“Signifying Nothing” by David Foster Wallace

When was the first time you saw your father’s penis?

For my own part, I was around seven or eight, and I was down with a stomach bug. My parents had put a trash can beside my bed into which I was supposed to vomit. One night, the worst night of the sickness, my father came into the room to change the trash bag right as I was falling asleep. He was naked. He must have just settled into his own bed before remembering to change the bag. I don’t know whether he was aware that I was awake and staring at his penis. I think he was just trying to get a dirty job done and go back to bed.

Like most of David Foster Wallace’s stories, there is a black hole in “Signifying Nothing”: in this case, it is the narrator’s father. What most disturbs the narrator is not the sudden emergence of a traumatic memory but his father’s unwillingness to discuss that memory and “what it could have meant.” The narrator’s greatest suffering is due to his fruitless search for this meaning.

When suffering from a stomach bug, one might ask why one has to suffer at all. And what does one get as an answer? A faceful of penis. “Dad, why did you make me?” Penis. “Dad, did you ever consider, before making me, that by doing so you would introduce suffering into the world?” Penis. Wallace’s narrator, unsettled by an inexplicable memory and the stressful ritual of moving out of one’s parents’ house, asks for meaning from his father, who, of course, has none to give. At this point, the narrator has two choices: (1) reflect his suffering back at his father by fantasizing about beating him while wearing a blank expression, thus giving no indication of “what [the beating] mean[s]”; (2) do his best to ignore and, ideally, forget his suffering. Both have their obvious drawbacks. The narrator chooses (2). The story ends with a creepy display of the consequences.

“Here is a weird one for you.”

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