Deus ex McFlurry: An Interview with Amelia Gray

by Blake Butler



This year saw the release of Amelia Gray’s second book, a collection of texts from FC2 calledMuseum of the Weird. More than a simple consolidation of stories into a single body, or even a creation of texts within the confines of one body and a strong mind, Museum of the Weird seems an object bent out of the mysterious and new, taking foreign objects, mysterious relations, freak peoples, and bringing them together in a wilding chorus of the strange and, holy shit, the entertaining, addictive. Last month I traded a bunch of emails with Amelia re: the new book, how she works, the function of belief, fate, trying, and just what the hell is with all the eating of the hair that shows up all throughout her writing.

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B: Amelia, your prose has an interesting quality of being at once familiar and intuitive, while also at a seeming kind of remove: beyond just using objects and animals as active elements, there is at all times a feeling that you are way back in there somewhere, narrating your way your way rationally out of these intensely messed up, or as you say “weird,” prompts. Do you think your writing is a kind of emotional propaganda? Is all writing emotional propaganda?

A: The phrase “emotional propaganda” strikes me as redundant because any effective piece of rhetoric contains some emotional element. In propaganda and in writing there is an actor with an intent and an audience, a communicating element and a receiving element. Effective propaganda sets up a world in which only one outcome is possible in the same way that a great tragic story drives its characters towards an inescapable fate. So sure, in the way each genre stands as a completed product, writing is a kind of message propaganda that ultimately stands to aid or question a cause/idea/person. Fiction tends to attack or support ideas like love or trust or babies via scenes and characters, while war propaganda, for example–thinking of WWII posters here–attacks or supports a country or cause using ideas like love or trust or babies. There’s an emotional appeal in each, driven towards a point or points.

The biggest difference is that war propaganda or motivational speeches tend to get created with a message in mind beforehand, while fiction doesn’t have to be created in the same way (though it can be). When I write, I tend to start with a very basic idea or image (all these could be described as prompts, sure) and write my way out of it. Someone creating a political image might do the opposite–begin with a larger point and work to seek out its supporting evidence–but we end up in roughly the same place.

“Propaganda” doesn’t insinuate emptiness, nor does it have to suggest a singular message, nor does it have to be negative, but it does suggest that there’s ultimately a point to every message. Same with fiction or poetry or advertising or journalism: if a string of letters doesn’t make any words, the point might be that there’s no point, or there might be a different point, point is there’s a point.

B: Once you have your idea, say, babies, how do you go about “writing your way out of it”? How do you know when you are “out”?

A: In the story I wrote about babies called “Babies,” I started with an ordinary fear of accidental pregnancy and unwilling parents and put it into the context of an irrational fear, where the baby is immediately there and there’s no time to have serious conversations or hold a baby shower or make a doctor’s appointment. The ordinary fear combines with the irrational fear and sets off a rational string of events. Obviously the woman is going to want to clean everything up. The baby is hungry, there’s no food in the house. That’s a more comic story, things are lightly touched. I could have made it more about umbilical cord infections or traumatic blood loss or flesh ripping or whatever, but I wanted to keep the real bumping up against the unreal, babies floating inside balloons. At the end I felt the impulse to make it a happy story, where the relationship is saved and the individuals are improved, and then I felt the impulse to crush that impulse in as few words as possible, and then I felt I was out. I had the plot of that story down fast, so I remember the impulses shifting. That’s not how it always goes but it’s how it went then.


B: Does this fangling with the real and unreal affect your real life? Do you find the unreal waking up because you will invoke it? Or maybe I’m asking: where are you most days when you make.

A: I have some unreal convictions and compulsions that stem from the real. People who have irrational fears still fear in rationally specific ways, in that way invoking the unreal or the unlikely, bringing it in with the real, compounding it. I don’t always write starting from fear but I think that’s where the unreal sinks the heaviest into my life.

When I was younger I’d tape secret notes to the undersides of seats on the city bus. Most days I’m sitting in a chair, but the bus is how making feels when it’s good–the feeling of stepping off the bus.

B: Do you believe in fate? Do characters in stories have fates?

A: Characters in stories have fates because there is someone directly involved in their creation and movement. In terms of real people, I believe in a pretty basic fate, not much beyond the fact that we’re all going to die. It seems unlikely that any powers beyond stick to easily sketched-out rules of kindness or evil. That said, I do worry that I’m going to get killed by a Jeep or by the owner of a Jeep.

B: Randomness. Random tragic death. There is certainly a random of the element of latent and looming fear in your stories, some of which then manifest themselves upon the elements there as if at random, or asserting themselves on what has come before it in this kind of deus ex machina way, but of a way not godlike really, but like something weird that happens to you waiting in line at McDonald’s. Are these curves yours? Are they transplants, or exhibits? What is randomness? How much of writing requires faith?

A: There’s terror in random; with little recognizable fate, it’s all deus ex mcflurry. “What will happen?” is a question answered best with a stiff kick. The impulse of writing requires a faith and a faith requires a gut. Faith doesn’t imply religion. I mean, BYOG. I’ve used some form of the word “gut” at least once in every book I’ve written.

B: You claim to hate the internet. But I see the range of odd facts appear in your writing, little manifestations of things you picked up that influences those turns of terror. How are you influenced by all this information? How did you learn to write?

A: I have never claimed to hate the internet. I think that the danger of the internet to writers is its instant gratification, the ability to look up exactly what you want to know, that leaves little room for the imagination. It’s information pornography. Beyond that, there’s the gratification of being able to blog or tweet or email every smallest kernel of a thought which otherwise might marinate into something larger on its own, without that instant aspect of publication. Twitter is snot thrown on a wall. You seem to claim that every experience you can have on the internet is a good one, which seems equally as wrong as hating it all. I learned to write from taking in information, but there’s an oversaturation point to information where it becomes a stack dump of regurgitated text.

