Short story: “Good Old Neon”

by look i have opinions

“Good Old Neon,” by David Foster Wallace

First appeared in issue 37 (fall 2001) of Conjunctions (subscribe) and was collected in Oblivion and anthologized in O. Henry Prize Stories 2002; available in PDF form ; also online here

17,935 words, counting mathematical elements and a fragment of code at the end

Googling reviews of this story, I happened upon this interesting cry for help. I don’t have actual advice for anonymous, but there are two things I wanted to say to Neal in the story:

  1. Could it possibly be okay to be a fraud? Is it possible that someone who is incapable of choosing not to be a fraud would be capable of choosing to be a fraud, and of finding a way to be comfortable in fraudulence, and being harmless and even helpful to other (presumably nonfraudulent) people?
  2. Isn’t it possible that people who seem genuine and sincere actually have something fraudulent about them, somewhere inside?* And that that fraudulence doesn’t necessarily negate their value as people, but is just a common human flaw that they live with?

The story anticipates both responses. Neither seems to occur to pre-death Neal, but post-death Neal hints that all real-life communication is incomplete and therefore in some sense fraudulent:

And you think it makes you a fraud, the tiny fraction anyone else ever sees? Of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it’s only a part. Who wouldn’t?

Like a lot of people talking about Wallace post-death, anonymous admits to being scared that the author never did escape his “war with himself.” Not convinced of this. Wallace’s biggest war was apparently against his own head, the kind of war nobody ever really wins in the end, which makes me think the inner war “David Wallace ’81” survived was something more contained. It’s possible neither of those wars was what killed him. I prefer to believe he died of chemical causes that it would be misleading, as well as heartbreaking, to narrativize as personal flaws or spiritual crises—I mean, I prefer to read the nonfiction of Wallace’s life as nonfiction. Life is hard enough without elevating every accident to a tragedy. Anyway, good luck, anonymous.

Some notes on how this story works:

  • Post-death Neal is the narrator. Towards the end it becomes clear that he’s addressing either pre-death Neal or someone eerily similar in the moments leading up to his suicide. The actual death takes place, appropriately, in a footnote: it has the finality of coming at the end of a page but makes no pretense of being an actual ending. When we finish it, we return to the main text and find that, just as the narrator suggests, no time has passed at all.
  • The metafictional framing of the story is amazingly internally consistent. Neal implies that Wallace could be either channeling him or simply trying to empathize, and that it doesn’t especially matter which it is. There’s none of the tired This is just a story. Instead there’s something like This is one possible and valid story, and even if it didn’t really happen this way, it’s worth imagining and telling.
  • The “neon” of the title comes up twice, connecting the two points of view that go into the narration. First, it’s the image the narrator himself uses to evoke one’s life flashing through one’s mind like a cursive neon sign. Then it’s David Wallace’s memory of Neal as having a “seemingly almost neon aura around him” back in high school. The great thing about this image is that it suggests both dazzling beauty and cheap advertising. (There’s a neon light in Vertigo that has a similar double meaning, at once ethereal and tawdry. That’s an exciting film if you’re interested in the mingling of fakeness and authenticity.)

Other stuff:

  • At one point, the narrator mentions an overheard conversation between his stepparents about his stepsister possibly missing what he calls her “time of the month” due to an eating disorder. He goes on, “That period passed on its own, but […] I’d always remembered this and other periods when I’d been cruel or tried to make her feel bad”—apparently unconscious of the double meaning of the word. In context, there’s no special reason for him to emphasize menstruation or underline his own discomfort about the topic. Odd little verbal echoes or innuendos of this sort come up frequently in Wallace’s fiction—in this story, the word “firepower” is a big one. The “period” bit may be a hint that it’s not really Neal who’s choosing his words. The narration is getting filtered through someone else who has oddities and discomforts of his own. (Edited to add: I’m almost sure this thought isn’t original to me, but I can’t find the blog post or essay that inspired it.)
  • Compared to “The Depressed Person,” this story doesn’t make me feel as much of the constant tension of juggling reactions and interpretations. Neal’s narration reads as more or less straightforward, even flat, in spite of his occasional oddities. And yet I still don’t find it completely boring. Shouldn’t 10,000+ words of rambling backstory be boring? I’m not even sure if all those pages are necessary. It must be hard to edit something that’s both well crafted and intentionally clumsy.
  • Referring to one’s adoptive family as a stepfamily is unusual. I can’t tell if Neal was literally adopted by his stepparents (making him an orphan or abandoned child) or if he’s using the terminology to maintain the distance of their relationship.
  • I guess this is technically a novella.


Edited the day before Tax Day (U.S.) 2013:

(It turns out there are things that you can discuss in a suicide note that would just be too bizarre if expressed in any other kind of venue.)

I’ve been thinking about this parenthetical. I’m no head doctor, but it seems to me that this sums up a big part of Neal’s problem: he can’t bring himself to talk about things that are important to him except by removing them from their normal context. He has to narrate his entire story from the afterlife. I wonder if writing suicide notes could be a productive therapeutic exercise.


*One last edit to add that I’ve always found the charismatic fish-tank cross pretty funny. Neal really is oblivious to other people’s pretensions, at least while he’s alive. He retains that obliviousness throughout his narration, but I think he’s putting it on for the benefit of the reader/listener, much the same way that an adult narrator can temporarily put on the naivety of their childhood self.