The Postmodern Condition in “The Devil is a Busy Man”

In his short story “The Devil is a Busy Man,” David Foster Wallace asserts that Americans are obsessed with maintaining a facade of sincerity; ironically, this desire to appear sincere is the tragic root of the country’s widespread insincerity. The narrator frets over the perception of the “nice thing [they did] for someone” and laments, “A lack of namelessness on my part would destroy the ultimate value of the nice act,” arguing that the expectation of recognition—wanting someone to acknowledge a generous act—“empties” the gesture of any value (3070). The narrator is not concerned with being a good person, but rather being perceived as a good person. It is not that the narrator truly wishes to remain anonymous—throughout the story, s/he tries to resist the temptation of consciously revealing their identity—it is that their desire to receive “affection and approval” is outweighed by their fear of seeming gauche and selfish (3070). To this end, Wallace demonstrates that America is most saliently concerned with maintaining appearances. Even though the narrator freely admits that, internally, s/he wants to be acknowledged for their kind deed, they would be loathe to let others know that. This suggests that hiding one’s internal desires is a basic American instinct. This instinct, in turn, is a defense mechanism used to protect oneself against shame or embarrassment.

The act of charity also has a surprisingly profound effect on the benefactor. The narrator hoped to maintain a mirage of anonymity in his charity. Here, the narrator could depersonalize the act and assuage the recipient so as to feel equally participatory and dignified in the charity. However, Foster Wallace writes the call was partially “to let him know that I was the individual who was responsible for the generous gesture” (3071). While the personal identity of the benefactor remains theoretically anonymous, the call firmly establishes his individuality and destroys the barricade of separation between the patron and the recipient. Foster Wallace uses repetition to highlight the model of human contact in the postmodern era that he describes here. He writes that the call made the benefactor “insinuationally, euphemistic” (3071). According to Foster Wallace, the narrator’s call establishing his humanity but masquerading his personal identity is euphemistic. While his selfhood remains anonymous, his identity is clear. This depiction reflects a postmodern tendency of human interaction that “insinuates” or “euphemizes” a bolder, perhaps harsher, but also more realistic, truth. The “insinuating,” which is repeating again towards the end of the passage, shows that the narrator is intimating, through the call, a presentation of himself that is colored by his act of charity.

Wallace sees the anonymous call as further implying the character of the patron. The narrator states that the call insinuates that he “was so ‘nice’ – meaning, in other words, ‘modest,’ ‘unselfish,’ or ‘untempted by a desire for their gratitude’” (30711). Withholding his selfhood in the call, the benefactor actually leaves room for vast implications regarding his status as a person in society. He is likely wealthy, charitable, and caring for others. These words, when combined, imply that the narrator is representative of a larger group of elite Americans who regard the poor as essentially lesser donees who are not even worthy of knowing their patron’s origins or personal identities. The narrator’s modesty, he implies, actually reflects a more distant reality of human interaction between himself and his patron.

A sense of Midwestern stoicism runs through “The Devil is a Busy Man”: the narrator defines a “nice” person as someone who is “‘modest,’ ‘unselfish,’ or, ‘untempted by a desire for […] gratitude’” (3069). This Midwestern stoicism is what causes the narrator’s discomfort: the narrator recognizes “something almost hostile, or embarrassed, or both” in the recipient’s voice after they accidentally reveal their identity. This hostility and embarrassment is caused by the tacit recognition of the recipient’s inability to provide for his family: he is embarrassed about his ineptitude and angry that the narrator has pointed it out. Ultimately, this suggests that hiding one’s motivations is impossible—indeed, revealing them is “unconscious” and “automatic”—and it only causes more trouble in the end (3071).

The problem with Midwestern stoicism is that it is a difficult, and unnatural, facade to perpetuate: as the narrator notes, “As everyone is well aware, it is so difficult to do something nice for someone and not want them, desperately, to know that the identity of the individual who did it for them was you” (3070). This is what drives the narrator to speak in euphemisms: they want recognition for their good deed without appearing to desire the recognition. In this regard, Wallace is arguing that Americans are, by nature, insincere; they do not say what they mean. They skirt around subjects, inefficiently jumbling euphemisms together in order to more delicately convey a thought or desire. This uniquely American characteristic is displayed through the syntax of the text, which is dense with punctuation, repetition, and run-on sentences. Ultimately, Wallace views America as a tragically ironic country, where the illusion of sincerity is far more desirable than the real thing.