B: Really though, what brought you to start writing fiction?

A: I started writing fiction around the time I started trying to understand things. I wrote a story because my friend kissed a boy I liked at a party and I couldn’t figure out why that had happened. I wrote another story in a philosophy class because I didn’t get the concept. The story was about fate and there was a fish in it. I hadn’t done the reading for the day.

B: Has writing helped you figure anything out?

A: It has helped me develop and attempt to support some theories. I have some theories.

B: What about sense. In “There Will Be Sense,” Arnold, the narrator with the artificial heart says, “I want to get so close to God that God has to file a restraining order.” Then he is fed a series of dinners by Jeannie, which are a measure of their days. This suggests to me a hidden order that is revealed to the one who would look. If I may quote the quote you have up on your Facebook profile (I knew you secretly loved the internet): “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.” In fact, god is all over this book in ways. Capital G god. Were you raised religious? Do you believe in the hand of god?

A: I was raised Presbyterian and went to church almost every Sunday for 18 years. That tends to set some patterns of thought and speech, even if one is always looking for distractions while it’s happening. Organized religion was always too weirdly open for me, for what seemed like it should be such a personal interaction. I couldn’t stand watching people be affected. I started operating the sound console and reading books during sermon. This poor old usher had to come up the stairs with the communion wine. Once, I reached to take it and the plastic cup was wedged in too tight and shattered between my fingers. I remember how the usher looked at me. I think there are many fine reasons for organized faith but it also might be part of why I have trouble with eye contact.

“There Will Be Sense” is a God story about a man made out of science. There’s an order but not in the way he thinks there is. I believe in a god that started things and stepped back. I don’t believe this god has hands. I think it’s arrogant to pretend we understand the concept of a god, though arrogance isn’t all that bad. I think those ideas come through in parts of that story.

B: What was it you were reading those days during the sermons? Do you have idols (literary or otherwise)?

A: A mix of stuff I found from home and found at the church library: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Encyclopedia Brown, the Bible, The Babysitter’s Club, Huckleberry Finn, Animal Farm, Little House on the Prairie. Once I got my hands on a brown paper bag full of mystery novels. This is over the course of some time.

Alton Brown on writing: “Seriously. I’m not very bright, and it takes a lot for me to get a concept – to really get a concept. To get it enough that it becomes part of me. But when it happens I get real excited about it.” “I can’t talk about anything or write about anything if I don’t understand it. So a lot of the stuff that I go through and a lot of the time that I spend is understanding.”

B: Where does a sentence come from? What do you most often eat for breakfast?

A: When a subject and an object verb each other very much. A sentence comes from a thought and a good one is usually reorganized.

I have breakfast trends that change weekly. The constant is milk first thing, coffee later.

B: Museum of the Weird is different from AM/PM in that it continually shifts form and voices, unlike AM/PM‘s singular expression and working within constraint. There are several sections in the new book where you use stage direction and screenplay dialogue. I was wondering if you had written in that form before, and if film or theater was at all at influence.

A: I’ve been writing in those different forms for a while. I wrote a TV spec and a feature-length screenplay around the same time I was writing AM/PM but never had much fun editing either so they stalled and sank, which is fine. Writing in those different forms is some fun. I like reading scripts, but I don’t have much of a mind for realistic staging. I wrote a short play that would require a woman to be handcuffed to a car. Another short one featured an agoraphobic, and most of it happened in this city bus fantasy she had developed over the course of a minute and a half. We staged that one for a competition and I went out back and held the wall so I wouldn’t barf.

B: I think I saw you said somewhere that “Thoughts While Strolling” was one of the last pieces you wrote in the book. It also follows an unusual form, kind of like call and response. How did this one come about? Did you know you had written the last piece of the book when you were done? How much do you revise?

A: I found Harry Austin Clapp’s entry on RootsWeb. Clapp was known for beign Collegeport’s most enthusiastic booster and also known for his love of noodles. Collegeport is a tiny unincorporated community, a ferry trip and a few hours north of Port Aransas. I found he had a column from the The Daily Tribune (now The Bay City Tribune) in Matagorda County and I started reading those. He said “When I die drape my head stone with noodles and carve on the stone, ‘He Loved Noodles.’” I think he’s great. I wanted to write a response to him and the column he did, where he walked around and remarked on ordinary things and made jokes.

I didn’t know if it would go in the book or not when I wrote it or if it would even end up being a complete story. I revised that one a lot, cut big pieces and switched chunks of it around. It’s nice to write chunks that can be switched, to have each chunk have its own small arc and then piece all of the chunks into a larger arc. The last story in the book required similar edits.

B: Over what period were these stories written? How did you realize you had a collection that fit together? How did you go about shaping the collection? Were any story collections in particular that you used as a mirror or a model, in discovering that shape?

A: The oldest story was 5 years old when the collection was finished. I was returning to the same themes without thinking about returning. I’d show someone a story and they’d say Another hair story? and I would say, Really?

One thing that maybe doesn’t come across sometimes when talking about a completed collection is how little you see while you’re inside it. It’s hard for me to think in terms of overarching themes and ideas and forms in the middle of writing five years of stories, but now that it’s done, I can look back and pick things in and out easier. When I think of collections that are very complete and strong I think of Honored Guest by Joy Williams and The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff and Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. They are good models.

B: Yeah what is it with the hair anyway?

A: Man I don’t know.

