Letter 29: Brief Interviews – “Forever Overhead”

Dear Dave,

About a year ago I began meeting with some colleagues and fellow writers to talk about our own writing endeavors.  We critiqued each other’s work and discussed books on writing that we had read.  One of my fellow aspiring writers was working on a young adult novel and was experimenting with the narrative voice.  One of the drafts we reviewed was written in first-person present tense.  While the use of first-person presence tense seemed to be a trend in popular young adult fiction at the time, one of the others in the group said that many of the writing advice books he had read cautioned against it.  He called it a “rookie mistake,” something new writers do to try to be hip and trendy, but something that only proven veterans can really get away with.

I wonder what those writing advice books would have to say about a second-person present tense.

The character in the story[1] is celebrating his (your) thirteenth birthday with a trip to the community pool.  Toward the end of the day, he (you) decides to brave the high dive.  He (you) joins the queue, slowly climbs the ladder behind a rather portly woman in an unflattering bathing suit, hesitates long enough to attract attention and questions of concern from the man below him on the ladder, then takes the plunge.

At first glance – or read – the jump off the high dive symbolizes the boy’s (your) coming of age.  Diving into the waters of adulthood.  After all, he (you) is thirteen, the age that a boy becomes a man in many cultures and traditions.  He (you) is showing the signs of physical and sexual maturity.  And he (you) has left the kiddy pool and joined the grown-ups in the line for the high dive.  The act of jumping off the diving board and into the pool far below is a sort of baptism, leaving behind the days of childhood and embracing – or being embraced by – the scary future of adulthood.  All stuff straight out of a high school literature class.

But I don’t think his (your) dive from the high dive is his (your) coming of age moment; instead I would posit that it is leaving the swimming pool that marks the true coming of age.[2] Coming up out of the waters is his (your) new birth into adulthood.  He (you) has already reached maturation before he even gets in the high dive queue.

Allow me to make my case:

Exhibit A – the story begins with a birthday greeting, a thirteenth birthday greeting.  As already mentioned, the year of entering manhood.  The aforementioned physical description that follows point to his (your) budding manhood.  He (you) chooses to spend the afternoon before his (your) birthday party at the local swimming pool – the real waters of his (your) baptism.  He (you) comes out of those waters[3] at the end of the day; the sun is setting as he (you) says good-bye to his (your) childhood.  The entire set-up of the story points to this early coming of age rather than a later one.

Exhibit B – On his (your) way to the high dive, there is no stopping to see his (your) parents.  He (you) knows that stopping means talking and talking means thinking and thinking means doubting and doubting means turning back from the mission.  He (you) is alone now, venturing away from the safety and security of family and joining the ranks of his (your) fellow adults.

Exhibit C – a very subtle word choice snuck into a sentence describing his (your) ear as he (you) emerges from the pool.  The sentence reads “brain-warmed water turns cold on the nautilus of your ear’s outside” (7-8).  The use of he word nautilus is very significant.  The nautilus is a small aquatic animal that makes its dwelling in a shell.  As each year passes and the creature grows, the shell grows with it.  But as the creature and shell grow, the nautilus seals off the previous portion of the shell, living only in the newly created portion.[4] So the character,[5] in leaving the kiddy pool, has already closed the door to his (your) childhood before he even joins the high dive queue.

The plunge from the high dive is his (your) first act as a man rather than the passage into manhood.[6] If this is the case, what does the plunge signify?

Looking at where this story falls in the book as a whole presents some intriguing possibilities.  If the character is diving into the adulthood portrayed in the first two chapters, he might have been better off staying in the kiddy pool.  The first two chapters tell stories of utter loneliness and a desire for human connection.  Although surrounded by other people and being watched by his (your) family, he (you) dives alone.  Does this solo dive call us to remember the nameless characters we just met in the previous stories?  Does he (you) have nothing but loneliness and isolation to look forward to?

The chapter that follows begins the Brief Interviews, the first couple of which are men who mask their insecurities through the sexual domination of women.  The first uncontrollably shouts political statements while in bed; the second is unable to cope with a borderline abusive father in his past by binding and being bound by his lovers.  So is this the future the character has to look forward to?  One in which displaced childhood issues find their way into the bedroom?

Whichever is the case – if you are in fact placing this story where it is to make a point about that dive – the waters in that diving pool will be very cold and discouraging.  There will be a lot of loneliness and unrequited longings for affection.  The character – the reader – has a bleak future ahead of him.

Stay in the pool, my young friend.  It’s a cold, heartless world far below that diving board.

[1] Which would be the reader, given the second-person narration.  In preparing to write this Letter, I wasn’t sure how I would approach this.  I’m still not exactly sure what to do with it.

[2] I know it sounds like I am splitting hairs here, but hear me out.  I think the high dive is very significant, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

[3] The sign of rebirth.

[4] Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem entitled “The Chambered Nautilus” that describes this process of growth and closing the door on the past, embracing the present, and looking with anticipation toward the future.

[5] Even now, nearly 700 words into this letter, I’m still not sure how to write about this second-person narrator.  You’re killing me Dave.

[6] One last sign this is the case is the dark spots on the end of the diving board, spots made from bits of flesh that have rubbed off of divers’ feet.  Any remnants of childhood are left behind on the diving board.

2 thoughts on “Letter 29: Brief Interviews – “Forever Overhead”

  1. This is one of my favorite pieces in BIWHM. When I read it out loud (or listen to David reading it) I notice a certain poetic, almost musical quality to it, a rythm. It’s like the words roll on and off your tongue, “as things precious”. In my head, there are also these bright, orangy, overexposed polaroids or mute super 8 movies.
    It’s so incredibly poignant, I think, because it captures the violently vivid way in which you start to perceive the world, or life, if you will, after you become a teenager. The part in which the tank “re-heals” just about kills me.
    I also wondered about this boy’s future, whether he’d become one of the hideous men that enter the stage later on.
    I’m not sure, but this book makes a lot of sense in the context of DFW’s apparent quest for authenticity and human decency. And I’m not talking about Saint Dave here, but just someone who at least had the guts to ask himself what it means to be a man in this world.
    I always read your letters. Great project, incredibly brave of you!
    Keep them coming.

  2. Pingback: The Pale King – Chapter 6 | Letters to DFW

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