Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace

Oblivion

Oblivion was the third and final collection of short stories published during David Foster Wallace’s lifetime.

As I’ll note in talking about the individual stories, I found it much easier to follow most of the selections here compared to those in Girl with Curious Hair or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. So I suppose in that sense these stories are more “conventional.” But being David Foster Wallace stories, the writing still has plenty of postmodernist weirdness and just his usual idiosyncrasies.

One of the ways that Wallace alters the narrative structure to shake readers out of their usual expectations and provoke them to focus more on what they’re reading is to violate the conventions of paragraph usage in two respects. One is to let his paragraphs run long, sometimes to multiple pages. The other is perhaps a little more jarring, and that is to drastically change subject matter within a paragraph.

The latter gives the material a disjointed, stream-of-consciousness feel, like you’re listening to someone saying things in whatever order they happen to pop into his head, and not clearly organizing them and signaling when he’s moving on from one topic to a different one.

So if you think of paragraphs as having two main functions—to break up the text into more manageable units, and to group like subject matter with like subject matter—Wallace violates both. I don’t find the cost of that all that great—it’s a bit more of a chore to read than the same material presented conventionally would be—but then again I’m unconvinced the benefits are significant either, so I don’t have a firm opinion about whether this kind of thing is a strength or a weakness of Wallace’s writing. If you put a gun to my head I’d probably say it’s slightly more annoyingly different than interestingly different, but it’s pretty close to a wash for me.

In Mister Squishy (that’s the name of a food company that makes soft, moist cakes and such), Wallace juggles multiple related stories or topics, routinely taking a step forward in multiple of them in the same paragraph.

The main action takes place in an office building where a focus group has been convened to taste test Mister Squishy’s latest creation, a decadently rich chocolate snack cake called Felonies! (They sound great, by the way. They are all chocolate—chocolate cake with chocolate icing and chocolate filling—concoctions, intended to be distinguishable from their market rivals by the use of purer, higher quality ingredients, i.e., real chocolate instead of some cheaper, vaguely chocolate-like substance created in a laboratory.)

Wallace moves back and forth from the focus group, to biographical details about the people running the focus group—one such person in particular, highlighting the crush he has on a fellow employee and such—to a mysterious figure crawling up the side of the building in human fly fashion, to more abstract discussions of marketing and such.

As is true of much of Wallace’s writing, Mister Squishy contains an unconventionally large quantity of description. Normally excessive description is not really a positive for me, at least if it’s the usual “the trees were this color, and the wind sounded like this as it blew through them, and the clouds looked such-and-such,” because not being all that visual a person I’m typically not visualizing a scene while reading about it and so my interest tends to fade as more and more details like that are piled on. But I’ll make a partial exception for Wallace’s style in that the things he latches onto in his descriptive passages are often amusingly weird little details described in unconventional language, which can be entertaining and at times revealing of something about the characters.

I found Mister Squishy (and as I alluded to earlier, this turned out to be largely true of Oblivion as a whole) less frustrating than most Wallace fiction in that I could actually follow all or almost all of what was going on. It isn’t one of those surreal, postmodern things that make no sense just as a straightforward story. That’s not to say there aren’t all kinds of things going on beneath the surface—some of which I suppose I caught and many of which I’m sure I didn’t—but the point is that there’s an understandable surface, which is something of a pleasant surprise (to a reader of my tastes) in a Wallace story.

Not to mention a fair amount of what he says in this story I find interesting, insightful, and/or funny. Just things like his way of describing the way the corporate drones are so meticulously manipulating the focus group, what they’re thinking as they do so, and how unbeknownst to them there are all kinds of other levels of manipulation going on in the situation, including with them on the receiving end. Or his way of describing the formation and behavior of the crowd on the street that watches the mysterious figure scaling the building.

I described Mister Squishy above as “less frustrating” rather than “non-frustrating.” The most frustrating element of it, I suppose, is the lack of a conventional beginning, middle, and end. Not that that’s unusual for a postmodern writer, and like I say the majority of Wallace’s fiction writings would violate a lot more conventions than that one, but as a reader I’d kind of like to know “how things turn out,” whereas in stories like this you kind of join in the middle, tag along for a while and at most see only some things resolved, and then it just ends.

The Soul is Not a Smithy is a first person retrospective account of the time the narrator’s 4th grade class’s substitute teacher went berserk and was shot by the responding police.

The narrator was a kid with a very sharp, but eccentric, mind, given to elaborate daydreams where he would think through whole involved stories—usually imagining them graphically, like a comic or storyboard—while not paying attention in class. He obviously remains somewhat unconventional as an adult, as his way of relating this traumatic childhood experience is to interweave it with an account of the story he created in his mind that day while he was gazing out the window. (Other students had to later fill him in on a lot of the early details of what happened, as he was off in his own world while the substitute was maniacally writing “Kill them, kill them, kill them” dozens of times on the blackboard while making weird noises.)