B: I think that I just realized that where there is a lot of hair in your writing, there seems almost no family. The relationships in the book are almost entirely of an intimate or inanimate nature: the characters have little history beyond what they do or are or say. Was this an active element of your composition? What are your parents like?

A: Keeping out some histories wasn’t an active choice in writing these stories, but when a story is shorter, that does seem to be the first to go. I like to think of individuals as shaped by a past that’s too complicated for succinct fiction. I don’t like it when a story presents an element of a character as easily drawn from their childhood, and I don’t like when people do that to themselves or other people, either. I’ll write red herrings before I suggest that a kid tortures an animal because of his relationship with his brother. I’ll write the kid examining a bag of peanuts for eight pages, as explanation. There’s a million reasons why a kid tortures an animal. There’s a family in this thing I’m working on now.

My parents are good people. They live in Tucson with a dog and a cat. My sister makes sushi in Portland.

B: What is this thing you are working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel. The protagonist is a bag of peanuts and the victim is your childhood dog. It is a murder mystery.

B: Do you use fiction as a way to take out anger on things you can’t control in life? Is writing an outlet? Why are you writing? Who are you writing to?

A: Writing is the emotion outlet, sure. It’s the hole for extremes. My parents had to take my door off its hinges for weeks at a time because I was slamming it so often. I started hiding pages of writing behind the posters on my wall. Writing’s still the best way I’ve found to keep from tripping into the sense-void emotion world. I wouldn’t say I take out anger or jealousy or joy as much as I try to feed and nurse and train it. Writing is an outlet, but it’s not an outlet of escape. People keep a journal when they want to escape. I write to rub my face in it.

B: Run us through a day. A day where you feel you are there, in there, rubbing your face.

A: A good face-rubbing isn’t a whole day. It tends to start when I experience something that puts a singular emotion in me. I was reading Voices From Chernobyl a few months ago and it put me in such a sick, agitated way that I was clenched up in my bed, chewing on my knuckle. I was thinking about the mothers and fathers and babies and then I lost my sense. Not for a long time, not more than half an hour. So then I was there for a little while, thinking about it, gnawing, and I wrote in my notebook next to my bed, and then I got up and warmed up some soup and then typed on the computer. The face-rubbing portion of the process is the fastest part. It can take more time to make soup.

B: I know you have night terrors. Do those get in your words? Does sleep get in your words? How much do you write by hand?

A: I think the night terrors are starting to get better than they were but it’s possible I’m just not remembering them. These days I’ll be driving somewhere and remember I had one the night before. I tried writing about them a few months ago but it didn’t work. I thought it would be easier because it’s so similar in the moment to that overwhelming senseless feeling, but it’s maybe only that way when contrasted with the rest of the room or the morning after.

Sleep gets in, though. I like to generate when I’m in a morning fog. I don’t usually write by hand if I can get to my computer. The notebook beside the bed is mostly boring stuff and the odd face-rub. I’ll start essays by hand usually too, not sure why, I don’t write a lot of them.

B: Do you ever write drunk?

A: Writing drunk is generally a waste of a drunk.

B: How has writing a novel felt different or not different from writing stories? Is there a different thing you focus on, a variance of approach?

A: I can keep the threads of a short story entirely straight in my mind while I’m working on it, but the detail involved in a novel, even at the character inventory kind of level, has been new. Short stories are all veils in comparison. My office is full of scraps and post-it notes with reminders to myself about a piece of metal that gets mentioned or that there’s a rip in the wallpaper in the upstairs bedroom. It’s fun, crazy-making. I wish Vèra Nabokov would come help me with notecards.

B: Have you found that writing a novel is more about discovery than stories? Or less, or equal to? Any novels that have helped you understand the form of the novel in your own way, besides the actual act of writing?

A: More discovery than story, I like that. There’s less control in writing a novel. My impulse is still to pare down rather than overindulge an explanation. There are a parts of novels that have helped me want to be brave in my own way. I’m thinking about the first half of Lolita, the first 100 pages of Underworld, sections of La Medusa, the pacing in No Country for Old Men, any given section of Infinite Jest. Maybe writing’s the most cowardly way to be brave.

Interviews, man. I feel like I’ll look back at this in thirty years and maybe I’ll have written a bunch of novels and maybe I’ll never write another novel but either way I’m going to be like, look at this idiot.

B: Do you see yourself doing this for the rest of your life?

A: I figure the goal is to spend as much of my life living in a way that makes me feel like I feel right now, finishing cold coffee after a morning spent writing a story. If writing makes me feel like this for the rest of my life, I’ll do it for the rest of my life, yes, of course. But maybe writing won’t always make me feel like this and something else will replace it, and then I’ll end up spending the rest of my life making candy or burning down churches.

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Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird is available now via FC2 and elsewhere.

The Myth of the Human w/r/t David Foster Wallace’s “Mister Squishy”

by Blake Butler



Some of the most singular moments in understanding come on as if being shook: a presence entering the body unto some new consideration of how that entrance might occur. One kind of a map of a version of one’s self might be determined by considering among the terrain of the body a series of approached organs; objects imbibed, in what order, how one’s own output is affected; what is out there; what is. Seeing does this. Language, more indirectly, does this, too: entering as symbols and networks of orchestrations. Some strings of language, as well, leave in their wake a total reinvention of creation as an act, iconing on the map of self, and many selves; updating or widening or recalcifying what any kind of words can, could, or should do.

