Any literary analysis of David Foster Wallace’s “Another Pioneer” is partly redundant because the short story already includes a meta-narration framing its internal narrative which is already (at least) four storytellers deep when it makes its way to the reader. The story begins with the opening words, “Nevertheless gentleman,” (Wallace 117) immediately placing the reader within its bounds. What is worthy of investigation, then, is not so much the structure of the narrative being relayed by the story’s narrator, or the base narrative, for the narrator himself analyzes this structure throughout his narration. Instead, this literary analysis is dedicated to the question of why this meta-narrative technique is employed as a framing device in the first place, that is: What about the content of the base narrative invites its meta-narrative framing in Wallace’s short story?

It is mentioned in other analyses that the narrator’s meta-narration of the base narrative produces the story’s self-referential quality, making “Another Pioneer” a story about storytelling. One set of comments constituting this self-reference is the narrator’s descriptions of the contexts in which the base narrative has been passed from tellers to listeners. The described contexts, which presumably present only a minimum of the base narrative’s oral history, include the United flight passenger’s overhearing a conversation some rows in front of him, his relaying the story to a friend (under what conditions the narrator fails to note), this friend’s relaying the story to an acquaintance in a “‘quotidian’ or ‘everyday’” context (Wallace 122), and this acquaintance’s relaying the story to the narrator of Wallace’s short story.

As a framing device, the base narrative’s oral passage through storytellers, as in traditional myths, enshrouds the base narrative with a mystery and obscurity which listeners must themselves contextualize to make meaningful. It is the burden of each listener to excavate any kernel of truth potentially contained in the base narrative. “Certain key contextual details remained obscure,” the narrator says near the beginning. For example, the United passenger seeks to gather contextual information from the physical features of the conversing passengers, the backs of their heads “appear[ing] average and unremarkable and difficult to extrapolate anything from…” (Wallace 118). The narrator’s remarks on these sorts of contextual details throughout the story leaves both the narrator and the reader in wonder as to which details of the base narrative are accurate, which details have been fabricated along to way, and ultimately whether the base narrative is a nonfictional recounting of a real historical event or is merely fictional. This central insight into the story’s meaning was supposedly lost by the United passenger, because he missed the first half of the story, which was presumably told aboard a previous connecting flight (Wallace 118).

Along with this room for interpretation, the base narrative is passed along with variations and subplots. References to the base narrative’s variants accelerate throughout the story, and the narrator describes the base narrative as an “apparently One-into-Three-into-One dramatic structure…” (Wallace 130). (This does not totally check out, because after the “three major competing editions of the epitasis apparently converge again and conclude the as it were Second Act of the exemplum…”, the narrator appears even more confident to speak on variants of the story, including different guesses at what the maleficent shaman whispered into the child’s ear and whether or not the child stocked up on food before its abandonment.) Thus, the framing device in which the narrator tells the base narrative essentially produces an elusive context for the base narrative. This forces the reader to make uninformed judgements as to the base narrative's meaning, which variants and subplots should be included, and, most fundamentally, how the base narrative relates to the real world.

Previous analyses are correct to point out that the meta-narrative quality of Wallace’s “Another Pioneer” is unique and central to the story’s brilliance. However, most miss the other half of the story’s brilliance: the content of the base narrative. The framing of the base narrative constitutes only part of the piece as a work of literature and should not be viewed as separate or meaningfully detached from the actual content of the base narrative. Like choosing a fitting frame for a painting, the base narrative’s content must in some way be fit for the framing device. The rest of this literary analysis will depart from previous analyses by investigating the relevant details of the base narrative itself, holding the frame and the artwork together to determine what is going on in the story as a whole.

The base narrative can be read as a proposal delivered by the narrator but clearly devised by Wallace himself. (Wallace could even be imaged as the implied narrator.) The proposed idea is about an untraditional kind of narrative, or more specifically, a new archetypal cycle. In the beginning, the narrator states that the story he is about to tell is not of the usual form, rather, it is an exemplum (a word the narrator uses throughout the story to refer to the base narrative) of a kind of narrative which contains none of the classic archetypes, that is, any “formal Annunciation as such, nor any comme on dit Period of Trial or Supernatural Aid, Trickster Figures, archetypal resurrection, nor any of certain other recognized elements of the cycle…” (Wallace 117). In other words, the base narrative is an example of an archetypal cycle that deviates from the more traditional cycles composed of Christian archetypal elements and ending with resurrection.

