[This review of David Foster Wallace's Oblivion was originally posted
on culturevulture.net in May, 2004.]
By David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown and Company, 2004
Reviewed by Bob Wake
Oblivion is David Foster Wallace's third and best collection of short
stories to date. Without sacrificing his flair for brainy surreal prose
and dead-on social satire -- which have on occasion seemed like ends in
themselves -- Wallace has added a stronger than usual emphasis on narrative
drive and ingenious plotting. Consistently impressive is his much-admired
talent for bringing a plaintive three-dimensionality to the inner lives
of his characters.
Six of the eight stories here are long and intricate examples of the author's
labyrinthine tale spinning. And yet, one of the most memorable pieces is
only three pages in length. A masterpiece of heart-stopping brevity, "Incarnations
of Burned Children" concerns the frantic efforts of a mother and father
to console their infant son who has been severely scalded from an overturned
pot of boiling water on the stove. The child's screams, we're told, "were
regular as breath and went on so long they'd become already a thing in the
kitchen." As the title suggests, Wallace imbues the story with a mythic
universality. The characters and the locale are never named, thus allowing
readers to distance themselves from the horrific scene while at the same
time pondering the eternal verities of familial tragedy.
In the story "The Suffering Channel," a corporation with the motto
"consciousness is nature's nightmare" plans to launch a cable
channel devoted to human misery. It's a motto suitable for much of Wallace's
work. No other contemporary American author has so painstakingly -- and
hilariously -- mapped the incessant dysfunctional chatter that streams through
our heads and masquerades as rational thought.
Several of the stories in Oblivion are tours de force of cognition
gone awry. The title piece is an increasingly desperate first-person account
of the sleep-deprived meltdown of Randall Napier, an assistant systems supervisor
for a company called Advanced Data Capture. Embroiled in a dispute with
his wife over the issue of his nighttime snoring, Napier no longer can sleep
at all. His brain-fried daytime hours are given over to aural and visual
hallucinations ("sometimes, for instance, trying to shave in the mirror,
my visage will appear to have an extra eye in the center of my forehead").
Visits to an unsympathetic psychiatrist and a high-tech sleep clinic succeed
merely in compounding Napier's frustration. The ending delivers a double
whammy that will have enterprising readers going back over the narrative
and trying to follow the breadcrumb trail of bizarre clues.
Wallace is nothing if not fearlessly ecumenical in his literary tastes and
influences, at times blending elements of science fiction and fantasy with
a kind of micromanaged naturalism. "Good Old Neon," for example,
begins as a painfully detailed confession of one man's route to suicide.
"I know this part is boring," he laments, "but it gets a
lot more interesting when I get to the part where I kill myself and discover
what happens immediately after a person dies." Remarkably, the story
fulfills its promise: We're treated to an eerily plausible and unsentimental
glimpse of the afterlife.
Sometimes Wallace's relentless quest for offbeat material can become tedious
and self-indulgent on the page. The collection's opening piece, "Mister
Squishy," relies rather too heavily on the drone of acronym-laden corporate-speak
at a Chicago ad agency. ("Down the hall and past the MROP Division's
green room, in another R.S.B. conference room whose windows faced NE, Darlene
Lilley was leading twelve consumers and two UAFs into the GRDS phase of
Focused Response without any structured QA or ersatz Full-Access background.")
It's something of a lost cause, but "Mister Squishy" springs fitfully
to life with an impending act of domestic terror involving a deadly batch
of home-brewed ricin.
The triumph of Oblivion is a deepening sense of compassion in Wallace's
work. While alienation and despair remain key themes, his characters are
so richly drawn that they behave less like pawns of injustice or fate than
tragic purveyors of their own limitations. "The Soul Is Not a Smithy"
is notable for the graceful manner in which its layered story lines intertwine
and mirror one another in unexpected ways. The narrator is recalling a traumatic
experience from his childhood when he was nine years old and a grade school
teacher suffered a nervous breakdown at the blackboard. Fervently daydreaming
in the back of the room, the narrator failed to notice the exodus of frightened
classmates. "For my own part," he tells us, "I had begun
having nightmares about the reality of adult life as early as perhaps age
seven." As he reflects on the monotonous insurance company job his
father dutifully held for years, an unspoken parallel emerges between the
school teacher and the father, as well as the narrator himself. How does
an individual avoid going crazy in dehumanizing circumstances? Fear, it
seems, is subdued via the transformative gestalts of storytelling and daydreaming.
Chaos is held at bay by shaping and refining it into a coherent narrative.
David Foster Wallace has long been a master at showing us the face of chaos.
Oblivion represents his blossoming into a writer of profoundly artful
Oblivion From Amazon.com
Bob Wake is editor of Cambridge Book Review.
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