I can remember with unusual clarity the feeling in me the first time I read David Foster Wallace’s “Mister Squishy.” It was published under the name Elizabeth Klemm in the 5th issue of McSweeney’s in 2000, but by the time the magazine reached my hands I’d already heard on the Wallace listserv that this rather lengthy piece of fiction could only ever be written by him; there could have been nobody else. I was already a rabid Wallace freak; I’d pretty much begun writing fiction as a direct byproduct of reading Infinite Jest, and since then become obsessed. I read this story, long as perhaps 3 normal stories, on a futon in a house in one sitting under a skylight with legs crossed, already ready to be lit. And yet, the particular instance of “Mister Squishy,” even having then been well versed in a way that somehow placed the author’s presence in my daily thoughts (which has not since then stopped), rendered in me that the first time something different even than what I’d been ready to expect: some odd confabulation of provocation, confusion, inundated awe; a feeling rare not only for any kind of language, but particularly for a shorter work. This was something singular beyond even the already neon body of Wallace’s work in constellation, and in particular, beyond the confines of what a story as a “story,” or a novel even, or text as text, traditionally operationally assists to construe.

Since then I’ve read the 63 pages of “Mister Squishy” at least a dozen times. I’m not sure even still I can begin to wholly how to parse the innumerable levels of its moves, using tactics and employments that continue shifting with each reconsideration and further study in the way a Magic Eye painting might if it could get up and walk around: a kind of high water mark of contained language and ambition, since then, now ten years later, still uncontested in the ways of invoking the uninvocable, the void. It is a station, I believe, should be reexamined; it is, in many ways, a kind of key to a beyond, both in the content of the story, and the method of its opening a new kind of affect in languageground, one that still has yet to be, these years later, fully inculcated, or because of time’s way, even unpacked.


“Mister Squishy” opens in midst of something already underway: “The Focus Group was then reconvened in another of Reesemeyer Shannon Belt Advertising’s nineteenth-floor conference rooms.” This kind of opening, wherein the reader is inducted into something forces him to assume a certain amount of momentum elapsed prior to the text’s initiation, not as backstory, but as present motion clipped into already underway, is a device not unfamiliar, but often misplaced or mistakable in other fictions. Here the method seems to set you down into a record of no sound, as what comes after this motion opener is not at all the kind of action one would expect having snipped into: a test panel being performed with a focus group for a major market research corporation.

Wallace’s narration for the remainder of the opening graph concerns itself with his by now patent Wallaceian descriptive eye, which somehow manages to operate both clinically and with odd persona flourishes to create an equally spartan and familiar-without-demanding-familiarity sense of air. Of all of the particularities of Wallace’s voice that make his megasentenced, highly aware narration affective and so wanting in the reader is this seamless balance of the voice, almost like the kind of beautiful human robot we find in children’s films: it should have no emotion, because it is machine, but it cannot help but leak some warmth in through its frame. Here it is even more subtle than in other Wallace texts: “Bottled spring water and caffeinated beverages were made available to those who thought they might want them.” Refreshing, yes, if queerly common, a disarmingly simple kind of calm, inside the plastic den: it is like being given a tour of a new home by a friend you have known a long time and never gotten quite past a certain formality with; it wants you to settle in without particular discomfort, and yet there are these rooms to see.

The first 7 pages of the story then proceed in primarily this opening voice, describing in selective, explicit detail the fourteen members of a marketing focus group, all men between the age of 18 and 39, who for the most part are rendered by certain peculiarities about their appearance or demeanor. Other descriptions reduce the men to percentages of how many of them of the whole share certain sociological traits. There is little reference to actual names, and for the most part the characterization, the tolling of the “human” quantity present seems glassy, glancing, if peppered still with Wallace’s strange homey/alien flares that create quiet bursts of seemingly sourceless warmth. This makes sense, given the focus of the story’s concentration: marketing research, but also carries with it a kind of double front, as if we are waiting for the wall to turn reflective, be a mirror.

A pair of short (for Wallace) single sentences in the first 8 pages also are separated from the larger graphs, letting two twin hiccups stand alone, suggesting, in other models of singling out of ideas in paragraphic structures, that these items should carry heavier weight, and yet each of them seem oddly devoid of character beyond the way they render air both populated and unused. On the first page, the second graph, in full, reads: “There were more samples of the product arranged on a tray at the conference’s table’s center.” At the point of this pronouncement we don’t even know what ‘the product’ is yet, which in closer looking at that sentence as it stands alone among the larger fields seems, if you let it, terrifying, while also, blank. On page 5 (and here, as I will do from now on, I’m referring to page lengths and numbers by their appearance in the later version of the story as it appears collected in Wallace’s final fiction collection, Oblivion): “Traffic was brisk on the street far below, and also trade.” Again, a singled away graph that seems to offer nothing but an abstruse pawing at the air surrounding the building we are so far housed in, which as the story goes on, will never in present moment action camera away from beyond a edgeless lip of locality for the building, as if the building could be in any city large enough to have a building of such size, oddly monolithic as not even other neighboring buildings are described.

Rigorous attention in these opening pages is also paid to Terry Schmidt, the focus group’s “facilitator,” who instructs the group on the surveying method for the panel, responding to the afternoon’s product of their concern: Felonies!, a high end chocolate desert that intends to create its own niche in the dessert snack food market by embracing its indulgence in the midst of a trend of diet foods and self-conscious consumption, manufactured by a brand known as Mister Squishy. These details are presented almost without clear reasoning as to why so much detail is necessary as to the nature of the focus study, even being important enough as object to provide the text’s title with its name, and yet in Wallace’s voice is carried forward by its pleasurable exactitude and voicing. It is equally obsessive, benign, and seemingly puffy, like a plastic bag being slowly blown into with a mouth; each reread I’ve done on these sections, after knowing how they will play out (which is, mostly, not at all, in way of action, but all potential and in paused thrall), has evoked further sublimity in the somewhat cryptic meandering of the buried information, like little cells that take their own air and eat it and stay full, coupled with a teeming rubber silence that builds between them, on the edge of equally collapse and an implosion even knowing later (kind of) what they will entail.