The narrator also calls the exemplum the “cycle’s variant” or the “mythopoeic cycle” (Wallace 118). It is composed of three parts: the protasis (or exposition), the epitasis (having three variants), and the catastasis (“or crisis or falling action or Third Act” (Wallace 130)). The cycle’s beginning is clearly marked in the exemplum by the birth of a gifted child, and the next cycle’s beginning is hinted at in the final scene when a “keen-eyed” child looks back at the burning village from a sling on its mother’s back (Wallace 140). Each child perhaps earns the “another pioneer” denomination of the title. Therefore, the narrative cycle revolves around the gifted child, and an investigation of the child’s role in the exemplum’s three parts elucidates the alternative archetypal cycle proposed by Wallace and helps to determine its fictional or nonfictional status.

The base narrative’s protasis captures the birth, initial development, and recognition by the village exarchs of the gifted child, ending with its placement on a dais in the center of the village. The narrator again alludes to archetypal structures in describing the child’s development of wisdom as a Threshold Experience, after which the child is recognized as an authoritative source of knowledge and justice and has an alter built for it on which to reside and answer villagers’ questions at regular intervals in exchange for sustenance. The “climax of the protasis,” the scene that acts as the “engine of the narrative’s rising action,” is a view into a competing village ruled by a “maleficent shaman” who is pondering whether the child of the neighboring villages presents a threat to his dominance (Wallace 126).

The protasis offers introductory examples to the social and economic language providing the means by which to piece together some meaning of the exemplum. In the protasis, the United passenger describes the child as “‘advanced,’, ‘brilliant’, or ‘ingenious’,” as opposed to “‘supernatural’ or ‘messianic’ or ‘prophetic’” (Wallace 119), a mixture of terms which indicate that Wallace is positing the exemplum as a real cycle that has occurred historically and still occurs in the modern world. Subsequent details of the base narrative corroborate this social and economic reading, such as the quotation: “As exempla of this sort of mythopoeic cycle so often go, this arrangement [the child’s central placement on the dais] is represented as the origin of something like modern trade in the villager’s culture” (Wallace 122). The arrangement of the child at the village’s center symbolizes the rise of an authority to the head of a social body. The economic and technological slant of common questions put to the child show its catalytic status at the center of rapid development and innovation:

“‘How might we ensure a store of food that will last our family through periods when available resources are scarce?’… ‘How might I divert water from one of the rain forest’s streams so that instead of my wife having to walk miles with a jar balanced on her head in order to haul water from the stream the stream might be made to as it were come to us?’” (Wallace 123).

The rise of the “consultant caste,” (Wallace 123) which formulates questions so as to maximize the value of output answers from the child, comically furthers the socio-economic themes. The consultant caste’s role is, however, not only humorous but of theoretical interest to the nature of the child’s authority. The consultant caste enables Wallace to play with ideas about generality and the fundamentally religious nature of even simple questions. For example, it is judged better to ask how a man can better provide for his family than to ask in which region in the forest a man should look for a specific root to provide for his family (Wallace 123). This more general framing of the root question, how the man can better provide for his family, results in a larger set of possible answers which allows the child more opportunity to make assumptions that it deems more appropriate than the asker’s own assumptions, that is, allows the child to provide more profound guidance. These ideas foreshadow the child’s later development from an authority of knowledge and justice to a higher spiritual and religious authority. The keen reader will note that the most general, or fundamental, questions are “What do I need?” and “What should I do?”.

The protasis, then, represents a social body’s rapid growth when a new, enlightened authority takes charge of its development. The village constitutes the social body, and the child the authority:

“…[T]he village’s culture evolved from hunting and gathering to a crude form of agriculture and husbandry, and discovered as well the principles of the wheel and rotary displacement, and fashioned their first fully enclosed dwellings of willow and yam-thatch, and developed an ideographic alphabet and primitive written grammar which allowed for more sophisticated divisions of labor and a crude economic system of trade in various goods and services; and in sum the entire village’s culture, technology, and standard of living undergo a metastatic evolution that would normally have taken thousands of years and countless paleolithic generations to attain” (Wallace 124).

The second part of the exemplum, the epitasis, is told in three variants. In the first variant, the maleficent shaman from the competing village disguises himself and visits the village to whisper a question into the child’s ear. (This invites the narrator to remark on the fact that there are further “sub- and sub-sub versions of the variant” (Wallace 127) that speculate on what the shaman whispered.) In the second variant, the shaman instead brings the child a breadfruit charmed by a magic potion. Lastly, in the third variant, the shaman does not intervene in the village at all but passively waits for the superintelligent child to bring about the village’s own downfall. The shared feature of the three variants is the fall of the child into a trance-like state, the meaning of which is revealed later in the narrative’s catastasis.

