‘Good Old Neon’ might represent the apex of Wallace’s fiction for me. It’s perhaps the clearest distillation of what he was trying to do; to work within a register of generational irony in order to transcend its form. Wallace’s best work is affecting before it is smart, and ‘Good Old Neon’ holds the metafictional tricks at a distance, letting them percolate throughout the story before they emerge, finally, in a transformative way. The story is narrated by a dead man, a suicide, who considers how communication after death is not bound by time or space, but also how that transcendence cannot necessarily obviate a sense of failure. Many of Wallace’s hobby horses – Wittgenstein, Derrida – are here in some form, though the main influence on this story appears to be Buddhism; the protagonist, Neal, is so fixated on the binary of success or failure that he remains trapped in the bardo-like space of the story and needs someone to pull him out, which they (sort of) do in unexpected and quite beautiful fashion at the story’s climax.
First published in Conjunctions 37, Fall 2001, and collected in Oblivion, Little, Brown, 2004