Near the end of these 7 pages of market-speak brick laying, before the major first shift in perspective that will come on the next page in the same utterance of flow, Wallace leaks a parallelism in the narration of Schmidt’s persona and function as a human and the leading of text’s as object, in its manner, unto what as we continue might open larger light: “The whole problem and project of descriptive statistics was discriminating between what made a difference and what did not.” The sentence comes among one of many in the same mode, a placid straight-face that over the course of the whole text never truly breaks. This early in the work we could take this to mean a more common idea of language making, such that any detail is an important detail, by its inclusion, even if some push us further than others in the mix; as more such slight intentional slips emerge between author and himself (not the reader, because this is an organism rather than a fable), we will begin, I believe, to find something more akin to the opposite: that anything is the thing itself; is not constructed metaphorically, but in orchestration of reflection of itself seeing itself, and thus has almost no quality beyond what it is not. As we continue, this idea will continue to be slightly adjusted and rolled against in other hidden and undirectly applied threads, all of which, in a certain mode of consideration, could be said to be tooling not with the characters or scenarios contained on paper, but in the nature of the reader’s, and the author’s, heads: a breaking of the third wall without acknowledging the third wall, and w/o regard for the old idea that you should not interrupt some narrative “dream,” though among the meat of such a dream so undreamed it feels not dreamlike but equations, machines in purring, a song made out of symbols. Where the blur fits onto the person, I’ve felt in all my time in brain with this text, is less a question of reflecting the human, or even directly altering the human, but installing in the head a little blip or tiny mirror that over time, in me at least, causes longer term station: here, then, the rendering upon the “human element” is not a question of conveying emotion, or even direct affect, but by infecting me with what I do not realize I am being infected by because it is in me and so becomes me and is there. For all of those who’ve championed Wallace’s wishing to portray the human, to use emotion in a text, this effect in “Mister Squishy” is perhaps one of the greatest examples of how this semblance is not actually a function of empathy, narration, identity, or drama, but more a product brought on by evoking something that otherwise does not exist, and installing it in the function of the reader without them even fully knowing why: a power entered in the flesh, unto the flesh: no parable, or index, but a twinning, a sum towards the zero, made of activated mechanical work.

“You’re trying somehow both to deny and affirm that the writer is over here with his agenda,” Wallace said to Larry McCaffery, “while the reader’s over there with her agenda, distinct. This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical, I think.”

And so now: on Page 13, without visual demarcation beyond new paragraphing, and without a switch in tone, the text then abruptly but fluidly alternates to a second present moment setting of the story: what is going on outside the building that focus group convenes at the same time as they convene. Which is: a “figure” appears in “free climb” on the building’s face, outfitted with Lycra, GoreTex, and suction cups. The figure begins moving up the windows of the building without clear intent or cause, in a “manner of climbing [that] appeared almost more reptilian than mammalian, you’d have to say.” Wallace uses only one average sized graph to introduce the figure, as well as the crowd that begins to observe him from below. The next graph immediately again returns to the conference room, leaving this instance as a thin, black jump cut in the progression, glimpsed on and left wide; this toggling will occur at various points throughout the remainder of the explication of the story’s primary focus on the focus group.

From here on, under the new veil, even as the pacing, ad-language, and weirdly poised corporate speak continue, we are suddenly blanketed with a latent building terror: we don’t know what the two modes have business about together, or why so casually we’ve been dunked into the other frame, like a sporadic appearance of a black screen slipped into our usual program. On first read, one must assume the figure outside the building will collide with something inside, the scenes will merge. The assumed potential splay of this impending collision (which, spoiler: will never come; at least, not physically) sends both a backdraft through the lengthy set up, of what had been and would be coming, between glass, and an increasingly taut string of pull-me-forward, wherein, throughout the pacing, we are flinching for the bang. This bang, however, is semantic, and therefore, even up until today as I am typing still inside me will recoil; if anything, too, on rereading, once we know, this duality is weirdly even more alarming, because in never fully playing out or directly corresponding, we are not allowed to touch: the run off, then, runs off of page of the book and is left to spill into the mind. More than a simple “human” ramification product, and more, too, than sound-based language without clear frame wide-open unto all, the split is a shriek that keeps repeating, and will repeat without end.

Our return to the description of the focus group’s outfitting in the next graph is not wholly left to be carried by the sudden latent paranoia of the figure; at the end of the graph, on page 14, the fabric of the speaking shifts again. In the last third of this next graph we are suddenly dropped from what seemed a third person omniscient voice, into a first person omniscient, again without cursor blinkage between modes: “…he also had an over-shoulder bag he kept in his cubicle. I was one of the men in this room, the only one wearing a wristwatch who never once glanced at it. What looked just like glasses were not. I was wired from stem to stem.” Here, now, implanted in our speech stream, is another figure, one who, unlike the newly rising climber, had been in our midst undetected (even speaking to us) all along. Again, this consideration is only briefly chewed at, signaling a more complicated string of locomotion already underway, something perhaps more sinister or to-be deep-reaching than we’d previously only just now been updated to, right beside us; and then again the mode shifts back to the speaking manner we’d been acclimating into, if slightly veering in its aim. In fact, this will be the only invocation of the “I” inside the text; making it, in repetition of the whole, even more alarming as a narrative tactic, and also as a wire in the house.

