“The flight took fifty minutes and seemed much longer. There was nothing to do and nothing would hold still in his head in all the confined noise and after the nuts were gone there was nothing for Sylvanshine to do to occupy his mind…” (page 6). That first sentence describes exactly how I felt in reading chapter 2. It probably took me just under an hour to get through it, but it felt so much longer as I bounced along inside the turbulence of Claude Sylvanshine’s muddled mind. Like Sylvanshine, I would look up from the text at some distraction, then have to search the page for my lost place, often rereading the same couple of sentences several times as I regained my bearings.
The chapter seemed a big incoherent mess until I realized you simply provided us a transcript of Sylvanshine’s thoughts as he travels the last leg to Peoria to sit for his CPA exam. His observations of the interior of the plane mix with his observations out the rain-laced window mix with his memories of the Rome REC debacle of 1982 mix with his trying to remember equations and information that will be on the CPA exam that awaits him. His line of thinking is a tangled, knotted mess, a reflection of the rest of his life.
Claude Sylvanshine is the very embodiment of a person running on the “default setting,” a “slave to the terrible master” which is his mind, a person with a “tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside [his] head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of [him], paying attention to what is going on inside [him]” (This is Water). He is what you warned the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College they would become if they did not break free from their default setting and exercise the conscientious ability to choose how to view and interpret one’s surroundings that brings real freedom.
This short plane ride is a microcosm of his entire life. He has been studying for his third attempt at the CPA exam for three and a half years, something that his roommate, Reynolds, was able to do with little trouble in a much less time. He finds himself distracted by the claw-like hands of the woman sitting next to him or by the pimples on the back of the pilot’s neck. He even worries about whether worrying about the exam will cause him too much stress, and therefore sabotage his attempt that the exam. He has tried various anti-stress coping mechanisms to overcome this anxiety, but he can’t even seem to do those right.
The entropy that is his life seems to reach its climax in the last sentence of the story in which he is rendered nearly catatonic with worry about how exactly he will get to the testing location and whether he packed his alarm clock or not. He is frozen on the tarmac, unable to move, all but sealing his disastrous fate. He is, in your words from the Kenyon speech, “totally hosed.”