A review of Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

Wallace’s fiction forces the reader to look beneath the surface. His characters, like most human beings find it difficult to communicate directly. More often than not what they are really concerned with must be parsed out through indirection, as though they are avoiding issues that are too painful to confront head on.

Reviewed by Jack Goodstein

by David Foster Wallace
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown; (June 8, 2004)
ISBN: 0316919810

Let me begin by saying that readers of David Foster Wallace’s short fiction, the short fiction collected in his volume entitled “Oblivion,” stories numbering eight precisely, who (the readers) come to his work for the first time would do well to prepare themselves for that author’s (Foster Wallace’s) stylistic mannerisms, that some less tolerant of such authorial idiosyncracy, might well call stylistic excess and others less generous even, stylistic flaws: his penchant almost a fetish for, not to suggest anything sexual, digressions as his characters, ten year old daydreamers or thirty something advertising executives, to name but two, freely free [Wallace also being fond of word repetition (that that or is is for example) (and parentheses and brackets as well for that matter)] associate, as though in a session with some putative therapist,analyist annalist, or even, to stretch a point, some father confessor, their way through their stories; his almost complete, although certainly not completely complete, as characters do in fact speak to one another in at least two of the eight stories, rejection of dialogue, so that often page of unindented prose follows page of unindented prose, long paragraphs another element of the author’s bravura style, to say nothing o his fondness for long–the longer the better-sentences.

Wallace is a virtuoso of the long sentence.

Reading him reminded me of my first acquaintance with the Victorian poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne (“Faustina,” “The Hymn to Proserpina,”). You would begin reading a sentence in one of his poems and by the time you got to the verb, you had forgotten the subject and had to go back an re-read the sentence or push on hoping that things would clear up eventually: a phenomenon often repeated in reading these shot stories.

Indeed Wallace’s mannerisms put me in mind of other literary precursors. His digressions, while never quite as extensive, these after all are short stories, echo Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. His free associating monologues bring to mind the streams of consciousness of the like of Stephen Dedalaus in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. His long paragraphs and intensive analysis of the subtleties of character behavior suggest nothing so much as later Henry James, The Ambassadors, for example.

Not bad company, to say the least, but all, it should be pointed out (I must stop mimicking Mr. Wallace) not exactly the most facile of reads. They, like David Foster Wallace and the blind epicist (really I will stop) of Paradise Lost, write for the “fit though few.”

One more generalization about overall style: Wallace also likes to play games with narrative voice. He creates characters to tell his stories, but it is not always easy to pin this characters down. For example “Mister Squishy,” the first story in the book seems to be coming from the point of view of a focus group facilitator named Schmidt, but at times we get information from members of the group and people outside the group as well. The ten year old daydreamer of “The Soul is Not a Smithy” is at times sitting in a school civics class imagining a comic strip story in the panes of a window and at times the grown man talking about the boy imagining the comic strip–something like those Russian nesting dolls. Narrative point of view in these stories is fluid and changeable, something to be manipulated for the effect of the story.

As to the stories themselves, they are densely layered with subtle detail that
very often camouflages the real point. It is almost as if the characters cannot really deal with the truth of their lives head on, must come at by way of a wide circle of hints and suggestions. The narrator in “The Soul is Not a Smithy” is ostensibly telling the story of how his childhood daydreaming in class left him oblivious to a truly frightening experience, the mental breakdown of a substitute civics teacher during a lesson on the Constitution. He is so caught up in his daydream that he does not realize what is happening until the rest of his classmates panic and run out of the room.

On the other hand, what really seems to be bothering the older version of the narrator telling of this experience is the stultifying life his father led and which still haunts him in nightmarish dreams. Dreaming in one form or another becomes a major motif in the story, both as a form of escape and a means for creation.

“Good Old Neon” describes a “Richard Cory” kind of man who seems happy and well adjusted, but who feels that he is a fraud. He analyzes everything he does with the intensity of a J. Alfred Prufrock and he concludes that everything he does is to make the right impression on others, rather than a true expression of his own desires. But in the end it seems that the story may not really be about “Goods Old Neon” at all. Another character appears from nowhere, a character called David Wallace, who may or may not be identified with the author depending on your own critical persuasion, and explains his own jealousies about Old Neon whom he had known in high school.

“Oblivion” a story about a husband who is obsessed with what he believes are his wife’s hallucinations that he is snoring when he is positive that he has not even been asleep is underneath the story of a love that is drying up with age.

Wallace’s fiction forces the reader to look beneath the surface. His characters, like most human beings find it difficult to communicate directly. More often than not what they are really concerned with must be parsed out through indirection, as though they are avoiding issues that are too painful to confront head on.

Of all the stories in the book–all impressive in their virtuosity–the one that impressed most was the last, “The Suffering Channel.” On one level it is a comic piece about a popular magazine’s attempts to deal with a story about a man who in the process of defecating produces turd sculptures. One of their writers has come across this excremental artist in the mid west and wants editorial approval for an article. His pitch travels up the editorial ladder by way of bright young female interns aggressively in pursuit of glamorous careers. They dress in the latest fashions, eat at the “right” restaurants, come to work in cross trainers and work out at lunch. They see themselves as the potential movers and shakers of the publishing industry; they have everything to look forward to. It is July of 2001. They are working on the issue of their magazine that will come out on September 10. Their offices are in the World Trade Center.

It takes some work to read David Foster Wallace. It is worth it.

About the Reviewer: Jack Goodstein is a professor emeritus at California University of Pennsylvania, where he has taught English for more than thirty years. His work has appeared in scholarly journals such as Critique, Theatre Journal and College English and in literary magazines such as The Maine Review, The Small Pond Magazine of Literature and The Jewish Digest. In 1990 at age 51, he tried his hand at acting, and while he has always loved the theatre from the audience, discovered an unexpected addiction to the stage as a performer. Since then he has appeared in more than sixty plays throughout Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania. He has also done film and commercial work. This ultimately led to his attempts at writing for the stage. His one act, Pinochle was given a staged reading at the ATHE conference in Toronto in July of 1999 and was published by the University of Charleston Press. In April 2000, his one act, Poker, was produced by the Pulse Ensemble Theatre in Manhattan as part of their OPAL series. Bride of the Father(2000) and Creative Daydreaming (2001) were produced by the Gallery Players of Park Slope in Brooklyn. Other one acts have had readings or been staged at Far Off Broadway and Northern LightsTheatre in Canada, and New York University and the Cafe Sha Sha in New York. Another of his pieces is on line at http://www.dhj5.homestead.com/Issue5pg19.html