What we now are turned to, again, all seeming quite casually in pace and tone, is a more in depth consideration of who will now even more concretely emerge as the central definitive human presence in this text, Terry Schmidt, via the nature of his building infatuation and obsession with coworker Darlene Lilley. Schmidt’s make up is patently pathetic; he lusts for this woman he can not have, all rendered in Wallace’s more familiar-from-previous-work sense of longing parsed with his position’s inflated market-speak. In fact, we find in waves that Schmidt in many ways is so intrinsically infused with his employment, that in certain ways they are becoming, within him, semantically confused. A short graph immediately after the revelation of the “I” states: “Terry Schmidt himself was hypoglycemic and could eat only confections prepared with fructose, aspartame, or very small amounts of C (OH) 6, and sometimes he felt himself looking at trays of the product with the expression of an urchin at a toystore’s window.” Here Schmidt is portrayed as so disarmed by life’s work he’d not even able to consume the object he’s undertaken a life in pursuit of employ to manifest unto the public. He is separated from his life-object by a kind of glass, like the glass that separates the focus group from awareness of the climber, that bisects his life and its object-laid conceit.

Later, this persona blur between the self and the product is even more concretely and directly weighed:

[Schmidt] would look at his face and at the faint lines and pouches that seemed to grow a little more pronounced each quarter and would call himself, directly, to his mirrored face,Mister Squishy, the name would come unbidden into his mind, and despite his attempts to ignore or resist it the large subsidiary’s name and logo had become the dark part of him’s latest taunt, so that when he thought of himself now it was as something he called Mister Squishy, and his own face and the plump and wholly innocuous icon’s face tended to bleed in his mind into one face, crude and line-drawn and clever in a small way, a design that someone might find some small selfish use for but could never love or hate or ever care to truly know.

This moment is one of the more plain Wallace-qua-Wallace moments in the entire text; it and other moments like it in emotional texture are all confined within the body of Schmidt, the neuter, the gimp. The familiar language-algebra and mechanisms of the up front market-saturated objectivism we’ve been presented thus far, again in the presentation of relation between man and glass is briefly, slightly relieved, if here still in its own way creating another kind of glass, one back with reflective paper, forcing the self onto the self. In seeing himself in the glass by which he is surrounded head on, Schmidt is not only anesthetized figuratively, identifying with his overlord and payor, but commented upon there inside it as inhuman, a caricature of emotion, clever, yes, but “in a small way.” The self reflects the self the self chooses to reflect, and that is who he is, to him. Each person hiding “the repulsive nest of moles under their left arm” (Schmidt’s) or perhaps more dark, complex desires (Schmidt’s), which as a matter of fact end up being quite central to this text’s center, slightly hinted, and soon to come further into light.

Please forgive me: Terry Schmidt, 5 letters and 7 letters. David Wallace, 5 letters and 7 letters; the latter “having emerged from years of literally indescribable war against himself.” (Said quote appearing later in this same book re: David Wallace’s appearance in the story “Good Old Neon”).

“Advertising is not voodoo,” the narration states in perhaps the shortest sentence in “Mister Squishy” some pages earlier than Schmidt laid bare. Want is manifested not by mere dictation, but by inspiration, by becoming. This corporate building of our setting is devoted to the creation of ads not only designed to make someone believe they want something, and so do, but also in such believing, whether taken on as self or not, becomes a session of the self: it is, and is. These are poses. Minute orchestrations of self in carrying the self. It is seen, perhaps less self-consciously, also in member of the panel: “the sleeves of the sweater were carefully pushed up to reveal the forearms’ musculature in a way designed to look casual, as if the sweater’s arms had been thoughtlessly pushed up in the midst of his thinking hard about something other than himself” (28). Some selves less mentally ripped than the statedly above-average-intelligent Schmidt might be less of themselves by not succumbing in the image, or might in other ways, actualized, be more. Both are true and neither is true. The glass looks the same from either side, though what is behind it shifts.

It is perhaps important now to recall, too, that all of this, is being told to us by the covertly implanted “I,” our secret member of the panel who seems to know all of both the ins and outs of the workings of the office, and the panel orchestration, and the panel members’ lives, and the goings on outside the building: a seated member in the fold, who, in knowing all things in all people, seems like god; who is in our midst, who is armed with something that may or may not seem ready to destroy us all; who does not exist; who is creating this whole amalgam in his nowhere; who is anyone; the reader. Again, we do not know.

The notion of god does arise here elsewhere, however, in passing, in Schmidt’s elucidation of his concurrently running and pummeling want for this woman Lilley, who consumes his mind at some points to the point of her taking a dual overriding face behind the face of Mister Squishy’s crushing load. “Marriage,” thinks the thinker in the mind of Schmidt’s mind, “…seemed every bit as miraculous and transrational and remote from possibilities of actual lived life as the crucifixion and resurrection and transubstantiation did, which is to say it appeared not as a goal to expect to ever really reach or achieve but as a kind of navigational star, as in in the sky….” Schmidt’s only motivation to go forward, beyond the dogday shit of money-motives, is beyond amorphous, is not real, is no part of him, but some high map; a thing that in the same breath is manifested in the terror of his nightly channel surfing looking for something better, afraid of missing one channel’s signal for another’s, never seeing anything to see, but want and want and want and never have. The blank is the thing. The metaphor is not a conduit of some unreal, but a falsity misplaced.

This abjection is reflected in the growing of the crowd that congregates below the building where the figure outside climbing the glass continues to rise. They watch, wanting the something, living in the reel. This is reflected in the narration’s admission that the very market research taking place here must be orchestrated in such a way, always, to approve: as the nature of market research is that by the time one has spent enough to know that what they are researching is “resoundingly grim or unpromising,” it is too late to turn over; the job would be lost. The job is to authorize the job. The absence of the god is to demand the god.