So the story goes back and forth between the lunatic substitute teacher and the narrator’s daydreams (which frankly are at least as weird as what was happening in the classroom; what he was picturing was a gory, disturbing tale of a pitiful blind girl, her parents, and her dog, who suffer various humiliations, injuries, and deaths), as well as other, briefer, tangents, like stories about his family and about a recurring dream/nightmare he had about what it would be like to spend decades as some white collar, corporate drone (a type of life that seemed to always provoke fear/dread/hatred/fascination in Wallace).

It’s the kind of story that some Wallace fans I assume would identify as among his funniest, but I rarely experience his fiction that way. I mean I suppose to some extent he’s motivated by wanting to get a laugh when he incorporates the most unlikely and bizarre human behavior and thoughts into his writing, but knowing what I do about him I tend to think there’s plenty of sadness and darkness in the weirdness.

Think of it this way: In real life if you were in elementary school and your teacher freaked out like this, or if you were the father of a 4th grader and you found out your son had very violent, disturbing fantasies, not to mention recurring nightmares about having an adult work life anything like your own, I don’t think you’d be laughing.

But if you really want to go to the extreme of a non-humorous Wallace story, there’s Incarnations of Burned Children, by far the shortest of the selections in Oblivion, just three pages long.

This is the only story from the collection I was already familiar with, having come across a YouTube audio of Wallace himself reading it. It’s one of the most intense, depressing, disturbing, emotional short stories I’ve read (or heard).

Incarnations of Burned Children is the story of a toddler being horrifically burned by hot water. Because his injuries are inadvertently caused by his parents, including in their efforts to save him from the initial scalding, and because those injuries include, it is implied, permanent damage to his genitalia, I’m sure there is all kind of symbolic stuff going on. But taken on the most straightforward level, it’s really a powerful story, just the way Wallace relentlessly and literally lays out the details of the agony—physical and emotional—of all involved. There are none of the usual literary games here; it’s just hard-hitting, unblinking terror.

Another Pioneer is one of Wallace’s embedded stories, where the person relating it did not experience it but learned of it through hearsay and is now passing it along. I’m not sure what the point is of structuring it that way, but in any case in Another Pioneer a man is apparently addressing some group, telling them a story that a friend of his told him that he was in turn told by an acquaintance of his, who overheard it from a conversation two people seated in the row in front of him in an airplane were having.

Other than this weird structure of having a multiple-times-removed narrator (oh, and the fact that the whole twenty-four pages is one paragraph, and precious few sentences), it is again a largely understandable, coherent story.

Though it (the story within a story) is set in caveman days, the person relating it (and perhaps all the other people in the chain) treats it as nonfiction, despite the complete implausibility that a true story from that era could have survived accurately to the present. Actually, momentary doubt is cast on one little detail of the story on these grounds, but for some reason not the story as a whole.

Anyway, a remarkable-to-the-point-of-possibly-supernatural genius child is born into a certain village or clan in the rainforest. He seems intelligent to the point of omniscience from about age two on. A ritualistic practice soon develops of allowing each villager to ask him one question per month.

He is always able to answer the question, but he does so in a very literal way, like a computer, so the villagers find that the questions have to be very carefully worded to elicit the most helpful answers. A class of shamans starts in effect selling their services as expert crafters of questions. The villagers come to them to discuss roughly what they want to find out, the experts come up with the best way to ask such a question, and the villagers give them food or animal hides or whatever.

But over time the child becomes more willing and able to understand conversational nuance, to give more relevant rather than overly literal and limited answers, and also to, in effect, teach and challenge the visitors in ways that go beyond just directly answering their questions. This renders the shaman middlemen superfluous, which they are predictably not pleased about, and rather frightens the villagers, who have no experience with such things as critical thinking and looking at issues in greater depth as they’re now being challenged to do.

It all ends badly for the miracle child.

I suppose the story has some symbolic or metaphorical relation to computers or technology in general or something, though I don’t know if there’s a one-to-one correspondence between elements of the story and specific real phenomena, or if it’s more vague than that.

Nor can I do more than take pretty wild guesses what the point is. Does it have something to do with every technological advance seeming like it heralds the dawn of an era of greater insight, communication, autonomy, etc., and soon proving disappointing? Like TV, the Internet, etc., in spite of their revolutionary potential, haven’t really improved our lives or made us any wiser, but end up being used for the same exploitation and superficial “dumbed down” entertainment and such as everything that came before?

Probably not. It’s probably not something that simplistic.

But whatever it means, it’s kind of in the tradition of “three wishes” stories and such, where people are given this extraordinary opportunity at learning and achieving far more than they would otherwise have been able to, and they find a way to muck it up through greed, short-sightedness, jealousy, ignorance, or whatever.

Good Old Neon was one of the more engaging stories to me, because it feels so personal, like Wallace is battling some of his own demons on the printed page.

Good Old Neon is one of many occasions in his writing career on which Wallace, who ultimately committed suicide, wrestles with the subject of suicide.

