen-year-old’s skin, he doesn’t make any real effort to stay within his voice or vocabulary. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since the character probably isn’t yet capable of any sort of eloquence about his observations and feelings.

Then again, the opening paragraph might give the impression that the narration will be done very simply, using the kinds of words any thirteen-year-old might know, possibly even in an approximation of his voice: “Your thirteenth is important. Maybe your first really public day.” The simplicity stays, but starting in the second paragraph we get observations that we know he can’t yet express: pubescent body hair is “[h]ard dangerous spirals of brittle black hair.” Dangerous is the character’s feeling but not his word. There are also some observations that don’t seem of immediate importance to the character, observant though he is: “Around the deck of this old public pool on the western edge of Tucson is a Cyclone fence the color of pewter, decorated with a bright tangle of locked bicycles.” The descriptions of setting end up conveying his mental state very powerfully, but they’re not descriptions he would be likely to attempt himself.

I often see readers complaining about this kind of disagreement between the voice and the point of view, but personally I seem to be tone-deaf in this regard; I barely notice it unless I’m looking for it. To date, I haven’t read any reviews of this story criticizing it for the absence or falseness of the character’s voice. Does that mean it’s a success?