The story is essentially about a little boy whose goal in life is "to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body." (That phrase, with slight variation, is repeated four times in the course of a 4700-word story.) The boy starts this quest while extremely young — at the age of six. No one knows why, least of all the boy. He injures himself early on in his quest:
The outside area of his foot beneath and around the lateral malleolus was the first to require any real contortion. (The young boy thought, at that point, of the lateral malleolus as the funny knob thing on his ankle.) The strategy, as he understood it, was to arrange himself on his bedroom’s carpeted floor with the inside of his knee on the floor and his calf and foot at as close to a perfect ninety-degree angle to his thigh as he could manage. Then he had to lean as far to the side as he could, bending out over the splayed ankle and the foot’s outside, rotating his neck over and down and straining with his fully extended lips [...] toward a section of the foot’s outside that he had marked with a bull’s-eye of soluble ink. He struggled to breathe against the dextrorotated pressure of his ribs, stretching farther and farther to the side, very early one morning, until he felt a flat pop in the upper part of his back and then pain beyond naming somewhere between his shoulder blade and spine. The boy did not cry out or weep but merely sat silent in this tortured posture until his failure to appear for breakfast brought his father upstairs to the bedroom’s door. The pain and resultant dyspnea kept the boy out of school for more than a month. One can only wonder what a father might make of an injury like this in a six-year-old child.The boy's story (he recovers from the injury described above and continues his quest) is interspersed with tales of "holy" men and women and the bodily wounds, the stigmata, they endured, or caused to appear on their bodies, for their faith:
Facts: the Italian stigmatist Padre Pio carried wounds that penetrated both hands and feet medially throughout his lifetime. The Umbrian St. Veronica Giuliani presented with wounds in both hands and feet, as well as in her side, which wounds were observed to open and close on command. The eighteenth-century holy woman Giovanna Solimani permitted pilgrims to insert special keys in her hands’ wounds and to turn them, reportedly facilitating the pilgrims’ own recovery from rationalist despair.Also woven into the story: The boy's father's attempts to bring meaning to his own life with self-help bromides and gurus, which seems not to work too well. The father becomes bored with his wife, and acquires a mistress; he quickly bores of her but can't endure the thought of anyone else having her, so he keeps her, but seeks out yet another mistress ... whom he inevitably gets bored of ... but can't let go. And so on.
According to both St. Bonaventura and Tomás de Celano, St. Francis of Assisi’s manual stigmata included baculiform masses of what presented as hardened black flesh extrudent from both volar planes. If and when pressure was applied to a palm’s so-called “nail,” a rod of flesh would immediately protrude from the back of the hand, exactly as if a real so-called “nail” were passing through the hand.
And yet (fact): Hands lack the anatomical mass required to support the weight of an adult human. Both Roman legal texts and modern examinations of a first-century skeleton confirm that classical crucifixion required nails to be driven through the subject’s wrists, not his hands. Hence the, quote, “necessarily simultaneous truth and falsity of the stigmata” that the existential theologist E. M. Cioran explicates in his 1937 “Lacrimi si Sfinti,” the same monograph in which he refers to the human heart as “God’s open wound.”
The story has that typical and distinct whiff of Cartesian solipsism2 to it that one sees in just about all of Wallace's work: The boy is intensely fixated on his own body to the exclusion of anything else, and, significantly, wants to possess "every square inch of it" with his lips; the father is unsuccessful in his attempts to break out of his own self-involved life of meaningless sexual conquests and is obviously unfulfilled by Dale Carnegie-like positive thinking; even the holy men and women who are trying to be like Christ have the "wrong" wounds — their amazing stories are possibly meaningless in any sense other than a Ripley's Believe It Or Not! one; their wounds could not possibly be like Christ's.
But Wallace's fiction is also typically about trying to find a higher meaning in the quotidian; it is about recognizing that there is a heroic aspect to making it through a typical day — in finding genuine meaning not just in the average, but even in what could be seen as the excruciatingly boring. His posthumous novel, The Pale King, due out next month, is a 500-page story set in an IRS office precisely because being an accountant — and worse still, an accountant for one of the most hated government agencies — is stereotypically boring and excruciatingly unrewarding and possibly even approaches being an unbearable life sentence3. The mantra of many of the recovering addicts in Wallace's Infinite Jest is that no single moment in life, no matter how painful, is, in-and-of-itself, unbearable; the object, your goal, when confronted with what seems unbearable pain, is to make it through, a moment at a time. Some people do make it; some don't. It is easy to see why such an outlook would appeal to Wallace himself, since he was a life-long depressive; he ended up taking his own life at the age of 46 when his anti-depression meds began to fail to work for him; he fell into a prolonged suicidal depression as a result, eventually giving in to the despair and hanging himself
"Backbone" is not a great story, but it is quintessentially Wallacian, and good enough to remind me of why I will miss his unique writing talent.
[Confirmed: This story, "Backbone", is an excerpt from The Pale King.]
1 I like The New Yorker, but I don't subscribe to it and I rarely have the time to read it. My sister-in-law (Teh 'Bride's sister), who lives in NYC, gave me a subscription to it back in, I guess, the mid-to-late nineties? This is back when The NYer's evident policy of publishing only those cartoons that made no sense — that were, it seems, intentionally not funny — was at its height. It was so bad that Seinfeld built an episode around Elaine's quest to find out why a particularly opaque cartoon in The New Yorker was considered funny and therefore publishable. She goes to the offices of The New Yorker and it turns out even the editor does know what's funny about the cartoon — he just likes the kitty in it. I thought this episode was hilarious because that's pretty much how I felt about The NYer's cartoons at the time.
Anyroad, if you follow the link above to the DFW story, the page includes a New Yorker cartoon, and this one is recognizably funny. I mean, more or less. Season to taste. A few years ago on Dr. Seuss' birthday, Stephen Colbert changed the introduction to his show to: "Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!/ This is The Colbert Repoose!", which I thought was so funny I pert-near busted a gut laffin'. (It's certainly better than anything Dr. Seuss himself ever wrote.) I shared this witticism with a friend, who promptly said he didn't "get it". Hmm, thought I, What's not to get? But, you know ... humor. It can be idiosyncratic at times, I guess.
2 The last lines of the story — "He [the boy] would find a way to access all of himself. He possessed nothing that anyone could ever call doubt, inside" — obviously evokes Descartes' own application of universal methodic doubt to establish a bedrock upon which to build unequivocal meaning. But if dubito ergo sum — "I doubt, therefore I am" — proves anything (and it is questionable that it does), all it proves is that I exist and everything external to me exists only in my perception of it. Descartes' method validated solipsism at best.
3 Which it may or may not be in real life; what it is in real life is hardly the point.