Conserving Momentum in David Foster Wallace’s “Incarnations of Burned Children”

A parents worst nightmare: the grotesque and tragic injuries or ailments that may befell their child when left unattended.

In nearly 1,100 words, David Foster Wallace’s “Incarnations of Burned Children” is able to weave an emotional story about a singular life-changing event that could occur in any non-descriptive, ordinary family of three – the Daddy, the Mommy, and the child. (If you haven’t read the story beforehand, I suggest that you do. It makes for a very quick, compassionate read.)

The key pieces that make this piece of short fiction work so effectively, and makes it relatable, are its themes of parental guilt, the soiling of childhood purity, and familial suffering. Wallace’s writing style, utilizing each word and fostering a sense of dread, mental fatigue, and physical pain, enhances the thematics of the story by structuring the story’s foundation on a story aware of its momentum and utilizing it to pull the reader in, captivating them from beginning to end.

Sparing no word while creating a seamless work of flash fiction, the reader is pulled into a story that begins with the piercing shrill of the child’s and the Mommy’s screams:

The Daddy was around the side of the house hanging a door for the tenant when he heard the child’s screams and the Mommy’s voice gone high between them.

Narrated from the Daddy’s point-of-view, a story of impending worry, sorrow, suffering, and remorse begins to unfold before the eyes of the reader.

The story begins on what feels like a climax — the explosion of which usually promulgates the impending fallout to commence. Hearing the shrill screams of both his wife and son, the Daddy enters the kitchen to find that the event has already taken place:

He could move fast, and the back porch gave onto the kitchen, and before the screen door had banged shut behind him the Daddy had taken the scene in whole, the overturned pot on the floortile before the stove and the burner’s blue jet and the floor’s pool of water still steaming as its many arms extended, the toddler in his baggy diaper standing rigid with steam coming off his hair and his chest and shoulders scarlet and his eyes rolled up and mouth open very wide and seeming somehow separate from the sounds that issued, the Mommy down on one knee with the dishrag dabbing pointlessly at him and matching the screams with cries of her own, hysterical so she was almost frozen.

Vapor hangs above the anthropomorphic, octopus-like pool of water while the gas jet burns an eerie blue. The burned child emits steam and wails in animalistic ways.  This sentence, the second of the story, is particularly where DFW begins conserving his momentum. Rather than allowing the initial impulse to take place and let the story unwind until its conclusion, allowing the reader to take on whatever momentum the story might be losing (thus allowing for the reader to think further into the head of the characters, building the story themselves), DFW conserves the momentum entirely within the story itself. In a moment like this, revealing the scene of the tragedy to the Daddy, all consciousness is turned off: fight-or-flight tendencies take place, worrying about the conditions of the tragedy and the pain inflicted upon the child.

Her one knee and the bare little soft feet were still in the steaming pool, and the Daddy’s first act was to take the child under the arms and lift him away from it and take him to the sink, where he threw out plates and struck the tap to let cold wellwater run over the boy’s feet while with his cupped hand he gathered and poured or flung more cold water over his head and shoulders and chest, wanting first to see the steam stop coming off him, the Mommy over his shoulder invoking God until he sent her for towels and gauze if they had it, the Daddy moving quickly and well and his man’s mind empty of everything but purpose, not yet aware of how smoothly he moved or that he’d ceased to hear the high screams because to hear them would freeze him and make impossible what had to be done to help his child, whose screams were regular as breath and went on so long they’d become already a thing in the kitchen, something else to move quickly around.

The Daddy notices that the Mommy’s knee is still in the “steaming pool,” along with the child’s feet, and he immediately reaches for the child. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t care for the mother and whatever debilitating pain she is experiencing in seeing the child burned so badly, but the child is the primary concern between the two of them. This flight-or-fight reaction that both the parents and the readers are feeling is described through the line following the Daddy having sent the Mommy off for towels and gauze as he attempts to chill the child’s skin, “His man’s mind empty of everything of purpose, not yet aware of how smoothly he moved or that he’d ceased to hear the high screams because to hear the would freeze him and make impossible what had to be done to help his child.” The unraveling of the event is not that different than a barrage of gunfire, wherein the Daddy has essentially turned off any cognitive functions and begun to simply follow a muscle memory he may have never known that he had. The only matter on the mind of him, the mother, and the reader is whether or not the child is relatively okay and is being taken care of.

