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The New Canon: Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

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Those scared off by David Foster Wallace’s 1,100-page magnum plus, fearing that Infinite Jest may be no laughing matter, will find the short stories in his 2004 collection Oblivion an easier access road to this brilliant and quirky writer. Think of it as Wallace’s Dubliners, but without the epiphanies. As for those whose only experience with this author is via his expansive and unwieldy major novel, they may be surprised at his deftness in the shorter form.

Say what you will of this author—and pretty much it was all said, in the aftermath of his suicide death at age 46—his writing never lost its capacity to morph into surprising new forms. Some authors seem destined to tell the same type of tale over and over, but even in the context of the eight stories that comprise Oblivion, Wallace revealed his ability to recalibrate his approach to match the subject at hand. And whatever he addressed throughout his all-too-brief career—tennis schools, lobsters, Alcoholics Anonymous, you name it—he did so with an intensity of perception that leaps off the page.

For example, the opening story of Oblivion, “Mr. Squishy” deals with an unlikely literary subject: market research and product positioning. These are areas I have some experience with—at one point in my own repeatedly “recalibrated” life I managed the market research and strategic marketing function for a NYSE company. Wallace’s ability to get inside the thinking of a marketing executive is uncanny, and he has mastered all the jargon and pseudo-scientific techniques of the trade—so much so, that I can’t help but wonder what research or personal experiences he drew on to make this portrait so vivid. The ad account execs on Mad Men come across as kids playing at marketing concepts by comparison.

The story ostensibly surrounds the anticipated launch of a new snack food. Okay, War and Peace it’s not. But Napoleon himself never planned a battle with the angst and zeal of the execs focused on this money-making project. Of course, with Wallace, he doesn’t just present his story straight. The quasi-mathematical language of consumer research gradually collapses into the demented discourse of the mentally ill. This is no easy transition to pull off, but Wallace handles it deftly. This is a virtuoso performance, and I can think of few contemporary writers who would have been able to construct a story of this depth and complexity with the starting point of a “high-concept, chocolate-intensive, Mister Squisy-brand snack cake designed primarily for individual sale in convenience stores.”

The other stories in Oblivion are nothing like this opening gambit—as noted above, this author was not one to repeat himself—but are equally daring in their conception. “The Soul is Not a Smith” focuses on a much more intrinsically dramatic focal point than a packaged food item, in this case a hostage situation. But if “Mr. Squishy” finds elements of the disturbing in the midst of the banal, this second story in the collection reverses the process, evoking the quotidian in the land of the maniacal. “Another Pioneer” plays a different hermeneutic game, relaying an account more akin to anthropological ethnography than the short story tradition, but transmutes it in the literary equivalent of a game of Chinese whispers or “Telephone.” The story is related fourth-hand—or, in the words of the narrator, “derived from the acquaintance of a close friend who said that he had himself overheard this exemplum aboard a high-altitude commercial flight while on some sort of business trip.” This odd framing of a tribal narrative imparts new meaning to the term “unreliable narrator.”

In each of these stories, Wallace establishes himself as the modern-day master of the run-on sentence, able to rival even José Saramago and Thomas Pynchon in his elongated periods. Yet his range of attitudes in presenting these excursions is seemingly endless, moving from the clinical and theoretical to the psychological and confessional. Often two seemingly contradictory tones fight for dominance of the same sentence, a masterful achievement on the part of the author, and one that imparts a vertiginous sense of dislocation to the narrative.

Wallace is capable of more straight-forward story-telling, at least from the standpoint of sentence structure. “The Suffering Channel” relates incidents in the life of Skip Atwater, “human interest” reporter for Style magazine. Here Wallace takes a quasi-absurdist approach, sending his journalist off to cover the most tasteless and incongruous topics, including a cable channel devoted to human anguish and a creepy artist who produces “sculptures” by means of an intimate body function. Remember when Ed Sullivan refused to let the camera show Elvis from the waist down? After you read this story, you will think that Sullivan wasn’t wrong, just ahead of his time….

In most instances, writing so flamboyant, so multilayered, so overtly experimental tends to deaden the emotional center of the story, and elevate the authorial presence—which almost always felt hovering nearby—over the characters themselves. Yet Wallace is all but invisible in the stories that comprise Oblivion, and in particular he does without the ironic or cynical tone that often calls attention to the writer pulling on the puppet strings behind the scenes. Indeed, if the definitive account of the death of irony is ever written, David Foster Wallace will deserve a prominent place in the account—his entire oeuvre can be read as a rejection of that corrosive post-modern attitude.

At Wallace’s suicide death, he left behind only a half-dozen works of fiction, of which Oblivion was the last published during his lifetime. As such, this book will perhaps be more widely read and discussed than it would have been had the author lived and continued writing for several more decades. Yet this work not only withstands the scrutiny, but invites and deserves it. Certainly if Wallace had lived longer, he would have left us more stories and novels, but I doubt they would have surpassed Oblivion and Infinite Jest, both of which eminently deserve their reputations as contemporary classics.

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About Ted Gioia

  • r

    The Pale King may dispel that doubt.

  • JS

    “The Soul is Not a SmithY,” actually. Just FYI.