…the whole huge blind grinding mechanism conspired to convince each other that they could figure out how to give the paying customer what they could prove he could be persuaded to believe he wanted, without anybody once ever saying stop a second or pointing out the absurdity of calling what they were doing collecting information…

What are we talking about here. We’re talking about talking, about talking about self hiding the self: this is writing, in a soft object, a book in replication. What happens to Wallace later. We’re talking about writing. We’re talking about a body who concerned himself with the image of man rendered in words. We’re talking about a man who ended his life with his hands he’d used on other days to write, or masturbate, or eat. This story was written by that man in the mind of another mind he tried on wanting to be someone else, to other people: Elizabeth Klemm.

The one time I saw Wallace read and do a Q&A I stood up asked him something goofy about Klemm; he seemed to shrug it away, as the name itself had been a suit he’d tried on and could not hide his own body using any longer after, an aborted attempt to enter else. He’d accepted this. He was him through him to who. We’re talking about writing about writing about a thing that does not exist in anything but in traces. We’re talking about talking about talking about it, it, it, it, it, it, it. Mister Squishy. Oblivion.

“That it made no difference,” the narration states, re: the focus research, and therefore Schmidt’s ultimate pursuit. “None of it.”


The object at the center of this text is, remember, Felonies!, a chocolate candy made to be so rich it made the rich feel richer. Wallace could not eat sugar later in his life.

Today outside my window where I am writing the light is touching at the curtains at the tip of the top of the V between the spreading white shim as if it is licking at my face to hit my eyes and change their light.

The figure on the face of the building inside the text continues to rise. He reaches a point on the building and begins to suction himself in a quasi-human contortion where he affixes himself and begins to inflate sections of his body, rising out in balloon, becoming disfigured from the person already reptilian but of the human, and changing shape before the rapt and potentially endangered crowd below, whose awareness of being potentially endangered does not preclude them to check out of the scene. They can not bring themselves to not watch the human inflate, disfigure, again in sections that supplant themselves between the by now throat-throttingly paced an still-even but with now backlog on the backlogged writing that has begun to seem not about marketing or want or event at all, but about something wormed behind the worming worms, something in the blood of the false body of the creator, behind the machine, who is there and never there, and never, now, here, either, but in these words, which might be more than any other mode and might be nothing but a sold thing, burnable, a machine, if a machine that reflects, glassly, god. A god concerned, at the end of the day, herein, with the consuming of a chocolate.

Felonies!, the narration explains, is a “Shadow product,” meaning “one that managed to position and present itself in such a way to resonate with both” “the Healthy Lifestyles trend’s ascetic pressures and the guilt and unease any animal instinctively felt when it left the herd.” To conflate life (good health) and death (demapping). To do this, and having admitted the knowledge that the market research industry props itself up by always greenlighting itself by manipulating its own characteristics to such an extent that the right is always right, a projected marketing strategy forFelonies! could go the way of what the narration says “was known in the industry as a Narrative (or, ‘Story’) Campaign),” which operates by reflecting the uselessness of the data onto the creator, vis a vis, in the example here of candy, “say, a tyrannical mullah-like CEO,” who, the Story would tell the buyer, forced the market-poor object through the system because of his own want for such a luxury, an item demanded in himself beyond all means, however fluffy, and thus, via, again, the Story, use the idea that we all know by now that marketing is goobered, and this is just an object that was wanted by the god. The god deigned to put the chocolate in our big mouths so we could have it: a gift. Is the theory. Pleasure. Is what, say all this goes right, Mister Squishy, the brand, might do. Theoretically. If this goes forward, though the narration will not be around to lead us to such end. We are going to be abandoned. Each thing is contained in the paper of its time.

Among all this, too, I’ve yet to more than poke at, is Schmidt’s further complicating ploy–rendered in past-relayed action, “back story,” here almost dreamlike and algebraic at the same time: totems–to sabotage the whole thing by creating and injecting Ricin, a lethal toxin, into a few iterations of the chocolate object’s hollow center, and letting such damage leak into the market, ruin the product’s reputation, and its grasp: to in effect cripple the object, by indirect murder, destroying, if we maintain the Mister Squishy head over his head, his own self, making him a weapon and a ruin at once. Following a brief but rather brutal description of Schmidt’s trying to make emotional headway in his life by taking place in a Big Brothers / Big Sisters program, via which his false child enters a mall and disappears, Schmidt is described actually synthesizing the poison, bringing death fantasy into his true life. Explicit instructions on how to create the toxin are laid out like a recipe, as if supplying Anarchist Cookbook style kill-them-all-kill-yourself screed buried deep here in, countless levels folded in the fold. The death drive goes on even still inside the crippled, malformed ID of body. Demapping the false map.

In my room now the light at the window has retreated to just a slim glow along the tipmost point of the inverted V. My hands look yellow, chalky.

I am in here.

You are in where?

This fantasy will not occur. Schmidt’s ploy, as far as we see, is unemployed, at least onscreen. Schmidt’s mind defeats itself. In another fantasy of Lilley, in which he fucks her, to which he masturbates, simulating the simulation, Schmidt can’t help his fantasy-self from saying Thank you Thank you to her, for fucking him inside his pathetic imagination, making “him wonder if he even had what convention called a Free Will.” Even his private creation is manipulated by his faith’s absence in his creation against his will. And yet, he ejaculates regardless in the motion of the want of the creation to go on. The act is flesh and not flesh; no child is made.

