Discussion Notes: Good People

Find this week’s story here: Good People by David Foster Wallace.

Next week’s story: Measures of Time by Andrea Eberly.

Rated: Explicit

Gerald, Rammy, and Anais tackle David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good People” which centers around a young religious couple who are debating whether or not to have an abortion. Rammy gets into a strong discussion with Anais about morals. Meanwhile Maya disagrees with everyone else about the theme of the story, which challenges Anais to read some extracts to clarify character’s motives. A heated debate ensues! Come for the bickering, stay for the strangest Which Would You Rather quiz you’ve ever heard.

Did we miss a crucial piece of this story? Tell us below!

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3 comments on Good People | David Foster Wallace | Literary Roadhouse Ep 105

  1. Richard Dennis says:

    My reading of this story is a lot different. First, I think the ending is entirely in Lane’s head. Sherri doesn’t decline the abortion or release him from his duties; that is all part of the progression of Lane’s thoughts, and that progression is what this story is all about, and what gives it the depth that you found missing.

    Lane is projecting a lot on Sherri in the last long paragraph. “Later on, he believed that what happened was he’d had a moment of almost seeing them both as Jesus saw them—as blind but groping, wanting to please God despite their inborn fallen nature. For in that same given moment he saw, quick as light, into Sheri’s heart, and was made to know what would occur here as she finished turning to him and the man in the hat watched the fishing and the downed elm shed cells into the water.” Note the qualifying tags: “he believed” “almost seeing them both” “saw, quick as light, into Sherri’s heart.” This is Lane manufacturing a reaction that he wants to hear, that will release him from the choices he dreads. His description of her supposed thoughts is similarly filled with qualification: she “would take and hold one of his hands,” “her voice will be clear and steady, and she will be lying,” “It will be a terrible, last ditch gamble.” None of those things has happened. No third party narrator is speaking here.

    All this gets Lane to the point where he sees the difficult choice that Sherri faces, and has to face alone and without his assistance (foreshadowed by her comment that he won’t be in the room when the abortion is done). To me, the whole story reaches its climax when Lane realizes that “her values blocked the way either way.” At that point, having at last fought his way through all the rationalizations and self delusions, he sees the horrible truth. His reaction is to revisit his conclusion that he doesn’t love her, and contemplate that maybe he does. Is this real, or just another way to deal with the dilemma? At the end, he is groping for courage to meet the real problem, and that is a long way from where he started.

    That’s why i think the story does have depth.

    There are a couple of other noteworthy aspects to the story. First, a stylistic one. DFW uses only a few paragraphs, and mixes in all kinds of images in succeeding sentences without a clean break. This is a nice poetic touch (or a breakdown of prose, depending on your viiewpoint–I liked it). In the first paragraph we go from the kids sitting on the picnic table to the history of their meeting to springtime in the park to downed trees and chainsaw noise. to the guy in the suit to Jesus Christ to the ducks. I see this as the straying of Lane’s thoughts as he averts his attention from the truth of the tough situation. If this were broken up into separate paragraphs, as more conventional writers might do (me, for instance), it would be too organized and structured. The point is that Lane’s mind is wandering, trying to escape something.

    The other thing that jumps out at me is the use of the downed tree in the lake. It is a key metaphor, but I am still trying to work out what it means. I think it has to do with the vision that Lane had of himself and Sherri. That old picture is gone now, knocked down by the pregnancy, and it is sitting in body of –I don’t know–some illusions, faith, or maybe just the conventional wisdom about how she smells, and what his mother says. At any rate, it’s important.

    As always, I enjoyed the discussion and look forward to the next installment.

    1. Great comment! I love the idea of Lane grouping for courage, my favorite virtue.

    2. Larry says:

      It’s true that the ending is all in Lane’s head but there’s two movements of the vision. 1) He sees Sheri turning to him and making her decision: the decision to keep the baby but also absolve him of responsibility and raise the baby herself. But then 2) He knows this offer will be a lie. A lie to test him. He understands that it’s a ridiculous scenario and if he accepts it, he is not a good person after all.

      The distinction “to be good people. to still be able to feel like he was good people” gets set up early on in the story. I read those as two very different things. To be requires action. To feel like you are good people can be achieved in various ways, and that’s what he spends most of the story doing: trying to protect the image of himself held by Sheri.

      So when he realizes he’s about to be tested, he realizes that maybe all he needs to do is love her. The question of whether or not this actually happens remains but I think there’s at least two pieces of text that say that it does: 1) the idea of “he would later come to think of this as a moment of grace…” Later, suggesting that he looks back on this moment in the future. I suppose it could still be a moment of grace without the vision being 100% true, but the idea of trials and tests and grace all fit with the religious themes of the story. And 2) the idea that the vision begins with Sheri taking Lane’s hands into hers and at least that action definitively happens in the last few sentences.

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