The tenant side’s door outside hung half off its top hinge and moved slightly in the wind, and a bird in the oak across the driveway appeared to observe the door with a cocked head as the cries still came from inside.

One of the few, shorter sentences within the story, DFW implies the peculiarity to that of an on-looker — someone viewing the house without having scene the events that are still unraveling within the kitchen. A door, half-hung, and a bird watching its soft revolving as the guttural cries are still birthed from the child. While this seems to provide a slight sense of calm from the stressful bombardment of events, the bizarre sight of the door hanging from its upper hinge, along with a bird seemingly perplexed by the scene and sounds, causes for the return of the unsettling feeling of the story. For an unconscious being — unaware of the events within the walls of the home — to become bewildered by the sight is a reminder of the horror that is ripping through the family.

The worst scalds seemed to be the right arm and shoulder, the chest and stomach’s red was fading to pink under the cold water and his feet’s soft soles weren’t blistered that the Daddy could see, but the toddler still made little fists and screamed except now merely on reflex from fear the Daddy would know he thought possible later, small face distended and thready veins standing out at the temples and the Daddy kept saying he was here he was here, adrenaline ebbing and an anger at the Mommy for allowing this thing to happen just starting to gather in wisps at his mind’s extreme rear still hours from expression.

While the Daddy begins seeing that the manner of the burns might not be as bad as he had thought, although the scalds on the right arm and shoulder still are a means for worry, it appears as if the story might be calming down. However, yet again, DFW finds a means to balance out this sense of calm by juxtaposing it with another another emotion: anger. As the Daddy attempts to cool and calm the child, who is screaming still, an anger begins billowing within him, manifested as a thought: this is the mother’s fault — negligence on her part. As he wasn’t in the vicinity of the kitchen, outside of the house and unable to see the child, their must be someone to blame for this injury to have taken place (from his perspective). Suddenly, the story begins to shift focus solely away from the child’s injury and onto the injury that has taken place upon the marriage of the Mommy and Daddy. Rather than the reader worrying just about the child’s physical condition and the future issues to come with it, they now begin worrying about the relationship between the parents and whether it will survive this injurious event.

When the Mommy returned he wasn’t sure whether to wrap the child in a towel or not but he wet the towel down and did, swaddled him tight and lifted his baby out of the sink and set him on the kitchen table’s edge to soothe him while the Mommy tried to check the feet’s soles with one hand waving around in the area of her mouth and uttering objectless words while the Daddy bent in and was face to face with the child on the table’s checkered edge repeating the fact that he was here and trying to calm the toddler’s cries but still the child breathlessly screamed, a high pure shining sound that could stop his heart and his bitty lips and gums now tinged with the light blue of a low flame the Daddy thought, screaming as if almost still under the tilted pot in pain.

Caring for their child, working together as separate entities — the Daddy swaddling the child and soothing him while the Mommy checking the child’s feet — the situation currently seems under control. Yet there is still something off. Although the child is being taken care of, they are still breathlessly screaming, they’re gums the color of that “light blue of a low flame” similar to the stove burner, “screaming as if almost still under the tilted pot in pain.” Once again, when there is a sense of reprieve from this tragic event, there is another contrasting thought/emotion/revelation that allows for all of the momentum to be conserved.

A minute, two like this that seemed much longer, with the Mommy at the Daddy’s side talking sing-song at the child’s face and the lark on the limb with its head to the side and the hinge going white in a line from the weight of the canted door until the first wisp of steam came lazy from under the wrapped towel’s hem and the parents’ eyes met and widened–the diaper, which when they opened the towel and leaned their little boy back on the checkered cloth and unfastened the softened tabs and tried to remove it resisted slightly with new high cries and was hot, their baby’s diaper burned their hand and they saw where the real water’d fallen and pooled and been burning their baby all this time while he screamed for them to help him and they hadn’t, hadn’t thought and when they got it off and saw the state of what was there the Mommy said their God’s first name and grabbed the table to keep her feet while the father turned away and threw a haymaker at the air of the kitchen and cursed both himself and the world for not the last time while his child might now have been sleeping if not for the rate of his breathing and the tiny stricken motions of his hands in the air above where he lay, hands the size of a grown man’s thumb that had clutched the Daddy’s thumb in the crib while he’d watched the Daddy’s mouth move in song, his head cocked and seeming to see way past him into something his eyes made the Daddy lonesome for in a strange vague way.

