“Totally Hosed”: Adult Life and the Kafkan Parable in Wallace’s “Adult World”
Academic Essay by Taylor Tomko
In 2005, David Foster Wallace delivered a commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College. This speech, which would come to be known as This is Water, argues that education teaches us not so much how to think, but how to choose our thoughts; how to move beyond our ‘default setting’ of only considering ourselves. In the speech, Wallace claims that “if you cannot exercise this kind of choice [of thought] in adult life, you will be totally hosed”; indeed, a character of Wallace’s own creation, the wife from the story “Adult World” in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, spends most of her story ‘totally hosed’ by paralyzing self doubt (This is Water 8:33). In the story, the wife experiences an epiphany which appears to shift her thought process to something closer to what Wallace advocates in This is Water. However, this epiphany is foreshadowed, and results in few changes in the wife’s life. This ineffective epiphany likens to the futility of the ‘search for answers’ Wallace attributes to the work of Franz Kafka. In his essay “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough has been Removed”, Wallace uses the analogy of a locked door to describe the search for meaning in Kafka’s stories, describing this search as “approaching and pounding on this door […] finally, the door opens… and it opens outward- we’ve been inside what we wanted all along” (65). If This is Water is a form of didactic instruction that the wife is meant to follow, it is undercut by the ineffectuality of the epiphany that should lead her in that direction. As the wife’s shift from childhood to adulthood is closer to the gradual epiphanies of Kafka, it is possible to read “Adult World” as Wallace’s take on a Kafkan parable.
Wallace’s interest in parable is evident, as he begins This is Water with one: two young fish are greeted by an older fish, who asks “how’s the water”, prompting one young fish to ask the other “what the hell is water?” (0:20). The meaning- that it is sometimes easy to completely overlook one’s surroundings- is obvious. This particular parable introduces the theme of This is Water: that education “isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather the choice of what to think about” (2:24). The wife in “Adult World”, with her self-fixation, seems unable to do this. The title of this work is ironic, at least in the first segment of the story, “Adult World (I)”, as the narrative does not take place in an ‘adult world’. In “Adult World (1)”, the wife is labelled as “immature [and] inexperienced,” and is unable to use the proper names of genitals, opting instead for “thingie” and “down there” (“Adult World” 140, 139). There are moments in “Adult World (I)” in which the narrative looks on the wife’s actions from a retrospective angle with bracketed statements like “(she realized only later, after she had had an epiphany and rapidly matured)”, foreshadowing that the wife will experience some change by the end of the story (139). The character is even referred to as ‘the young wife’, or a variation of this, until she takes the first step towards her epiphany (calling her ex-lover), and from that point graduates to being referred to by her name, Jeni, or J.O.R.. The couple’s conversations about having children at the beginning of the narrative are limited to “the irrevocable changes and responsibilities that this would commit them to”, separating them from the adult notion of responsibility, and when the wife goes to buy her first dildo, “she had been tense and uncomfortable at Adult World” (137, 139). While ‘Adult World’ is the adult novelty store in which both halves of the couple (separately) buy sexual items, it is also a pivotal site for the wife’s maturation; her journey to an ‘adult world’. The wife is ‘tense and uncomfortable’ at the store in her inexperienced state, yet her epiphany will be initiated by the sight of her husband’s car in the Adult World parking lot, and afterwards she “revisits Adult Wld svrl times; becomes almost a rglr” (160).
While the lack of experience impressed upon the wife anticipates a major development, the narrative simultaneously undercuts this development by making it more gradual than epiphanic. At first glance, the wife appears completely self-absorbed and incapable of recognizing that the sexual issues between her and her husband could have a cause other than herself. The young wife could repeat Wallace’s admission that “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe”, and her narrative would seem to agree (This is Water 5:50). However, the wife’s self-centredness may be a product of chosen ignorance. In This is Water, Wallace points out that sometimes “the most obvious, important realities are the ones that are often the hardest to see and talk about” (1:06). It is clear that the young wife does not want to verbally admit whatever suspicions she may have about her husband’s behaviour, and these suspicions do not even appear to make their way into her conscious mind.