The epitasis, as the second part of Wallace’s archetypal cycle, represents the beginning of a hidden, fundamental change occurring in the authority of the social body. Each of the epitasis’s variants offers a different explanation for why and how this change occurs: adversarial intent and fair influence (the shaman influences the child “in the grammatical form of a question and not any sort of declarative statement or apothegm or rhyming mesmeric spell.” (Wallace 127)), adversarial intent and deception (the shaman slips the child a magic potion), or nonintervention and natural development (the shaman believes the child’s development is “something so supernaturally advanced that it will ultimately prove the upstart village’s very undoing…” (Wallace 128)). The result in each case is that the child undergoes its transition into another state, falling into “ptotic autisto-mystical withdrawal,” or according to another variant, a “ptotic and compiling-esque trance” (Wallace 129).

The economic and social language in the epitasis is accompanied by computational language, as in “compiling-esque trance.” The child’s authority in the village is depicted as almost algorithmic, with the child’s fallen state in the epitasis’s final scene caused either by a third party’s active intervention in or its passive non-intervention in this algorithm. The main event of the epitasis presented here, the climax of the alternative archetypal cycle, is the beginning of the fall of the social body's central authority. While the variant involving the shaman’s malicious intervention screams of state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, the variant involving passive nonintervention and self-destruction nods toward a technological interpretation. The idea that the child’s supernatural advancement could lead to the village’s own undoing parallels the rise of super-intelligent machines and its associated apocalyptic theories.

An interesting particularity of Wallace’s proposed archetypal cycle is that the authority’s fall into a trance (which is only later shown to be detrimental) is more precisely the turning of the authority’s attention onto itself. Later, in the protasis, the narrator reveals passed down theories of what the shaman whispered to induce the child’s trance, each theory “sharing an essentially recursive quality that bent the child’s cognitive powers back in on themselves and transformed him from messianic to monstrous…” (Wallace 136). (The third person pronoun ‘him’ is used here, perhaps accidentally, as opposed to the non-gendered ‘it’ used mostly throughout the story.) The bending of the child’s cognitive powers in on themselves reflects critiques of post-enlightenment thinking which hold the impossibility of knowing about the knower, and the words “messianic” and “monstrous” of course foreshadow the negative consequences of the child’s over-reflection. In addition, Wallace, through the narrator, explicitly mentions ancient texts like the Bible which depict over-consciousness as a fall (Wallace 136).

Identifying the source of the child’s trance and subsequent changes, that is, the source of the fall of the social body’s authority, in the problem of self-consciousness parallels themes in Wallace’s other short stories in Oblivion, from “Good Old Neon” to “The Suffering Channel.” The deeply human themes of self-evaluation and the feeling of fraudulence in “Good Old Neon” also surface in “Another Pioneer” (which appears in Oblivion right before “Good Old Neon”) when a detailed theory of the shaman’s debilitating question to the child is revealed:

“Is it possible that you have not realized the extent to which these primitive villagers have exaggerated your gifts, have transformed you into something you know too well you are not? Surely you have seen that they so revere you precisely because they themselves are too unwise to see your limitations? How long before they, too, see what you have seen when gazing deep inside yourself?” (Wallace 138).

The shaman’s question is a possible counterexample to the computational reading of the child as a technological, algorithmic authority. The child’s worries of being an imposter who does not deserve the trust of others constitutes an imposter syndrome of existential extent, a deeply human problem. Therefore, combining intricately computational language with the deeply human, whether Wallace’s proposed archetypal cycle is about the rise and fall of advanced technologies or self-conscious leaders remains ambiguous. The child might symbolize a non-human authority, as in the rise of super-intelligence, or a human authority whose fall is emotional self-destruction. Perhaps it does not matter which is the case. Either way, the protasis depicts the second part of the Wallace’s archetypal cycle as the fall of an authority at the center of a social body.

In the third and final component of Wallace’s alternative archetypal cycle, the catastasis, each plot thread of the base narrative is reunified into a single line, following the “One-into-Three-into-One” (Wallace 130) description of the base narrative mentioned by the narrator. (However, this stated unification is later broken when the narrator continues to mention “different versions’ and sub-versions’,” such as certain details about the village exodus that takes place.) In the catastasis, the child undergoes three final stages of catastrophic development. The boundaries of the stages are not made entirely explicit except for the third, but the stages may be identified as the child’s changes to responding with conversational answers, then answers deviating from the village’s traditional beliefs, then irritable answers. After the last stage of the child’s development, a warrior is driven insane by one of the child’s answers and the exarchs decide the child must be assassinated. However, when nobody dares to approach the child, the entire village leaves in mass exodus, burning the village down behind them.