DFW manages to dig the knife deeper into the reader, presenting another revelation that provides nothing but further inflicted pain. Although the Mommy and the Daddy had thought that they were helping the child, they had actually provided no reprieve. Pulling at the diaper, burning their hands in the process, they realize that “while he screamed for them to help him…they hadn’t,” the majority of the boiling water having pooled in his diaper and been burning him ever since the incident. Overwhelmed, the Mommy nearly collapses as the Daddy “threw a haymaker” into the invisible nothing and “cursed both himself and the world for not the last time,” a look into the guilt that is to burden him for the future to come. In this moment, looking down at the child, a sense of dread and worry overcomes the Daddy (and equally, us) as he notices that his child has begun to quiet, seeming to be “sleeping,” while noticing his “hand’s the size of a grown man’s thumb” reaching at something ahead of him, his eyes circling and looking beyond the Daddy’s face. The question we now have to ask ourselves is whether this is simply a delirious vision or the sights of a human fading into nothing.

If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child.

Although never having a child in his own lifetime, DFW perfectly encapsulates the feeling of a parent in this one line. Although the shortest sentence of the story, I feel as if this carries the most weight; more so, it’s brevity is what makes the line, and its message, so significant. This story has been breeding a variety of emotions, as portrayed through the Mommy and the Daddy and cultivated within the reader — anxiety, pain, grief, paranoia, confusion, minor relief, culpability, indictment, and horror. As readers, we have felt empathy for the Mommy, the Daddy, and the child for their pain and through their reactions, but this singular line is what encapsulates all of the empathy we feel for these characters, particularly the Daddy. For the majority of lines in this story, it seems as if we have been in his thoughts for the entirety of the story — viewing the events unfold through his eyes. Yet this is the one line in which the father not only thinks this to himself, but he says it directly to the reader. This is yet another climax — the conservation of momentum —  in which any sense of relief or reprieve is instantly disbanded and removed from the thoughts of the reader. Now, more than ever, the reader feels as if they are the Daddy, imagining themselves in his shoes. There is nothing but grief, despair, pain, and a sense of responsibility for this tragedy.

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.

“Break your heart inside,” “what they’ve done,” “hot truck,” “burned custom rubber,” “door hanging open,” “self’s soul so much vapor aloft,” etc.

Within this final sentence, after having captured your irresolute empathy, the Daddy reflects on his position in the event and begins to imagine the thoughts as they ran through the child. While keeping the reader enraptured throughout the story, DFW equally leaves them wishing for an answer to relieve their stress. Does the child die in the ER? Is the child actually reincarnated in the end? Does the child live only to be disfigured and possibly dismembered, thus becoming reincarnated from a life that was that of a simple child into that of a life of emotional and physical pain and personal debasement?

There is no definitive answer as to which of these is correct. I would like to imagine that it is the latter. The idea of the child actually being reincarnated is a bit too mystical for this story based on realism and emotional awareness. The idea that the child dies is plausible, particularly through the notion of it’s soul exiting its body, watching over itself while in the ER, living a life unencumbered with life, but I again believe that this is too simple for this story. Yes, the parents would have to live with the fact that their child die while under their care (through their neglect), but this would remove the pain from one of the characters in this story. As we have seen from the beginning of this event, the pain is partitioned equally for each individual. Thus, I believe that the child continues to live its life, but in a soulless, zombie state. The parents must live with their grief, taking the blame for what took place (or shifting it to the other parent and ruining their relationship — as it sounds from the line “as if the lady was almost there with him”) and the child must live with the accident he caused, one that was allowed by his parents due to their neglect while watching him. For the endless pain that he endured during this episode, and the disfigurement and scarring that it caused, he lives a life void of personal matter, one “untenanted.” For all possible outcomes, I believe this is one that allows DFW to continue haunting these characters and the reader. Thus, the initial impulse never meets a negating resolution and the momentum from this event is forever conserved.





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