Friday, August 07, 2009

My Words But a Whisper, Your Deafness a Shout.

By Kevin Guilfoile

As I've mentioned here before, I'm spending the summer as one of the four "Guides" on the Infinite Summer site, which means I've been reading David Foster Wallace's mammoth novel INFINITE JEST, and providing a weekly commentary on it as I read. At the halfway point I'm finding the book immensely gratifying and the group approach to the novel not only great fun but (coincidentally) a valuable complement to the book's structure.

A few weeks back, however, I wrote about a section of the book that gave me pause. INFINITE JEST is very funny and on page 139 there is a comic interlude in the form of a memo between two State Farm employees. One of the insurance guys is passing along a letter from a claimant clarifying the details of an accident that occurred on the job:

Dear Sir:

I am writing in response to your request for additional information. In block #3 of the accident reporting form, I put “trying to do the job alone”, as the cause of my accident. You said in your letter that I should explain more fully and I trust that the following details will be sufficient.

I am a bricklayer by trade. On the day of the accident, March 27, I was working alone on the roof of a new six story building. When I completed my work, I discovered that I had about 900 kg. of brick left over. Rather than laboriously carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to lower them in a barrel by using a pulley which fortunately was attached to the side of the building at the sixth floor. Securing the rope at ground level, I went up to the roof, swung the barrel out and loaded the brick into it. Then I went back to the ground and untied the rope, holding it tightly to insure a slow descent of the 900 kg of bricks. You will note in block #11 of the accident reporting form that I weigh 75 kg.

Due to my surprise at being jerked off the ground so suddenly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Needless to say, I proceeded at a rapid rate up the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor I met the barrel coming down. This explains the fractured skull and the broken collar bone.

Slowed only slightly, I continued my rapid ascent not stopping until the fingers of my right hand were two knuckles deep into the pulleys. Fortunately, by this time, I had regained my presence of mind, and was able to hold tightly to the rope in spite of considerable pain. At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground and the bottom fell out of the barrel from the force of hitting the ground.

Devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel now weighed approximately 30 kg. I refer you again to my weight of 75 kg in block #11. As you could imagine, still holding the rope, I began a rather rapid descent from the pulley down the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming up. This accounts for the two fractured ankles and the laceration of my legs and lower body.

The encounter with the barrel slowed me enough to lessen my impact with the brick-strewn ground below. I am sorry to report, however, that as I lay there on the bricks in considerable pain, unable to stand or move and watching the empty barrel six stories above me, I again lost my presence of mind and unfortunately let go of the rope, causing the barrel to begin a… endtranslNTCOM626

That story is probably familiar to a lot of you. It's a very old joke that more recently has become an urban legend, and a promiscuous email forward. It's famous enough that a reenactment of the accident was featured on the television show Mythbusters. The particular version Wallace inserts into his book is copied and pasted, almost word-for-word, from one that can now be found in thousands of places on the internet (Wallace wrote IJ in the early-mid 90s, when the Internet was still in its infancy). The earliest published version I could track down that uses the insurance claim conceit as well as the exact words and phrases borrowed by Wallace was a 1982 column in the Louisville Courier-Journal. The columnist, longtime Kentucky journalist Byron Crawford, never took credit for it. He disclaimed at the outset that it had been passed along to him by a colleague from Georgia. The person who so carefully crafted this very funny version of the story is lost to history.

Now I'm not claiming this is plagiarism. Without going too much into the nature of Infinite Jest, I think Wallace expected that many of his readers would recognize it. Indeed urban legends are something of a motif throughout the book. And I was somewhat placated by the discovery (very minor spoiler here) that some 400 pages later it is suggested that this claim sent to State Farm was part of an insurance scam perpetrated by a minor character and so, in the layered reality of Infinite Jest, one might assume that the character is supposed to have copied this story from somewhere and presented it as his own.

But that all assumes you are a very savvy reader. Wallace never actually reveals any of that, nor does he give any suggestion that this anecdote isn't his own creation. In the comments to my post on this subject over at Infinite Summer, most readers were willing to defend Wallace's decision, even as many expressed disappointment that one of their favorite sections in the book hadn't been written by the author.

In the end I was still personally a little bothered by it. I give Wallace a pass but I don't think I would ever feel comfortable doing it myself. So I pose the question to the many writers and careful readers who hang out at this site: Do you think this is an acceptable appropriation of someone else's words? Would you be comfortable doing it yourself?

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Barbara D'Amato said...

Not unless it's unmistakable.

Laurie King said...

I might, if it was just too good to pass up. But I'd make sure there was a clear note in the acknowledgments.

Sara Paretsky said...

I first heard the bricklayer story as part of a Stanley Holloway stand-up routine many years ago--I can't find the date. He himself took it from British music hall jokes of the turn of the previous century, but embellished it; the version Wallace uses is in fact just about word-for-word from Holloway's routine. I think the pedigree on this story is such that Wallace was really obligated to make a note of it, instead of lifting it lock, stock and barrel. It would be easy to do without ruining the flow of the story. And since he uses Holloway's version just about verbatim, there's no excuse for not giving credit for it.
A short thing--a line or two --might be so embedded in your memory that you honestly don't remember it wasn't your idea to begin with--but not an involved story like this. One snarler's opinion, of course.

Dana King said...

I might use it, but I'd find some way to credit it, even if I just picked it up from the internet.

Libby Hellmann said...

I agree with everyone. It's fine to include it, but he should have attributed it.

Marie said...

As a careful reader, I go looking for acknowledgments. If I get a clear sense that something is not the author's own words, and I can't find an acknowledgment, I am disappointed. However, I'm also open to the possibility that my sense is wrong and just let it nag at me until the end of a story. Now that the internet is here, it's a lot easier to check these things out.

This is the first time I've heard the story. Sitting here reading it, I was laughing my head off.

As a careful reader (love that phrase), I'm also a detail oriented reader. This story put me on guard from the beginning. First of all, when I think of State Farm, I think of auto and home owners' insurance, not health or workers' comp. Clearly, this couldn't be an auto or home claim. So, there was that. Also, when I think of State Farm, I think of an American company. When the bricklayer described the various weights in kilograms and not pounds as we Americans do, I got the impression this was probably a couple tales that got twisted together for the sake of comedy.

I'm sure this is more information than you wanted. Sorry for that. Anyway, I'm probably not the best person to ask.