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Story Review: Incarnations of Burned Children by David Foster Wallace

Incarnations of Burned Children by David Foster Wallace

Incarnations of Burned Children is a story that is more or less than a thousand words and that involves a Daddy, a Mommy, a child, and pot of boiling water. It portrays a tragedy that can happen in daily domestic life, and this is all done in what seems to be a long, singular breath. The story is composed only of one paragraph in the typical style that brings to mind his opus on addiction, depression, and entertainment: Infinite Jest.

The story begins with the Daddy fixing a door and hearing the screams of the child (agonized) and the Mommy (flustered). To capture the pandemonium caused by an overturned pot of boiling water, Wallace uses stream of consciousness, an efficient choice that allows him to capture both the physical scene and the emotions emanating from it. How a gruesome accident can make one feel tender feelings tinged with confusion, anguish, fear, and guilt is beyond me, but I can conclude that skill and talent can convey so many feelings with a limited number of words.

Allow me to share an experience regarding burned children. My sister, being an unruly nine-year-old, accidentally stepped in a pot filled with hot water to be used for a warm bath. She called me first, and although there was no screaming, I felt the agony in her shaky voice. I felt all the things that the Daddy felt: we should apply first aid, we should go to the hospital, why was that pot there, why didn’t they immediately prepare the warm bath instead of letting the hot water stand to let it cool, what’s going to happen to her foot?

It took many, many years before the scars of that accident were erased from her dalmatian-turned foot. But what about the child in Wallace’s story?

If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child. Break your heart inside and something will a child is the twangy song the Daddy hears again as if the lady was almost there with him looking down at what they’ve done, though hours later what the Daddy won’t most forgive is how badly he wanted a cigarette right then as they diapered the child as best they could in gauze and two crossed handtowels and the Daddy lifted him like a newborn with his skull in one palm and ran him out to the hot truck and burned custom rubber all the way to town and the clinic’s ER with the tenant’s door hanging open like that all day until the hinge gave but by then it was too late, when it wouldn’t stop and they couldn’t make it the child had learned to leave himself and watch the whole rest unfold from a point overhead, and whatever was lost never thenceforth mattered, and the child’s body expanded and walked about and drew pay and lived its life untenanted, a thing among things, its self’s soul so much vapor aloft, falling as rain and then rising, the sun up and down like a yoyo.

Whether or not the child lived to survive the accident is open to interpretation. It fascinates me. This is flash fiction that doesn’t trade brevity for quality.

Published in: Oblivion

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


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