Mr. Squishy

January 22, 2012

I didn’t mean to pick up an other collection of short stories. I went to the library to study for qualifiers three weeks ago, and when I got up to leave I figured I couldn’t leave the library empty handed. I walked up and down the aisles searching for something. I tried to think of author names and unsuccessfully looked for a few. Then I found it. A David Foster Wallace book! Huzzah! Ever since I read his “Consider the Lobster” review of the Maine lobster festival a year ago, I have wanted to read more. I left with my copy of “Oblivion”.

Now, I did mention I was studying for qualifiers, so I have only read the first story. Thing is, I read it twice it was so interesting. His writing style fits the subject matter. I don’t want to summarize the story here. I want to write down what I have thought about it. Reader be warned that the following assumes you are familiar with the story.

“Mr. Squishy” is loaded with details. In typical DFW style, there are excessively drawn out asides and sentences. This fits the story as our protagonist Terrence Schmidt works for Team Delta y, a market research firm. Their job is to sift through the mounds of data generated from their TFG (targeted focus groups) and properly weight the data to give it significance. I feel that this is exactly what the reader needs to do with this story.

After mulling things over for a few runs in the gym, I have decided that the story is about dehumanization. Terry often views the people in his focus groups as being simply data points. The executives view the workers as being confounding variables in their studies. The urban daredevil draws a crowd due to his free spirit and individuality, but ultimately its a sham as he really is just a marketing stunt.

At the center of the story, we have Terry Schmidt leading a focus group on autopilot [Terry, that is]. We are treated to what he is actually thinking about as he gives them the 20 minute spiel. Slowly, we learn that he has been doing the same thing for 8 years, that he loves a co-worker Darlene but is too cowardly to pick up the phone and call her. He simply agonizes over it each night before masturbating himself to sleep. We learn that he feels utterly stuck in life, a cog in a machine. Even worse is that the machine is meaningless. Team Delta y works on snack foods. Terry realizes that all the data they collect is simply finagled into supporting the marketing plan already being inexorably rolled out. How depressing and true. I really empathize with Terry, and I must admit that that is a fear of mine to work endlessly on something that is devoid of significance. (Hence my goal of a PhD.)

Through the sheer number of details and asides, Terry becomes so vividly real. I started to really hope that he would go through with his plan to destroy the snack cake industry by poisoning. However, we know that his elaborate preparations will never come to fruition. Just as he can never pick up the phone to call Darlene, he will never go through with the poisoning. What is heartbreaking is that Terry himself is aware of this on some level and this is why he berates himself and insulting refers to himself as “Mr. Squishy”. He knows that he will simply keep on keeping on, just a reluctant cog.

Now, Terry is the protagonist, but there are another couple of major characters. Scott Laleman joined Team Delta y a mere two and a half years ago and already he has outpaced Terry. Laleman is in with the executives and tends to hobnob with them outside of work. Little does Laleman know that his executive friend, Alan Britton, is manipulating him just as one manipulates a variable in the lab. (In a paranoid turn, Britton is also being manipulated by another executive.) It’s interesting that while Terry is horribly depressed over how meaningless the data they collect is, Britton is determined to eliminate every last variable to ensure the data is as unadulterated as possible. To that end Britton okayed an experiment to stress the TFG leaders. He had male supervisor sexually harass Darlene, Terry’s secret love.

What lousy ethics! To make someone’s life hellacious to simply extract data! However, we cannot overlook the fact that both Terry and Darlene did exactly that for a study on laundry detergent. They selected women who felt inadequate as mothers and then subjected them to a questionnaire designed to specifically heighten that feeling so much so that many of the women were weeping and visibly distraught. Thus, we must look at the whole system as being rotten and dehumanizing all those involved.

We are given a viewpoint outside of the system. Literally, as on the outside of the skyscraper where Team Delta y toils, an urban daredevil is free climbing. Up and up he goes in a specially made suit. After a while, he pauses and puts a costume on. He places an automatic rifle across his back. The whole time he is climbing, a crowd is speculating below that it is a media stunt, or that he is planning to spray them with bullets. This would seem to be a definitive free-spirited gesture. Climbing up a building in total disregard of the laws of physics, personal safety, and the criminal system. However, as we stand with the crowd and look way up we see  the daredevil transform into a giant Mr. Squishy. Thus, our one hope of a person untouched by the corrupting forces of market research for snack cake is dashed as it is revealed that the daredevil is simply a publicity stunt.

In short, “Mr. Squishy” is short story that illustrates how people can lose track of what is moral in their day-to-day machinations. While we can judge them all and find them to be reprehensible, we really must examine our own lives and see if we are falling into the trap of looking at people as mere data points. Particularly in this election season, where everyone is put into a box and their probability of voting this way and that is measured and predicted by all sorts of survey teams.