However, in “Adult World (II)” she will retrospectively admit to having them, noting that “suspicions of hsbnd’s ambivalence about ‘sexlife together’ have been in fact prescient intuitions” (“Adult World” 157). This hind-sighted realization might put the wife closer to Wallace’s sufferer of “blind certainty: a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up” (This is Water 5:14). In “Adult World (I)”, these intuitions mainly manifest themselves in the young wife’s nightmares. The first of these dreams mentioned is given its own paragraph: “She sometimes had bad dreams in which they were driving someplace together and every single other vehicle on the road was an ambulance” (“Adult World” 140). Paralleling the obnoxious sirens and lights of the ambulance, the significance of this dream is emphasized by its being an entire paragraph, and the rapid switch back to her anxieties in the next paragraph. The ambulance motif reoccurs in the young wife’s final dream, in which her car is blockaded by emergency vehicles, their “sirens all singing their heart-stopping arias and all their emergency lights activated and flashing in the rain” (151). She then sees in the rear window of the ambulance in front of her, “a hand reaching up from some sort of emergency stretcher or gurney and opening spiderishly out to stroke and slap and press whitely against the rear window’s glass in full view […] so that she sees the highly distinctive ring on the ring finger of the male hand” (152). Knowing the hand to be her husband’s, Jeni pulls her car up next to the driver’s side to see her husband driving the ambulance as well. In the course of the ambulance occurrences in the young wife’s dreams, the husband has moved from being in the same car as the wife to occupying two separate positions within the ambulance, likely a symbol of their growing separation. This dream, which the wife recognizes to be “a kind of compendium of many of the other bad dreams she’d suffered during the early years of her marriage”, hints at several other unconscious suspicions of her husband’s compulsion (151). References to isolated sexual activities are abundant: the ambulance lights are described as ‘spanked pinks’, ‘slapped reds’, and “the blue of critical asphyxia”, and the wife notes sodden Kleenex on the highway, thinking that, “it is when they are wet that you realize why they call Kleenex tissue” (152). Both of these observations tie the dream to the husband’s body in their references to bruising, asphyxia, and tissue, by alluding to the practices of autoerotic asphyxiation and masturbation. Another function of her husband’s body in the final dream, which the young wife has considered before, is sneezing. In the final dream, she imagines her husband “ceaselessly sneezing” on the stretcher, while earlier in the narrative she notes that during sex “the husband’s face sometimes wore […] less an expression of pleasure than of intense concentration, as if he were about to sneeze and trying not to (152, 146). Just before describing her husband’s habitual facial expression, the wife recounts a dream in which the husband is “calculatingly making the sounds and facial expressions of having his climax but withholding it, […] then afterwards going into the master bathroom and making horrid faces at himself while he climaxed into the toilet” (145). Sneezing is both a function of the body, and a sensation considered to be not unlike an orgasm; in this case, the young wife’s unconscious mind could be combining with the conscious, as the husband is likely to be holding in his orgasm during sex so he can masturbate afterwards.
Another important feature of these dreams, which the ambulance episodes include, is the wife’s fixation on her husband’s car; she notes that, “the bad dreams at night were brief and upsetting and seemed always to concern either the husband or his car in ways she could not pin down” (144). Outside of the dreams involving the ambulance, the wife has a reoccurring dream in which “the husband’s car with its special license plate […] driving very slowly up the street towards the firm and then passing the firm without stopping and proceeding off down the wet street to some other destination” (146). The other destination is likely Adult World, a location at which the husband’s car is constantly called attention to. At one point it is noted that “neither time she had hurried out of the parking lot [at Adult World] did the young wife see any cars she ever recognized”, foreshadowing her eventual sighting of her husband’s car in the lot (143). The actions of her husband’s car in the dreams, driving past the expected destination to go elsewhere, will be mirrored by the wife after her epiphany when she abandons her former lover at the Holiday Inn. The husband’s car, notably, is also connected to the limited conscious thoughts the wife has about his secret. The ‘special license plate’ on the husband’s car, we will learn, reads ‘YEN4U’. The licence plate makes his car distinctive in the Adult World parking lot, and ‘YEN4U’ also appears elsewhere in the narrative: as the title of a sub-chapter of “Adult World” between “Part One. The Ever-Changing Status of the Yen” and “Part Three. Adult World”. The chapter briefly describes a moment from the wife’s youth, in which she reads a short poem graffitied in a rest stop bathroom. The poem is about men’s sexual practices “when women weren’t invented” (150). The wife “sometimes thought of it, for no apparent reason, in the darkness in her marriage’s immature years”, another hint that she might have a better idea of what her husband is hiding from her than she lets on (150).
In order to distract herself from her suspicions, the wife is more likely to fall into the trap Wallace describes of “get[ting] lost in abstract arguments inside [my] head, instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on in front of me” (This is Water 7:40). The majority of “Adult World (I)” is the wife’s internal debate about what aspects of herself her husband is not attracted to. The wife’s digressions are infrequent, and usually recount a dream or a detail about her husband’s career as a Stochastic Currency Analyst. These interruptions are almost always framed by the wife’s concerns about herself, and seem to occur at moments where the wife does not want to continue her train of thought, such as the shift from “the X-rated videotape had explicit colour photos of women giving their partners oral sex right there on the box” to “Stochastic meant random or conjectural or containing numerous variables that all had to be monitored closely” (142). She is choosing to get lost in the abstractions, instead of facing the reality she is likely aware of. The wife’s willingness to ignore her surroundings will facilitate the retrospective lens that hovers over the narrative, allowing her to admit her willful ignorance in hindsight, ignorance which is highlighted with statements such as “never once had she checked a discover statement” (144). The wife pities her old self, noting that “when, later, […] she reflected on the towering self-absorption of her naiveté in those years, the wife always felt a mixture of contempt and compassion for the utter child she had been” (144).
