‘All That’ by David Foster Wallace

All That by David Foster Wallace, 2009

The magic trick:

Dropping life knowledge

Published about a year after the author’s death, this story plunges the reader into the depths of holiday-tinged self-analysis by our unnamed narrator. He received a toy cement mixer one Christmas as a child, and years later he still is puzzling over its meaning and impact on his life.

Sound interesting?

It shouldn’t.

I mean, the thing is, Wallace clearly was very insightful. There are some very interesting connections to be found here. Magic, religion, the wonder of childhood, memory, relationships between parents and their child. It’s just painful – to me at least – to tease those insights out when the very story itself is about a man pondering those insights.

The level of narcissism here is laughable.

I expect those insights from fiction. That’s partly why I read. But I also read to be entertained. You can’t blend those insights into a plot for me? Do a little work? Make it a little more subtle and a little less naval gazing?

Rant over. The insights are good. Amazing, even. There are some beautiful ideas here – and I shouldn’t take that for granted. And that’s quite a trick on Wallace’s part.

The selection:

What I remember feeling was an incredible temptation to ask my father a question as he delightedly described these traps, and at the same time a huge and consuming but amorphous and nameless fear that prevented my asking the question. The conflict between the temptation and my inability to ask the question (owing to a fear of ever seeing pain on my father’s pink, cheerful, placid face) caused me to weep with an intensity that must have caused my parents—who saw me as an eccentric and delicate child—no little guilt over their “cruel” invention of the cement mixer’s magic. Under various pretexts, they bought me an exceptional number of toys and games in the months following that Christmas, trying to distract me from what they saw as a traumatic obsession with the toy cement mixer and its “magic.”


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2 thoughts on “‘All That’ by David Foster Wallace

  1. Not so much the DFW story-in-question, but the SSMT commentary in response gets at the double-mirror essence of fiction itself — a pondering that continues to make this site valuable. Thanks.

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