There is further implication as to Schmidt’s coming fate, outside of the Ricin deathseed, and his sperm-gush. The very act of the method for taking all of this focus group information and whittling it down into something that can corroborate what is needed, the narration describes, “meant doing away with as much as possible of the human element, the most obvious of these elements being the TFG faciliators” (Schmidt), as “with the coming digital era of abundant data… were soon going to be obsolete”). These prongs of the text, bending inward toward no full absolution, suggest for our hypothetical hero, of no hero, to become rendered to the void: separated even from the him of him, unto the ending, regardless of his ploy. Obsolescence rises.

The last reference to the inflation of the climber appears 13 pages before the remainder of the text ends. Though it is not directly stated, the climber has inflated himself into a version of an enormous, air-filled Mister Squishy, “large, bulbous, and doughily cartoonish,” affixed for no apparent reason on the face of the building in the gathering and the light.

There was no coherent response from the crowd, however until a nearly suicidal-looking series of nozzle-to-temple motions from the figure began to fill the head’s baggy mask… the face’s array of patternless lines rounding to resolve into something that produced from 400+ ground-level US adults loud cries of recognition and an almost chlidlike delight.

Nearly suicidal-looking.

Almost childlike.

Recognition: There I am.

Mirrored in, the people behind the glass are never made to realize the occurrence, or respond. Whatever action is detailed by the revelation of the “I” figure, who has been further made, in one of a few sparse footnotes, to be prepared to enact an act of fake barfing onto the research table, an act that never fully plays itself out, despite implication, unto its prognosis in the future of theFelony! or Schmidt or Schmidt’s Ricin or how god knows what god knows, or what will become of what god does. Though one thing, to god, is clear: “We were all of us anxious to get down to business already.” But we don’t: the focus group, despite all the lead in of prognosis method, formality, consensus-making necessity explication, etc., the summit does not occur. Not here.

This story was first published in 2000. Eight years later, now more than two years ago, which I can not believe, that amount of time, being that time, the creator, in his own parlance, demapped, if merely to reconvene in another conference room on this floor, or another floor, or unto the glass.



The future, is, however, given a name. “The market becomes its own test,” the narration states, re: the method of the future of this research, yet to come. “Terrain = Map. Everything encoded.” In this way, “Mister Squishy,” as a map, contains perhaps more of a landscape set outside itself than any particular node of what it concerns itself with so explicitly, confined.

This is how the human is human: this text is not a portrait, nor an equation, nor even a system or device, a sound, but a conglomerate of expressions expressing nothing each beside the other in a syndicate that by its presence alone forms a map. This text’s expression, considered solely, in each instance, is of other hands, ones beyond demapped ones. Wallace, as creator, invokes a terrain that is not even present in itself, that wants to hurt itself, that wants and can not say it, that wants its creator, that wants. Beyond Wallace. Beyond the Mister Squishy Corporation. Beyond Elizabeth Klemm.

“We hadn’t spent that much time with David since he was a small boy,” Wallace’s mother said. “Once they grow up and leave home you see them, of course, and you visit, but you don’t spend hours and hours with them.”

This story ends, in one sense, at its beginning. We close with one of the figureheads of the research circuit elucidating further methods as to the creation of the aura of the object of the dessert, which will perhaps occasionally be a thing some human puts into their mouth, suggesting that the way to rid the corporation of its facilitators, to demap Schmidt, the human element in the data, would be to show them something outside of themselves. To exhibit to them, beyond the inherent way already done day in and day out, that their position is not only potentially workable by any, but also fails to do anything but complicate some truth. An amorphous unrevealed overorchestrated truth in the first place. Ruining the ruin.

To end them on their own will, then, the figurehead says, “All they needed were the stressors. Nested, high-impact stimuli. Shake them up. Rattle the cage.” The figurehead “poked glowing holes in the air above the desk” as he presents this. He presents it to a younger, up and coming CEO, a future one to walk in his airs. The figurehead asks the boy to dream up these false stimuli that will kill the human, to: “Impress the boss.” “Anything at all.” If we want to know the figure inflating into Mister Squishy over the crowds is a product of this, and or the forthcoming implanted fake barf maker is instead or is as well, we must assume. We must assume, too, our own elucidation of the end, as unto this end, the boy can do nothing but look on, “his mind a great flat blank white screen.”

We are left here in the white of the page. At the bottom of the last page of the text a final footnote, Wallace’s little incessant infiltrating thought inside of thought, appears, visually, after the fact, relegating what is essentially, by now, sidebar information. “Mister Squishy”‘s last words, if we read out of order, as would visual narrative, are: “playing with his little pink toes.”

The yellow light at the top of the window now is wholly gone. Though in the sky further than the window through glass the sky itself is still pale and has a light that sits on every inch in one even, dimming way.

What is set up in here after could go on if there were more words, but what is left is from many angles so diffuse, and at the same time so exacting, that what terror wells up, in repetition, is more frightening than any deathblow of summation, illustration, finger to the throat.

If we remove the human element from this story (i.e., Schmidt is let go from employment, unto himself) without a human element the prognosis of the coming day is the replacement of the human with the machine, the human left to pilot himself toward the center of a nothing. What is human about being human is that anything that is human is not human and to say such is the void of the void.

If we do not remove the human element from this story (i.e. Schmidt is not let go, yet, though it is foretold one day comes regardless, and anywhere, in here, he hardly has a head) without a human element the prognosis is, perhaps, Ricin (death). Perhaps time goes on a little longer and the decision becomes not suicide but murder. And what becomes anyway is the same mode: the cake goes on the market, and the cake sells, or does not sell. The cake, regardless, somewhere down the road, ends in the same way it begins: a question that is answered in the instant that it is uttered. A god without a god’s shape. What comes out of this end is any end.

Where this leaves us, post-creator, post-holding the paper open in my lap again until next time, I don’t know. I do know. I don’t want to. I want.