Photo by Marion Ettlinger
David Foster Wallace is not a big fan of our culture. In books like Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, Wallace revs up his pet peeves and sends them soaring on gusts of linguistic bloviation. Oblivion continues in this tradition with eight satirically weird stories that poke fun at the media, America’s obsession with health, our lurid fascination with children and the falseness of advertising. It’s hardly a new list of Wallace bugaboos, but in Oblivion he uses them as backdrops, focusing instead on whether language is an effective storytelling tool at all.
Readers who pick up Oblivion looking for plot will be disappointed, as it takes nearly 20 pages for many of these tales to take shape. The titular “Oblivion” — one of the more straightforward pieces in the bunch — is nominally about a man who discovers, at a sleep clinic, that everything he ever thought about himself was a lie; “The Suffering Channel” is a mockumentary-style yarn about a sculptor whose preferred medium is excrement.
“Mister Squishy” begins with a focus group sitting at a conference room eating baked goods, then veers into a highly technical riff on the circular logic of targeting consumers. In the middle of all this we get brief glimpses of the sad inner life of the group facilitator, Terry, a middle-aged man who fantasizes about making “damp lisping slapping sounds” with his co-worker Darlene on a conference-room table.
Wallace buries these cringe-producing bits of humanity so deeply in the blizzard of information he marshals that even a preternaturally patient reader may not get to them. He isn’t simply being difficult; Wallace is making a point about consciousness, and how traditional narratives lie to us about what goes on inside our heads. In “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” a man recalls a violent event that occurred at his elementary school. Wallace then subverts this narrative arc by spending most of his story describing the fantasy world his narrator was playing inside while his teacher began writing “KILL THEM ALL” over and over on the classroom blackboard.
Unlike traditional writers, for whom story implies an evolution of character self-knowledge, Wallace interprets story as a forum for exploring the failures of language. At the beginning of these pieces, his sentences are of manageable length. They set up a scene, establish a voice and suggest a narrative will develop. Slowly, however, Wallace’s prose begins expanding, twisting, turning in on itself with ellipses and footnotes that dramatize his anxiety about the pitfalls of language.
The real joy of reading these stories is not having Wallace ferry us from point A to point B, but in watching his reptilian intelligence slither and snake across the page, flicker out its tongue and nab yet another linguistic fly off the wall. Our language is infected with a virus of fakery, he suggests over and again, and by stretching it to the absolute limit, Oblivion tries mightily to exorcise those demons from it.
OBLIVION: Stories | By DAVID FOSTER WALLACE | Little, Brown & Co. | 329 pages | $26 hardcover