First reading of Sophia Le Fraga's 'W8ING 4' (5)
The main conceit of “W8ing 4” is that I, as a viewer, occupying the same perspective as Soph’s iPhone interlocutor, am forced to be uncool. I’m forced, in other words, into the subject position of an uncomfortable teen girl. This is not a stretch. I am no longer a teen, but I am still a girl, and young enough for coolness to be a quality of immediate concern. Even when I was a teen, I knew somehow that chatspeak was uncool; I’m not sure if emojis were a thing then, but I probably would have suspected them of lacking cool; and sitting around waiting for friends to show up and having thinly veiled conversations about god — all of this would have signaled “teen girl” to me, which is also to say that it would have signaled uncool. All teen girls grow up with the vague awareness that even at their most serious, they’re still a little silly; that even (or especially) at their most serious, they’re still a little silly; that there is something insurmountably embarrassing encoded in the fact of who they are. It’s not their fault. They’re teen girls. When we think of normative teen girl culture in the West, we likely think of some nightmare amalgam of purses, cats, malls, prom, Ugg boots, every movie with Blake Lively in it. Teen girls are significant consumers in our culture, and very often commodities, but they’re never cool.
What I first realize in watching “W8ing 4” is how novel it is to have the uncoolness of teen girls leveraged against me as a viewer. It’s disorienting to stare at the interface of an iPhone in such a way that it feels like my iPhone, and feel that I’m responsible for producing this string of teen girl vernacular. There is something additionally uncomfortable about the tunnel vision of this poem, the lack of any element in the frame besides the screen. “W8ing 4” makes Beckett’s own minimal set designs look baroque by comparison. All we know about the world of this poem is that there is a phone in it, and judging by the wifi, that it is probably Earth. But it’s more accurate to think of the world of this poem as a phone—the phone is all we see. As far as representations of the modern teen experience goes, this feels almost conventional. I don’t need Le Fraga or Beckett to tell me that kids these days can’t put their phones down, and I’m waiting for something surprising to happen. What can the furious texting of two lonely teenagers tell me about Beckett? More importantly, what can Beckett tell me about the fury and loneliness of teen girls?
Le Fraga’s answer seems to be this: that the slow-burning mortal terror that we associate with Beckett’s characters — typically men — is actually the property of teen girls. Of course, mortal terror, like death, is the property of everyone. Mortality is probably the only condition we can safely posit as a universal. But to see that universal represented by iPhone-wielding teenagers is to experience a new kind of horror. We would like to think that, faced with a godless universe, we’ll go out like Vladimir and Estragon; a little frayed and neurotic, but redeemed, in the end, by our vagabond charm. But what if our terror looks nothing like that? What if, in the end, we go out like teen girls, clutching our iPhones and sending a stream of emojis into the abyss?
It’s like that we already do. As I watch “W8ng 4,” I realize that what I’m watching is not a fictional conversation between two teen girls but a verbal representation of teen girlness, in which the question of biological sex is unanswerable, even irrelevant. Ultimately, we don’t know the sex of these speakers because, within the world of the poem, they have no sex; they could be anyone, any of us. All that marks them at all is the feminine quality of their vernacular, the appellative “girl”s thrown here and there, the emojis. But many of my conversations with grown men would look hardly different. All of us, to some degree, talk like this, on the phone or elsewhere. To talk with any kind of slang is very often to talk like a teen girl. And even if it’s ironic, it’s still the way we talk.
I start to think that there’s something lovely, maybe even liberating, about the world of this poem, a place where words and emojis supplant the material world, where all of us, like Prince, can be any symbol we want to be. But this is a thought I can entertain only for a second. This is also a world in which gender is reduced to a matter of style and in which everyone has enough money to afford an iPhone, and yet a world in which everyone is nearly incapacitated by the realization they’re going to die one day. is never going to show. This is not a world I want to be in. But it’s also, to some degree, a world I’m in already: I have an iPhone, and I’m going to die one day.
To my mind, the poem makes the appealing suggestion that all of my banal teen anxiety might have contained in it some kernel of despair over the transience of life. I like this suggestion. It makes me feel a kind of expansive sympathy for all teens through all time, and makes teendom itself seem like a form of spiritual nobility. It makes the silliest years of life seem like the most serious. And maybe, as far as despair is concerned, they are. But it also makes the less appealing suggestion that in the throes of our most profound anxiety we look more like teenagers than anything else. The way we use technology, even the way we use language, erodes social distinctions within a world of bourgeois comforts; adults talk like teenagers, teenagers worry like adults, and all of us are waiting for .
Emily Harnett is a doctoral student in English at Yale University, with interests in modernist fiction and poetry, theories of genocide testimony and witnessing, and television. She has been a Teaching Assistant in the open online course on modern and contemporary U.S. poetry called “ModPo” since 2012.