By Dayo Olopade
This post is behind the pace of our reading schedule, but indulge me. What on earth to make of this creature? A refresher:
This guru lives off the sweat of others. Literally. The fluids and salts and fatty acids. He’s like a beloved nut. He’s an E.T.A. institution. You do like maybe some sets of benches, some leg-curls, inclined abs, crunches, work up a good hot shellac of sweat; then, if you let him lick your arms and forehead, he’ll pass on to you some little nugget of fitness-guru wisdom. … Some of the newer kids think he’s a creep and want him out of there. What kind of guru wears spandex and lives off others’ perspiration? they complain. God only knows what he does in there when the weight room’s closed at night, they say (128).
What kind of guru indeed? I know not when and where or how, if at all, this “literal” Lyle will seamlessly advance the story of Enfield and Ennet and O.N.A.N.–but he is one of DFW’s rare departures from what is frequently an overdetermined realism. Everything from the “sound of [Joelle's] wood-sole clogs against the receding staccato of brittle women’s high heels on brick” (221) to the “booming Zuckung zuckung zuckung” of Poor Tony’s “high heels’ heels drumming on the soiled floor’s tile” (305) receives a sort of awe-inspiring, real time literary autopsy. And then there is Lyle, a recurring character detailed and contextualized as well as any other, yet so obvious a fantasia as to cry out for investigation.
Providing a behind the back assist in this effort is a charming essay from the Atlantic’s 2009 Fiction issue (a great pickup before a recent 12-hour flight to Shanghai). Therein, novelist Tim O’Brien probes the failure of imagination in contemporary fiction.
[C]lassroom discussion seems to revolve almost exclusively around issues of verisimilitude. Declarations such as these abound: I didn’t believe in that character. I need to know more about that character’s background. I can’s see that character’s face… These are legitimate questions. But for me, as a reader, the more dangerous problem with unsuccessful stories is usually much less complex: I am bored. And I would remain bored even if the story were packed with pages of detail aimed at establishing verisimilitude. I would believe in the store, perhaps, but I would still hate it. To provide background and physical description and all the rest is of course vital to fiction, but vital only insofar as such detail is in the service of a richly imagined story, rather than in the service of good botany or good philosophy or good geography.
Of course, Wallace’s novel practices an intricate form of geography and science and certainly philosophy. But is there a limit to the integration of imagination? O’Brien describes, with great joy, the highly absurd eventuality of tail-possession among his offspring—and concludes that while nonsensical, is it qualitatively better to have tails (aka imagination, unmoored) than not, because tails are inherently interesting.
Lyle, I suppose, is meant to function rather like a tail, waggling creepily from behind this novel. For me, however, he seems a bridge too far. The highly conceptual presentation of annular physics is a plausible, if totally imaginary feature of Wallace’s near-future. But we know, definitively, that man cannot live by sweat alone.