Online Edition: Fall 2004

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Oblivion

David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown ($25.95)

by Scott Bryan Wilson

One of the great things about Oblivion, the new collection of stories from David Foster Wallace, is that it absolutely would not get a passing grade in your typical writing workshop. Wallace's refusal to offer resolution, the relative absence of action or dialogue, and the stories' resistance to easy summary subvert the traditional form; likewise, his intentionally-incorrect grammar buttressed by rigidly-correct grammar, and the long acronym-laden sentences forming long paragraphs jammed full of minutiae and enough "SAT words" to keep one lunging for the dictionary, will be maddening for some readers. Yet all this is to say that this collection ranks with Infinite Jest and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again as Wallace's most complex and most re-readable work, as its myriad layers and innuendoes and clues continuously lead the reader and re-reader along darker, bleaker, and more fascinating superhighways of intellectual thoughts and re-envisioned narrative structures. Furthermore, Wallace beautifully explores loneliness and despair and the inability of his characters to connect with anyone on even the most basic level; there is so much heartbreak and humor and tension in these stories, that in many instances they nail down that abstract concept of What It Feels Like To Be Human.

"Mr. Squishy," first published pseudonymously in 2000, lets the reader in on a secret Focus Group meeting whose members are asked to contemplate the Felonies! snack-cake line. It's an examination of advertising and its often questionable and unethical methods of representing products to consumers. At the same time this group is contemplating the fate of Felonies!, an "urban daredevil," perhaps armed, is scaling the building, and there's the threat of biological terrorism via dissemination of deadly bacteria in the snack-cakes themselves. (The threat of terrorism recurs and looms in "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" and "The Suffering Channel.")

"Good Old Neon" is recounted by the narrator after his death, or, "outside of linear time and in the process of dramatic change," or so it initially seems. But as with other stories in the book, the clues and hints masterfully left behind at various moments in the piece's narrative arc begin to point at a narrator very much outside of what is expected. That is, the story creates its own rules, but doesn't follow them to their natural conclusion. Here we encounter a man whose whole life is centered around his admitted fraudulence, and his inability to cease and desist with that fraudulence, and his awareness that those he most hopes will see him as genuine are the ones he's most sure can see right through him.

In the title story, Wallace unleashes a torrent of frivolity that starts with a brainy—albeit very extended—joke, as well as one of the best descriptions in the book: "Her shadowless face resembling something De Kooning himself might have torn from the easel and discarded in media res." Of all the bizarre narrators in Wallace's ouevre, "Oblivion"'s might be one of the most neurotically-annoying-yet-endearing, as he explicates the trouble with his marriage and how it eventually led he and his wife to a sleep chamber.

There are two shorter pieces, and "Incarnations of Burned Children," the story of a mother and father facing a terrible tragedy, is a highlight of the collection. "If you've never wept and want to," Wallace writes, "have a child." The theme of childhood is elaborated in the juggernaut of the collection, "The Soul is Not a Smithy." Narrated by a pupil "classified as unsatisfactory in Listening Skills, as well as its associated category, Following Directions," it's the tale of a classroom of children scared witless by a deranged substitute teacher. The narrator, not paying attention to the crisis situation, but rather creating astonishingly complicated daydream scenarios, recreates much of the tale based on what he heard or read later. Wallace—without being sentimental—creates sympathy not only for the children taken hostage, but also for the teacher as well as the various characters inhabiting the narrator's daedal fantasies; the daydreams mirror in intensity the hostage situation, which, though terrifying and moving, is also pretty hilarious.

Though seven dazzling, complex stories set up this collection, roughly 27% of Oblivion is devoted to the closer, the forgettable clunker "The Suffering Channel." As in "Mr. Squishy" there are two parallel story lines: one involves a man who excretes little objets d'art; the other explores the eponymous cable station that broadcasts clips of the most tortuous human pain and anguish. The descriptions of the channel itself are wonderful—and there are not nearly enough—but the story is marred by limp pop culture references and juvenile conversations about poop, while the constant reminders of the terrorist attacks of 2001 seem like a sluggish attempt at profundity.

Wallace uses accumulation of the picayune as a foundation for solid interpretation of human emotion: a boy is eager to help his father by snapping open his briefcase locks for him; a man fantasizes about having sex with his coworker while she wears her cross-trainers. It's sort of like those floating islands made of recycled soda cans: pretty from a distance, weird when you get close, but ultimately beautiful once you realize the accomplishment.

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Fall 2004 Table of Contents