Oblivion: Stories

by David Foster Wallace
ISBN: 0316919810

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A Review of: Oblivion: Stories
by Lyall Bush

Modernism, the tradition David Foster Wallace belongs to with what used to be called a vengeance, was supposed to have been wiped away long ago by Postmodernism, with its shifting styles and its deadpan assurances that surface is depth and skin is just another way of saying soul. Samuel Beckett and Andy Warhol, and the last century's presiding genius, Marcel Duchamp, were the gray eminences of the new tradition. They shrugged away the Moderns' ghosthunter humanism, their hungry hearts, their wager that well-arranged words could revive cities (Ulysses), capture thought as it passed through the wobbly glass of its own reflection (The Waves), and make eerie tintypes of the past's glow-y litter in the present (The Waste Land).
Both traditions attracted virtuosos by the score. No Modern topped Joyce for wit and word invention ("strandentwining cable of all flesh" is one of many in Ulysses), and for many years now Thomas Pynchon's bravura style has made the most interesting Postmodernism cocktail of pessimism and irony in the language. His characters and his sentences shape and re-shape themselves on the pages until they pull back the curtain on the world-culture, mind-exposing it as a Moebius-strip loop about junk and godlessness, the infinite a mute figure within the finite.
David Foster Wallace's past few books-Infinite Jest, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men-carry echoes of Joyce's supple authorial gaze as well as Pynchon's polymorphous roll through cultural detritus. The presiding consciousness in his stories twists anxiety and hysteria together in scenes that bulge with comedy, stream-of-conscious obsessions and spiritual paralysis. Often his stories seem to be mounting a grand mal moral seizure about the present world's turn from logic, coherence and soul, but then they fade before going all the way. His sentences whirr and roar with scene-painting, ferociously accumulated layers of data and detail that seem to want to fill in the world that is being so comically analyzed as empty.
The first story, "Mister Squishy", is a good example of the sort of ekphrastic that Wallace specializes in. In its sixty-five pages the story inventories an astonishing number of material and psychological specifics that are part of the launch of a new snack cake. Set in the upper floor of a skyscraper, in 1995, a jittery facilitator from "Team ?y", a "cutting-edge market research firm," moves his focus group to the final phase of an interview that includes sampling the new "chocolate-intensive" version of the familiar Mister Squishy cake, and the chance for the group to discuss the product in the facilitator's absence. The story bristles with a Photo Realist satire that is captured in the moment when the narrator reveals what the new cake is: "The dark and exceptionally dense and moist-looking snack cakes inside the packaging were Felonies-a risky and multivalent trade name meant both to connote and to parody the modern health-conscious consumer's sense of vice/indulgence/transgression/sin vis vis the consumption of a high-calorie corporate snack." This is the Wallace style in brief: the logician's razoring of concepts, the auto-didact's motor mouth, the deconstructionist's zeal to expose.
"Mister Squishy" is a classic Pynchon lose-lose proposition: By holding a magnifying glass up to a scene whose center (selling moist cake) is part of-we can guess-the problem with the American soul, Wallace gives us a space that is utterly empty of meaning, even after he fills it up with the intimate details of the facilitator's fantasy life, the hierarchies of power within the advertising firm and-small drum roll-the fact that Wallace (a fictional Wallace?) is a stealth member of the Focus Group, a member of Team ?y pulled in to ensure that the millions spent on marketing the new cake will confirm what the company wanted to be true about its product. (There is also the little joke that Team ?y must be pronounced "Team Die.") In the final turn, the story reminds us that 1995 is a pivotal, prelapsarian year innocent of cyberspace's potential for pooling fine-grain details about individual buying habits. A final scene brushes out a cinematic encounter between a younger member of Team ?y, who sees this future and another, larger man, who imagines only the younger man's erasure. Finally, its conclusion turns into a strange, Jacobean Death of a Salesman in which the Willy Loman is the nervous fantasist whose life is in the hands of shadowy, would-be entrepreneurs who circle each other in a final endgame of their own devising.
Infinite Jest's bulging Rabelasian satire was built on the central trope of a film that gave its viewers a bliss so fine that they abandoned everything for the pursuit of repeated viewings of it. The stories in Oblivion carry that forward, showing more than one character enchanted by images. Indeed, the new snack cake is a governing trope for the collection and for Wallace's concern: the cake for the masses is ultimately being guided into the market as an image.
Intoxication with images forms a core part of the second story too. "The Soul is Not a Smithy" is a comic memoir of an elementary classroom just before and after a hostage taking. While a substitute teacher leads the class in a math lesson, our narrator describes, in immense detail, how he would spend his school days "story boarding" the scenes that appeared and disappeared in the glass windows that ran on the outside wall of the class. The scenes are lurid and violent: two dogs mate and get stuck together; a neighbor appears to lose his hand in a snow blower's blades. When the teacher enters a psychotic episode and writes "KILL, KILL" on the board you wonder whether the substitute teacher and the boy share mental screens. Do they both have radar that is picking up the bloody and dreamlike world of images outside the classroom?
In "Oblivion", a stressed-out narrator takes the opportunity of a rain delay in a golf game with his stepfather-in-law to broach the subject of his wife's "severe sleep disturbance," which has led her, beyond logic (the narrator believes), to accuse him of snoring and keeping her awake at night. In his own sleep-deprivation, the narrator now finds himself haunted by tableaux hovering before him: "travelers are hurrying laterally past the row of phones. . . while the telephone, which remains at the center of the view of the scene or tableau, rings on and on, persistently. . . ." Eventually, a long scene in a sleep clinic reveals both husband and wife to be in a complicated relationship to each other's sleeping and dreaming selves.
Wallace's genius for anatomizing convoluted contemporary situations is large, but such staggeringly complete inquiries into characters' thoughts and meta-thoughts, his massing of the mobile vectors of intent and trajectory in situations, brings a numbing sensory overload with them. (In this way his stories, I want to suggest, are a little like exceptionally smart-talking malls, if malls could talk.) The downside of all this brilliance is that future generations might read Wallace the way we read a work like Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, which we call masterful but then leave on the shelf. Like Burton, Wallace diagnoses the culture: his anatomy of the American soul suggests a condition of profound displacement, the coming on of a metastasizing fissure between the people we think we are and the people we say we are. The implied melancholy in the gap is Wallace's most un-Postmodern annunciation.

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