Letter 15: Further Thoughts on “Little Expressionless Animals”

After taking a bit of time off from the Letters to DFW Project, I am back and hoping to resume a somewhat normal reading and writing schedule.  I am also realizing that attempting to complete this project in one year might have been too ambitious.  A person can’t just rush through literature of this caliber.  I continue the Letter Project with my follow-up thoughts on “Little Expressionless Animals.”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

 “Little Expressionless Animals” is one of those stories that just sticks with you for awhile.  I’m not sure exactly what it is about this story, but it left a lingering taste in my mouth for days afterward.[1]  As I continued to reflect on it, I realized that Julie and Faye are not the only ones with interpersonal relationship issues.  Everyone in the story has issues of some kind.

 The game show hosts – Alex Trebek, Pat Sajak, and Bert Convy – have been friends, coworkers, and competitors for years, and yet there is no depth or substance to their conversations.  They play practical jokes on each other, but can’t talk about anything any more personal than a discolored tooth.

 In several scenes, Trebek is visiting his therapist engaging in some free association.  Perhaps his senseless ramblings might be somewhat coherent to a licensed counselor, but in my estimation they made little or no sense.  He does mention a half-hearted romantic infatuation with Julie, but he isn’t even able to truly own up to those feelings.  He keeps even his therapist at arm’s distance.

 Other examples of this include Faye and her mother’s incredibly dysfunctional relationship and Merv Griffin communicating through his “man” to the executives and producers of his shows.  There is not a single functional individual or relationship in the story.  It is full of loneliness and borderline desperation. 

 This loneliness is best illustrated in a conversation between Dee and Muffy.  Muffy says:

“You hear stories, though… about these lonely or somehow disturbed people who’ve had only the TV all their lives, their parents or whomever started them right off by plunking them down in front of the set, and as they get older the TV comes to be their whole emotional world, it’s all they have, and it becomes in a way their whole way of defining themselves as existents, with a distinct identity, that they’re outside the set, and everything else is inside the set” (31).

 The irony is that this observation is made by a Hollywood “insider” who is part of the superficial world described above.[2]  It is a sad statement indeed if there are truly individuals out there who define themselves in relation to what they see on television, when this story shows that those in that world of television are incapable of maintaining functional relationships themselves.  These sad individuals find their identity and existence in a gossamer-thin illusion.

 The irony extends further in that the “big winner” in the end – at least in terms on the game show – is Julie’s autistic brother.  Granted, it comes out in the story that the producers basically fixed the show by feeding him questions they knew he could answer, but my point is not a criticism of the inner workings of Hollywood game shows.  I wonder what it is you are trying to say in that it is a socially stilted young man who disrupts the norm of this Hollywood microcosm.  He breaks his sister’s three-year run as reigning “Jeopardy!” champion, becoming the new talk of the town.  There has to be more to it than the simple fact that Julie’s own brother, who was also practically forced to memorize the LaPlace’s Data Guides, is the one to finally dethrone her. 

 Is it perhaps to say that we are all socially stilted in our own way?  Are we all, like Julie’s autistic brother, longing for real connections with those around us, but unable to break free from the little worlds in which we are trapped?  Are you trying to say that none of us have any hope of finding true intimacy with other human beings? 

 I guess that at least with Julie’s brother, there is a name for his social disorder that prevents him from making meaningful human contact; the unfortunate thing is there is no name for the social disorders that seem to plague us “normal” folks.

[1] Which has now turned into about two weeks because of my brief “sabbatical.”

[2] Albeit not very well. It’s been about two weeks since I’ve read the story, and about two weeks since I’ve written anything more than an email.  So I’m a bit rusty at the moment.


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