Oblivion
David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, 2004, ISBN 0316919810, 336 Pages, Hardcover $25.95. [
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Review by Marie Mundaca

(Marie Mundaca is currently at work on a David Foster Wallace page for The Modern Word’s Scriptorium)

In David Foster Wallace’s oft-quoted essay “E Unibus Plurum: Televison and US Fiction” (from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again), the heir-apparent to John Barth and Thomas Pynchon proposes that the new literary rebels will be those who revile irony and sarcasm, who embrace “untrendy human troubles and emotions.” And I understand where that might have come from – the yearning for un-ironic – as the essay was written at the height of the avant-pop wave, when every hipster was carrying around Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist as that year’s must-have accessory. But as a lover of Wallace’s Infinite Jest who loved Seinfeld more than I loved Raymond, I wasn’t completely happy with what he was proposing. Would Wallace too attempt to venture into the cozy bath of sincerity and emotions, after finding the frosty brine of cynical hyper-maximallism too bracing?
Oblivion appears to be the result of Wallace’s call-to-arms for new literary rebels. And the waters are not at all warm and soothing. In fact, I’d say the opposite – Wallace ventures into the dark hearts of human terror so completely and deeply that the free-floating anxiety and terror will stick with you long after you’ve stopped trying to figure out what the hell happened.
Wallace has not abandoned his old tricks. Bleak despair is hidden beneath layers of labyrinthine text, stories so dense they demand re-reading, language so stunning it belies the horror it describes. Oblivion is the literary equivalent of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights – hyper-detailed, maddeningly intricate, the reader may find it difficult to know on what to focus.
Like Wallace’s other collections, most of these stories have appeared before in slightly altered forms in literary journals magazines. The first story, “Mister Squishy,” was previously published in McSweeney’s #5 under the byline Elizabeth Klemm. “Mister Squishy” centers on a marketing focus group, convened to test a new chocolate product called Felonies! What begins like study of the complicated and convoluted world of marketing ends up filled with all the tension and innuendo of your favorite Twilight Zone episode. While focus group leader Terry Schmidt ponders his life with all its disappointments, an ambiguous figure climbs up the outside of the Chicago skyscraper to the confusion of the on-looking crowd, and focus group attendees court insulin shock with each Felony! they eat. There are so many layers of intrigue and subterfuge that the core of the story is hidden in the confusing jumble of who is fooling whom.
Wallace intentionally attempts to disorient the reader through a variety of techniques: switching narrative POV mid-paragraph, extended internal dialogs, technical marketing jargon, math (even the name of the marketing group, Delta-Y, evokes complicated mathematical formula). In a way, Wallace is invoking the same glazed-over sugar shock response in the reader that the Felonies! are causing in the focus group.
“The Soul Is Not A Smithy” also offers Twilight Zone type thrills. A man thinks back to a major event of his youth – being held hostage by a crazed substitute teacher – but most of what he recalls is the intricate daydream he was having, which took the form of a comic book story mentally created in the panels of the classroom windows. More than a straight retelling of a traumatic story (which is what the narrator implies he’s going to do at the beginning of the story), “The Soul Is Not A Smithy” turns into a discourse on the ways people detach from the horror in their own lives.
In “Another Pioneer,” which takes the form of the “urban myth/friend of a friend” story, an unnamed first person narrator relates a myth of the advancement and eventual downfall of a civilization that includes Jungian archetypes, Joseph Campbell-like interpretations, and several versions of the same story. One wonders how this story, “derived from an acquaintance of a close friend who said that he had himself overheard this exemplum aboard a high-altitude commercial flight” became so highly detailed and fleshed out, that even the narrator states that “at certain points it became unclear what was part of the cycle’s narrative Ding an sich and what were the passenger’s own editorial interpolations and commentary.” But that’s the nature of storytelling, each teller adding her own details to add to the realism of a story that becomes, by its very nature, less true and more removed from reality with each telling.
“Incarnations of Burned Children” deals firsthand with trauma, and with little buffer. The third person narrator speaks with a child’s vocabulary and cadence, almost giving the impression that the story of a child being accidentally scalded is being told years later by the adult version of the child, trying to understand how and why he has “learned to leave himself and watch the whole rest unfold from a point overhead…walked about and drew pay and lived its life untenanted, a thing among things.” For those who think that Wallace is incapable of writing a simple story with tremendous emotional wallop, “Incarnations” proves them wrong.
You’ll find as you continue to read Oblivion that each story touches on the same themes – horror, detachment, and the inability to describe human experiences with mere words. Everyone in the stories resorts to substituting artificial horror for real, painful experiences: the melodrama of the comic book story in “The Soul Is Not A Smithy,” the manufactured office intrigue of “Mister Squishy,” the burned baby’s soul leaving his body in “Incarnations of Burned Children.” Additionally, all the narrators are unreliable, because language itself is only a similacrum of what is experienced.
The inability to describe the experiential with words, despite the primal urge to do so is explored most fully in “Good Old Neon.” A man who has committed suicide, and is presumably speaking from the afterlife, describes his life and philosophy to someone driving on the road where his suicide occurred.

