Backbone – David Foster Wallace – Subject and Direction

In the posthumously published excerpt from The Pale King entitled “Backbone” by David Foster Wallace, the reader follows a young boy with a goal: to be able to kiss every inch of his own body.  The story is captivating in its subject, but ultimately suffers from a lack of direction.

After the boy severely injures his spine, he receives instruction on incremental stretching from the chiropractor who helps him.  There is no reason for why the boy desires to kiss every inch of his body, but there doesn’t need to be.  Do children, let alone adults, always know what motivates?  The story marks the years as the boy makes progress, and not only does he change physically, but changes mentally and emotionally as well.  Words to describe him are: calm, unusually poised, self-containing, and dutiful.  The meditative concentration required to spend hours a day stretching have allowed him to develop a calmness of spirit and mind.  The boy’s calmness is at odds with his father’s frenetic career and relationships with women.

One way to look at “Backbone” is to divide up the sections.

  1. The boy’s obsession with being able to kiss himself.
  2. Seemingly nonfiction accounts of contortionists and sufferers of stigmata.
  3. The father’s own youthful obsession with betterment/success, and his cowardice toward women.

On the surface, the boy’s story is independent of the father’s, except when the father draws comparisons from the boy to himself.  Is the story about the boy?  The father?  Or, is it about both of them?  What do the bits of nonfiction add?

The nonfiction bits are interesting, provide some context/history perhaps, but seem like they could have been edited out.  This is a physical story.  The boy wants to be wholly accessible to himself.  The father wants women to access himself.  Perhaps, the passages about stigmata and contortionists illustrate how others are able to access these people through their abilities.

Earlier, I mentioned the story lacked direction.  The moment when I started to think that was when details began to emerge in a way that lacked subtlety.  The boy’s mother, who is completely absent from the story, is briefly mentioned as the cause for the father to seek extramarital affairs.  The father is described with phrases like, “this is when the torture started,” a echo to his son’s torturous stretching.  Moreover, words like “almost contort himself,” “lack of backbone,” and “contorted suffocation” in three adjoining paragraphs make the comparison so overt as to be disappointingly obvious.

Then, the story meanders back toward the boy and how he will overcome the inability to kiss the back of his neck, etc.  “He would find a way to access all of himself.  He possessed nothing that anyone could ever call doubt, inside.”  The boy will overcome.  He will achieve success, but that success may not be recognizable to anyone outside the boy, especially his father.

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