Adding a substantial dose self-awareness to his characters allows DFW to muse for extended periods on the power and significance of words, and the relationship between saying something and giving meaning to that something. He does it in both serious and comical ways, as evidenced by Gramma Lenore’s affection for Wittgenstein and the transcripts of the therapy sessions Dr. Jay holds with young Lenore and Rick Vigorous. Pages 116-122 provide a nice example as Lenore discusses her Gramma’s idea that “there’s no such thing as extra-linguistic efficacy, extra-linguistic anything” (120-1). The notion that just saying something provides as much meaning as living something seems crazy, but Lenore remains steadfast despite Jay’s counter-arguments. That may be more due to the weakness of Jay’s responses, but Lenore maintains her convictions nonetheless.
The fact that someone is reading the story adds another layer to the situation, suggesting perhaps that Lenore’s feelings and conviction are perhaps as strong or meaningful as yours or mine. Really? It’s a funny argument, but at its core it questions the influence of words, and maybe they are more powerful than we give them credit for. Either way, Lenore understands and values the power of words and their ability to convey meaning in reality, and maybe that’s why she asks Rick on several occasions to tell her a story.
DFW also uses self-awareness as a way to contemplate one’s own existence, and he does so hilariously. When Lenore and Rick go out to dinner, the reader is privileged to meet one Norman Bombardini (p81-93). Bombardini serves as both a top shelf joke of the kind DFW is renowned for and a method for again exploring self-awareness. Bombardini proposes a dichotomous theory of existence, the Self and the Other. Norman is all too aware of himself, as he repeatedly calls his monstrous size to attention and provides several amusing anecdotes about his unfortunate physical stature, and his perverse solution to his melancholy is to envelop the Other with his own Self. Literally.
What a way to regard existence, that happiness or satisfaction or meaning may come not from an emotional connection to the Other, but actually becoming it. Physically connecting to the Other, rather than talking with it and mentally reaching an understanding. DFW has said that people fear the prospect of never loving something more than themselves, but it seems that Norman would rather just love himself, as he believes “we each need a full universe. Weight Watchers and their allies would have us systematically decrease the Self-component of the universe, so that the great Other-set will be physically attracted to the now more physically attractive self, and rush in to fill the void caused by that diminution of Self. Certainly not incorrect, but just as certainly only half of the range of valid solutionsâ€¦” (p91). Forgiving his tendency toward long-winded speeches, Norman offers a way of thinking about self-awareness and meaning radically different from Lenore’s. There’s no surprise that Lenore is just as repulsed by what Norman is saying as by Norman’s eating habits.
For a novel that places such emphasis on words, the names of people and things really demand attention. For the most part I have trouble deciding what to make of them, aside from the obvious gags, like the law firm of “Rummage and Naw.” Lawyers are rats I guess, or mice according to Rick Vigorous. Anything else interesting in the names?