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"Adult World" is a short story by David Foster Wallace, featured in his 1999 short-form work compilation Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. It takes as its starting point the increasing worries of Mrs. Jeni Orzolek Roberts, who is primarily concerned that she's hurting her husband's penis with faulty sexual technique. (Said husband makes no complaints about it himself and is in fact positively effusive regarding Jeni's behaviour in bed.) These worries build over the course of several years to a level of total internal hysteria, redoubling as Jeni feels more and more that her unhappiness is a deserved consequence of her sexual ineptness and down-swinging psychology. (Shades of another Brief Interviews story, "The Depressed Person".) This serves as the lead-in to the story's climax, Jeni's epiphany that her husband is a compulsive masturbator, which — I infer — is what her sinking feelings were a side-effect of unconsciously intuiting.

"Adult World" is split into two very different parts, presented in BIWHM as separate compositions, "Adult World (I)" and "Adult World (II)". "Adult World (I)" is played mostly straight, written in the normal omniscient third person. It ends at the point where Jeni frantically arranges a meeting with her former lover and is about to ask him a question that unlocks the epiphanic key to resolving her marital panic and unhappiness. "Adult World (II)" immediately follows, consisting not of the rest of the story but Wallace's own authorial notes planning out the rest of the story.

1a. Question Jeni Roberts asks is whether Former Lover had indeed in their past relationship ever fantasized about other women during lovemaking w/ her.
1a(1) Inserted at the beginning of the question is participial phrase 'After apologising for how irrational and inappropriate it might sound after all this time...'
1b. At some point during J.'s question, J. follows F.L.'s gaze out fast-food window & sees her husband's special vanity license plate among vehicles in Adult World lot: → epiphany. Epiph unfolds more or less independently as facially asymmetric F.L. responds to J.'s question. [...]

That's the main interesting thing about "Adult World". The plot and characterisation are engaging, but what kept the story pricking me in the head days after I read it was Wallace's decision to shift from telling the story's denouement to documenting a hypothetical telling of the story's denouement. Part I strongly suggests that he was entirely capable of writing a complete Part II in the same style. What did DFW decide could be gained by telling the story in note form?

The attitude Wallace expresses with regard to writing in his earlier essay, "E Unibus Pluram", has me doubting that he's playing a "glimpse-behind-the-scenes-of-writing" game, and I don't for a second believe he's attempting irony. Maybe DFW thought that the reader's post-climax catharsis could be induced as reliably by the story notes as if he'd written out the ending in full prose? But then why include obvious notes-to-self about "avoid[ing] easy gags" and so forth? These instructions to himself don't help the reader empathise or feel for the characters. None of these are likely reasons.

From DFW's other work, I'm also reasonably certain that he's not intending to simply portray a scene of repressed domestic strife or its resolution. What "Adult World" seems to document is a theme that Wallace likes to pick at a lot, viz. an abrupt gain of self-knowledge from an epiphany. One needn't look any further than the rest of BIWHM to find the theme in other DFW works:

  • "Forever Overhead" begins with a 13-year-old boy's prose-poetic introduction to puberty and its attendant sexual discoveries, and ends with his symbolic rebirth after he jumps off the tall diving board at the local municipal swimming pool and is subsumed in the water below.

  • At the end of "The Depressed Person", the depressed protagonist is begging the centre of her support network (a friend terminally ill with brain cancer) to give an honest assessment of her personality.

  • "The Devil Is a Busy Man" (the first story of that title) has the unnamed speaker relating an unexpected discovery his father made in trying to sell old junk for free.

  • The events in "Signifying Nothing" are set in motion by the narrator suddenly remembering that his father, years before, had waggled his penis in the narrator's face. And there's another epiphany of a different sort when the story finishes with the narrator discovering that it's worth letting go of old, minor conflicts to embrace one's family.

  • Footnote 16 of "Octet" wonders (with barely disguised glee) what would happen if the attendees at a party started to share their innermost thoughts.

  • "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko" stars a character who is transfixed when she unexpectedly sees herself in a mirror for the first time.

  • The subject of Brief Interview #20 describes how he fell in love with a New Age woman whom he'd initially intended to use, only once, for sex.

Although I'm sure of Wallace's motive in writing the story, I still can't say how the shift in style between "Adult World (I)" and "Adult World (II)" serves it. The transition from omniscient third-person to an impersonal and concise Ithaca-style outline might well be meant to mimic the transition of Jeni from a housewife defined in terms of her husband to an independent person described objectively as her husband's equal. But this device is, IMO, a little too hackneyed (although Wallace did use a similar trick in Infinite Jest by writing all of Hal Incandenza's later scenes in the first person to demonstrate his growing solipsism), and also a superfluously oblique way of signalling a theme that's made plain by the plot anyway.

Instead the idea I kept returning to, after considering all of the above, is that a metafictional experiment is taking place in "Adult World". I got an "Octet" vibe from the story that I can't shake off, even though "Adult World" isn't anything like the bold literary manifesto that "Octet" turns out to be. I don't think it's a coincidence that "Adult World" is the story immediately after "Octet" in BIMWH. "Adult World (II)"'s author notes make the reader complicit in the acting of writing just as "Octet"'s last pop quiz does. Even if the reader comes out of the other side of the story without having had any epiphany, they are at least meant to emerge with something intangibly improved about themselves.

This gives "Adult World (II)" the same flaw that "Octet" suffers. That is, the story's success is less a function of the writer's intent and effort than it is a matter of the reader deciding that the writer is deploying metafictional tropes out of genuine need rather than an urge to show off. Although "Octet" is more ostentatious and audacious in its self-reflexivity, "Adult World (II)" is even riskier from an artistic point of view because it doesn't have DFW reaching into the text to explicitly point out why he's using metafictional devices. It's a subtler way of addressing the issue "Octet" tried tackling.

Now, whether Wallace deliberately embarked on "Adult World" with the intent of following up on "Octet" is another matter to settle entirely...

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