Think for a second – what if all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life turned out now to be somehow fully open and expressible afterward, after what you think of as you has died, because what if afterward now each moment itself is an infinite sea or span or passage of time in which to express it or convey it, and you don’t even need any organized English, you can as they say open the door and be in anyone else’s room in all your own multiform forms and ideas and facets?

Upon reading that passage, I began to think that this might be an apt description of what its like in Wallace’s head. Hasn’t he been trying to fully express and describe every moment, while acknowledging the futility of such an exercise? Much like Wallace himself, the suicide victim keeps trying to explain everything while grappling with the impossibility of doing so. “You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know,” he tells the reader.
The narrator in “Oblivion” goes to great pains to dryly describe each moment with as much detail as possible, so much so that it takes 8 pages to explain a small amount of what has gone through the narrator’s head in the 5 or 6 minutes that have transpired since entering a golf course’s clubhouse. He is so precise in his prose that he overuses quotes (the quote marks are single quotes, which Wallace has used previously in prose, and seem to indicate that the entire story is enclosed in a set of double quotes). This precision is important – the character’s wife insists that he is snoring and keeping her awake at night, and he insists otherwise. Someone so observant must be correct, you’d think.
The final story, and the longest, in the collection, “The Suffering Channel” mirrors the opening story in many ways: it centers around a stereotypical American business (a magazine, as opposed to the marketing group of “Mister Squishy”); the story features a giant woman as objects of desire (Darlene Lilley of “Squishy,” Amber Moltke of “The Suffering Channel”); the main action centers around bodily function (eating/excreting). Each also contains a looming wraith – the possibly nefarious building climber in “Mister Squishy” and the impending horror of 9/11 (much of “The Suffering Channel” takes place in the World Trade Center in July 2001).
Everything about “The Suffering Channel” is impossible – a magazine that is essentially run by unpaid interns, an artist who excretes beautiful sculptures made of feces, and the airing of a cable channel referenced by the title. The 92-page novella probably comes the closest of Wallace’s post-Infinite Jest work to matching the energy and over-the-top squeamish humor of Infinite Jest, and in a more digestible form. Without resorting to math formula and philosophical discourse, Wallace still stays true to his theme of the paucity of language compared to the fullness of nature and experience. One character’s response to seeing the art: “Great glittering God.”
Ultimately, “The Suffering Channel” reads like a loving homage, not to the big events in one’s life, but to the small moments that make up a day, the moments that are filled with fleeting thoughts that can never be fully expressed. Perhaps that’s the secret to escaping the misery that envelops so many of the characters in Oblivion. If each moment contains infinity, then we can live an eternity in every second.

Marie Mudaca
29 July 2004

Additional Information

David Foster Wallace Page – Currently just a page of Wallace links, Marie Mundaca will expand this into a full Scriptorium page in late 2004.

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.