For the wife to see through this matured lens, she must first have the epiphany. The epiphanic moment of “Adult World (II)” is made obvious by the narrator; in the chapter before it takes place, the narrator establishes what an epiphany is, stating that: “in secular psychodevelopmental terms, an epiphany is a sudden, life-changing realization, one that often catalyzes a person’s emotional maturation”, then undercuts this notion by following it with “in reality, genuine epiphanies are extremely rare. In contemporary adult life, maturation and acquiescence to reality are gradual processes”, a more fitting description of the wife’s experience (150). However non-epiphanic it may be, the narration of the epiphany calls attention to itself. The epiphany begins a new chapter titled “Adult World (II)”, signalling a shift from the story up until that point, which has been “Adult World (I)”. The form also changes from prose to something resembling a scene breakdown. In an interview with Patrick Arden for Book Magazine, Wallace stated that “the big reason to have ‘Adult World (II)’ in outline form is that for myself as a reader I don’t buy epiphanies done dramatically anymore” (Arden), and indeed, the wife’s realization mocks the usual epiphanic drama with moments such as “flat narr description of J.’s sudden pallor & inability to hold decaf steady as J. undergoes sddn blndng realization that hsbnd is a Secret Compulsive Masturbator” (“Adult World” 156). In the Book Magazine interview, Wallace states that “some of the stories [in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men] that look the weirdest […] were designed to try to access emotional stuff in a different way” (Arden). A possibility for the angle towards emotion taken in “Adult World (II)” is that it imposes a sense of detachment onto an ‘emotional moment’. This sense of detachment follows through until the end of the story in both scene breakdown form, and in content, as the wife does not engage with the husband’s psychological issues, instead following in his footsteps and becoming a frequent masturbator herself. Appropriately, her favourite fantasy is one of conceit: “a faceless, hypertrophic male figure who loves but cannot have J.O.R. spurns all other living women & chooses instead to mastrbte daily to fantasies of lvmking w/ J.O.R.” (“Adult World” 160). While this activity is inherently self-obsessed, and perhaps not everything This is Water’s Wallace might hope for, the wife makes some level of progress towards maturation and engagement with that which is outside herself. Just after her epiphany, “J. finds herself weeping for F.L & F.L.’s dwindling image instead of for self. Weeps for hsbnd, ‘… how lonely his secrets must make him’”, the first moment in the story consideration for others has not been used as a distraction from her own neurosis (158). The wife reaches a form of compromise in her relationship, as she “continues to love […] hsbnd even tho she no longer believes he’s ‘wonderful’” (160), and, in contrast to the couple of “Adult World (I)”, “Adult World (II)” ends with a couple who, “were ready thus to begin, in a calm and mutually respectful way, to discuss having children [together]” (161). It is possible that what seems like partial development as far as Wallace’s ideals in This is Water are concerned might be all that is possible. If the story finishes in what can be considered an ‘adult world’, is there room for more education?
In the Book Magazine interview, Wallace states: “One of my friends said, ’Everyone is so completely fucking doomed in this,’ because they are. They have a reasonable sense of what’s going on and they’re very self-aware. God knows they’re self conscious. And yet they’re trapped” (Arden). Over the course of “Adult World”, the wife has received a mixed breed of education: she demonstrates a greater capability to choose her thoughts, but her interest in engagement lessens; whereas before “it simply felt impossible” to speak to her husband about her concerns (143), after her epiphany the wife “finds she does not care” (160). Given her probable prior knowledge of her husband’s secret, and the lack of change once she has discovered it, very little has changed for the wife. In this sense, “Adult World” is Wallace’s definition of Kafkaesque. If the shift from childhood to adulthood designates that the wife has found what she is looking for, she has certainly “been inside what [she] wanted all along” (Wallace, “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness 65). In Kafka’s own story “On Parables”, one character says to another, “if you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid yourself of all your daily cares”; the other character replies, “I bet that is also a parable”, to be told he has “won […] in reality. In parable you have lost”. If Wallace’s “Adult World” and This is Water are similarly invested in parable, this reading of the wife’s progression is more similar to Kafka’s “On Parables”. Given the rather pessimistic denouement of Wallace’s story, it is possible that “Adult World” expresses Kafka’s more accurate, inverted, parable: the wife has ‘won in reality’ by becoming an adult, but she does not win parable in Wallace’s terms. Perhaps this is Wallace’s definition of adult life; even he admits that his brand of thinking is hard, and “if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it” (This is Water 16:05). While This is Water professes hope, “Adult World” might be Wallace’s admission that this form of adult life is too much to hope for.
Arden, Patrick. “David Foster Wallace Warms Up”. Book Magazine. 1999. Web. 28 November, 2015. Retrieved from: < http://patrickarden.com/DavidFosterWallace.html>.
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