Editor's note: This entry was originally published on the author's website on Sept. 30, 2012 and appears here by special permission. -HG
In class this week, a student presented his craft dissection of DFW’s brief story Incarnations of Burned Children. He asked us all to re-read the story quickly before we began discussion. Almost immediately, one of the students said she was going to the bathroom; she couldn’t bear to live through the 7th sentence again. I admit I skimmed over it myself; I’ve changed way too many diapers to want to relive the unpeeling of this particularly awful piece of bunting. Just looking at the shape of the text and remembering what would unfold there was enough to make me feel shaken.
We’ve just finished reading Keith Oatley’s Such Stuff as Dreams, and had spent the first hour of class talking about the way the brain responds to fiction—how, for example, when a group of children crane their heads to look up in the sky at the beginning of Kevin Brockmeier’s The Ceiling, the reader’s neck tenses. And how the physiological reactions we have during reading create emotional states that mirror real experience. Mimesis at work.
In our own ways, each of us apparently had extreme, and emotional, reactions to the David Foster Wallace story. We talked about the lack of paragraphing, the flow of the sentences, the choice of water-laden language. And then we got to the end of the story, and the weirdest thing happened. It became clear that the ambiguity of the ending had been translated by each of the thirteen of us in one of two different ways. Those of us who had had children believed the child in the story had died. Those of us who were childless believed the child in the story had left his body due to extreme pain, but that he was still alive. All thirteen of us felt release and relief in that last sentence, but what we pictured was what OUR hearts had decided was the best fate for the injured child.
If anything could illustrate the crazy way that great writing affects us all, but affects us all according to who we are as individuals, I think this story does the job. It’s about leaving the holes open, the ambiguities there, but using language that guides the emotions to a place of completion. How satisfying it is to realize how much of ourselves and our histories we bring to our reading. And how marvelous it is when we are in the hands of a masterful craftsperson who knows precisely which details to hold back.
Susan Scarf Merrell is the author of The Accidental Bond: How Sibling Connections Influence Adult Relationships, and of the novel A Member of the Family. She teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literature at Stony Brook Southampton, served as fiction editor of TSR: The Southampton Review, and is director of the Southampton Writers Conference. Her second novel, Shirley, about a young woman who goes to live with novelist Shirley Jackson and Stanley Edgar Hyman in their Bennington home in 1964, is published by Blue Rider/Penguin Books in hardcover and Plume in paperback.