Short story: “Good People”
by look i have opinions
“Good People,” by David Foster Wallace
Appeared in the February 25th, 2007 issue of the New Yorker (read online here); reprinted in the unfinished novel The Pale King
3,220 words (but only 5 paragraphs)
This story has taken a lot of flak for sentimentality. To me, Lane and his thought process ring true; at the same time I can see why people find it contrived. The prose style is intentionally clumsy. There are odd redundancies like “still and immobile” and, even odder, “it hadn’t brought her comfort or eased the burden at all[,]” where Lane seems to be using his own trite phrase and then tacking on another one he heard in church.
“Good People” seems to get compared to Hemingway‘s “Hills Like White Elephants” often, but the similarity strikes me as superficial and uninteresting. Abortion is a common problem in real life and in fiction; describing a thing without naming it is a common literary technique. The interesting part is when we come to understand, empathetically, why the unnamed thing goes unnamed.
Wallace’s trademark hyper-aware style is muted here (no footnotes, no obvious gags) but still in evidence. His usual agenda is very much in evidence, even in the title: a platitude (She’s good people) transformed into an agonizing moral problem (How can a person be good?). I think it’s been said before, but “What would even Jesus do?” is a line that only Wallace could write—all his variations on “I know this is trite but I mean it,” condensed into five words.
An amateur’s note on narration, point of view, and voice. I think this piece is entirely in limited third person, but not entirely in close third person, if that makes sense. Sometimes when the narration seems to stray outside Lane’s point of view (“he pretended to himself he did not know what it was that was required”), it may just be reflecting his own self-conscious thought process. Other times, the narrator’s knowledge seems to surpass Lane’s: “He knew this without admitting to himself that this was what he wanted, for it would make him a hypocrite and liar.” This might be because the narrator has access to what Lane will know in the future (“[…] what he would later call within his own mind a vision or moment of grace“).
Of course, the lines quoted above are clearly in Lane’s voice, clumsy and self-lacerating and laden with “that”s and “this”es. That’s true of most of the piece. Occasionally we get a word like “suffused,” which I tend to attribute to Wallace.
Edited to add: A line that sticks with me is “It felt like a muscle he didn’t have.” I think that’s the line.