1. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Short Story Club (7): Incarnations of Burned Children by David Foster Wallace

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by thirdwind, Mar 26, 2013.

    For this discussion we'll be reading "Incarnations of Burned Children" by David Foster Wallace. You can find a copy of the story here.

    David Foster Wallace is probably best known for his novel Infinite Jest. He seems to be a fairly popular writer, at least here in America, though I admit I've never read anything by him before. Some of his influences include Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon.
     
  2. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    Thanks for the input! It was very useful in collecting my thoughts, and I'm still not sure what to think.

    The majority of the story is one scene scene. A very vivid disturbing scene which feels like it's going on forever (I think the very long sentences contribute to that feeling). I like the point you make about the lack of moral. For example I don't see any thoughts about how the accident could have been avoided, in fact I don't really see any opinions at all. Naturally most of the story unfolds itself, given the setting, yet I get the impression that Wallace aimed to write it that way. Focusing only on the action, the accident itself, and the actions.

    I think I need some help to crack this one :) But I have two questions:

    Two questions:

    - Did the baby die at the end? Notice the shift of POV
    - What is the meaning of the title (somewhat related to the first question)?
     
  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    This is certainly a powerful story. It's interesting how the father blames the mother even though it looks like this was just an accident where no one was to blame. It was just something that happened.

    I reread the last sentence a few times to make sure I understood what was happening. I'm still not sure what to make of it, however. It's hard for me to say for sure whether the child lived or died. One interpretation I had was that the child died, and the parents had another child who is considered the reincarnation of their previous child. I took the line "the child had learned to leave himself and watch the whole rest unfold from a point overhead" to mean that the child who had burned ascended into Heaven, and the line "whatever was lost never thenceforth mattered..." to mean that the death of their child was behind them because a new one had arrived.

    Another interpretation I had was that the child lived but underwent a significant spiritual transformation ("lived its life untenanted"; I took this to mean that the soul that previously occupied the body was no more). The body lived a very mechanical life, doing things that all people do ("walked about and drew pay"). Essentially, the child lost its spirituality and its soul. Furthermore, it's very likely that the parents were more traumatized than the child. After all, the child is very young (wears a diaper), and I wonder if children this young can clearly remember events and be able to recall them later in life.

    I'm going to have to think about the story a little more before I post more thoughts. Who knows, maybe my interpretation will change.
     
  4. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I read it again just now and noticed a few more things.

    First, it's interesting to note the different reactions from the Daddy and the Mommy. The Daddy is the one who tries to help the child by trying to stop the burning with cold water, wetting a towel and wrapping it around the child, and taking off the diaper. The Mommy, on the other hand, mostly stands by and watches (of course, she is just as traumatized as the Daddy). The thing I took away from this was that neither the Daddy's actions nor the Mommy's inaction were enough to help the child. Furthermore, the story begins with the Daddy hanging up the door. If we are to go along with this theme of action/inaction, then we have to wonder what the Mommy is doing during this time. Based on this, I think it's really easy to blame the Mommy for what happened to the child. This actually made me think a little of traditional gender roles.

    Second, I don't know much about DFW's life, but I do know he was battling severe depression toward the end of his life. I wonder if the child was somehow a representation of himself. Both DFW and the child were victims of something that wasn't anyone's fault. It was merely something that happened, a fact of life. DFW may be subtly acknowledging that despite the good intentions of those around him, he was beyond help. I usually don't like looking into a writer's life when thinking about a story or novel, but given his depression and the theme of this story, it might be worth looking into.

    Lastly, does anyone have any thoughts on the bird that was in the tree outside the house? I'm not sure what to make of it. It seems out of place given what's going on, but I'm probably not looking at this the right way.
     
  5. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Very interesting little story. I think it is obviously about growing up and having something (wrong with you) almost from birth, something you can't help anyway, and frankly I can really sympathize with that.

    What I liked, though, that it wasn't too heavily symbolic. I was really impressed with the father's want for a smoke after he initial 'helping' was over. I'm not sure that means anything at all, but it's good for fleshing out that character. Something not a lot of writers would really bother with with such a short short story story. However, the writing style was a bit weird, and some of the descriptions, like 'objectless words' did seem a bit contrived at times, the writing was excellent. And that is likely to be purely personal taste anyway.

    For some reason I can't help but associate this with severe depression, but maybe that's the point. You apply your own failings to the story?

    I don't know. More later with a reread. And I'm tired. And I'll admit it, I have never read anything by Wallace before.
     
  6. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I will definitely check this story out, but my 3 year old is on me right now, making it difficult to concentrate. I haven't read any of Wallace's work, but I did read the recent bio by D T Maxx of his life. He did have depression or bi-polar disorder, and took his own life when he was only about 45 years old. The book was very good, and I recommend it if you have any interest in him. I've found it very interesting to read biographies of authors, especially since I started writing. The book is called Every Story is a Love Story.
     
  7. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    You're right. I blame the 3 year old. Thanks for correcting.
     

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