The three stages undergone by the child are stated to represent its new “relation as it were with Truth and Culture,” (Wallace 130) the beginning of the end of Wallace’s archetypal cycle. The computational language is even heavier in this last third of the exemplum, beginning with the child’s transition to answering questions with more “heuristic and less-mechanical rants” that often send “questioners staggering back to their lean-tos to lie curled foetally on their sides with rolling eyes and high fevers as their primitive CPUs tried frantically to reconfigure themselves” (Wallace 134). The greater complexity and conversational character of the child’s answers in this stage unavoidably bring to mind modern advancements in human-computer-interaction, notably ChatGPT.

Next, the child’s transition to answers that deviate from the village’s traditional beliefs better illustrate the child’s aforementioned new relationship with truth and culture. Its answers in the form of new questions mirror a rise of social awareness informed by modern values: “‘Have you asked your mother’s daughter what she thinks?’ or, ‘What might one suppose to be the equivalent of a clitoridectomy for willful sons?’” (Wallace 132). Such questions posed back to the questioner connote, for example, feminism, which is central to much of the contemporary discourse around social justice. The child in this example opts not to answer questions but instead to ask why the questioners are asking them, or rather, what gives them the right to assume what they assume. The authority of the social body becomes its deepest questioner.

In the child’s final stage of development, this trend is carried out to the extreme when it begins responding irritably, asking “what the point of all this is” and “what makes them think he can help them when they haven’t the slightest idea what they even really need” (Wallace 135). Mass social confusion results, “an uproar of cultural disorientation and anxiety and antichild sentiment, an hysteria abetted at every turn by the consultant caste…” (Wallace 135). The authority of the social body here is identified as its enemy, but its deep entrenchment in the body’s customs, or operations, negates any real entertainment of revolutionary ideas:

“…[M]any of them might have stopped lining up every lunar cycle with offerings and questions altogether had the sidereal ritual not become such an entrenched social custom that the villagers feel terrific unease and anxiety at the thought of abandoning it…” (Wallace 134).

The final part of Wallace’s alternative archetypal cycle is nonetheless comprised of the social body’s revolutionary attempts, and, upon failure of those attempts, abandonment of the authority and the domain of its power. The narrative cycle therefore ends with the social body’s loss of faith in that which is central to it, inevitably resulting in abandonment and exodus. The cycle then continues elsewhere, recurring until every land is built upon and abandoned and burned down. Unlike the traditional archetypal cycles that include, for example, the element of resurrection, Wallace’s proposed archetypal cycle is unsustainable, inevitably concluding with the social body’s running out of space.

In conclusion, David Foster Wallace’s short story “Another Pioneer” is more than an experiment with literary framing devices. The content of the base narrative is arguably more important, the very reason for the story’s unique meta-narrative framing. The story constitutes Wallace’s proposal of an alternative archetypal cycle that might exist in nature, involving the rise of an authority in a social body, then its fall and abandonment by the social body. Whether this archetypal cycle exists in nature, that is, is real, is left to the reader’s own imaginings. Believers in the sole reality of the Christian cycle, which is made permanently sustainable by the archetypal element of resurrection, will perhaps object to the possible existence of Wallace’s alternative archetypal cycle. However, an undeniable hint in the text reveals that beneath the layers of its fictional meta-narration, Wallace allows the real existence of his archetypal cycle. The hint is a quotation about the maleficent shaman’s passive approach to the village’s destruction, making him simply a “vehicle for exposition, ” (Wallace 129) which term may also be assigned to Wallace himself as his writing breaches the real world. Within the quotation, there is mention of other exempla of the cycle associated with real, historical names, embedding each and every layer of Wallace’s genius meta-story into the fabric of reality:

“…[T]he malevolent shaman is reduced from a peripeteia antagonist to a mere vehicle for exposition or foreshadowing, this rather anticipating the function which oracles, sorcerers, Attic choruses, Gaelic coronach, Senecan dumbshows, Plautian prologues, and chatty Victorian narrators perform in various later cycles’ exempla…” (Wallace 129).

Referece: Wallace, David Foster. “Another Pioneer.” Oblivion: Stories, Little, Brown Book Group, Boston, 2005.