As in most of his stories, there are elements of the narrative structure that are unconventional or opaque. The story is told from the perspective of a man addressing another man in a car. He claims to have died—by suicide—and he is explaining what happens when one dies. One can infer later that the person he is speaking to is contemplating suicide, so the purpose of the supposedly dead person’s discourse on his life and what happened when he died is in part presumably to dissuade him. Deeper into the story it seems the person being addressed is following basically the same path to suicide as the speaker—driving down the same road intending to crash his car in the same place as the speaker allegedly did—raising the possibility that there is really just one person in the car, and this is an internal monologue in his head, as he imagines what happens when one dies.

Adding another interesting level of complexity, in talking about how his suicide was perceived by others, the speaker includes among them “David Wallace,” a high school classmate of his. So though he is referenced in the third person, the story becomes in part Wallace’s own reflections on suicide.

Is the only person in the car, perhaps, Wallace himself? Does this story represent some occasion from his real life when he seriously contemplated suicide?

In explaining why he committed suicide, the speaker describes how he lived his whole life obsessed by how he was perceived, and how he became very, very skilled at manipulating those perceptions. (He made his career in advertising, appropriately enough.) He came both to realize he was doing that, and to abhor it and want to change it, but no matter what he tried he never really could stop being like that. There was no real “him” left, at least none that he could access, only the completely phony personae he projected to others to win their approval and manipulate them.

To some extent of course we all live that way. But there still may be significant differences of degree, and he perceived himself as very much at the phony end of the range.

I suspect that the degree to which someone would be self-aware about this and would be troubled by it—even to the point of suicide—would, perhaps ironically, be correlated with intelligence and with having developed moral principles. It is much more in the nature of intelligent people—some would say a curse of theirs—to be highly self-analytical and self-critical. To become self-aware enough to examine this kind of phoniness requires brains, and to be bothered by it requires that the phoniness contradict some important aspect of one’s moral worldview.

I think the overwhelming majority of people are even more conformist and even more apt to do whatever fits in with their group and garners them approval and better positions them to achieve their social ends than is someone like the narrator, but the difference is that they are no more aware of nor distressed by their sheeplike behavior than are, well, sheep. Conformity is so much their nature that it would never occur to them to question it, to consider alternatives, or to be upset with themselves at not being able to pursue a nonconformist alternative. Relative to their group, they’re “normal,” and they can’t imagine being, or wanting to be, anything else.

Did Wallace see himself as having this problem of being too approval-seeking, of being too obsessed with how he was perceived by others? Certainly authenticity was hugely important in his moral philosophy; perhaps this was his way of confessing that he was failing to live up to that ideal and that he found that very depressing.

Or maybe it really is about a high school classmate of his who later committed suicide, one of those Richard Cory people who seemed to be so successful, happy, and popular that you’d think he would be the last person to have a reason to commit suicide, and maybe Wallace is trying to think through how to solve that paradox, what might have been going on inside his former classmate that no one picked up on.

In the end he concludes—or at least this is the conclusion he attributes to “David Wallace”—that it is exceedingly difficult to ever break free of solipsism and truly know and understand and care about what goes on inside another human being, that while this is the kind of truism that everyone supposedly already knows it is no less important for that, and that one should never allow this difficulty to stop one from attempting to connect deeply with others, to understand them and be understood by them.

Which, by the way, overlaps with the message of his famous commencement address, later published as This is Water.

There’s considerably more I could say about Good Old Neon. It’s one of the most thought-provoking pieces of fiction by Wallace that I’ve read.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is more obscure than most of the stories in Oblivion, though not as much so as many in his other two collections of short stories. At just eight pages in length, it is the only story in this collection besides Incarnations of Burned Children that is less than twenty-four pages long.

It’s one of those Wallace stories where you kind of pick it up in the middle and you have to infer the context as best you can.

It is told from the perspective of a young man, and what is mostly addressed explicitly is the matter of his mother’s botched plastic surgeries that altered her eyes and to some extent her whole face so as to freeze her into what looks like a permanent attitude of being shocked and terrified (to the point where anyone who sees her instinctively looks over their shoulder in alarm to see what could possibly have triggered such an extreme expression). What is addressed much more indirectly and must mostly be inferred is something about the narrator keeping poisonous spiders in jars in their garage and getting in trouble with the law when some child accidentally breaks the jars and is injured or killed by the spiders.

It’s the kind of story where Wallace comes up with some highly inventive, weird scenario and presents it in an unconventional way. Whether it’s just weird in an amusing way, intended symbolically, or what, I don’t know. But it is certainly weird.

By the way—and this may or may not relate to whatever the point or symbolism of the story is—Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is a philosophy book by Richard Rorty that I read in college. Rorty is sort of—I don’t know that I would say a relativist—but one of those folks who believes that in some sense what we think of as reality isn’t real in any objective, literal way, but is some kind of social, linguistic construct we’ve implicitly agreed to treat as if it were real. As a postmodernist, Wallace—who as I recall mentions Rorty in at least one of his nonfiction essays—is presumably at least sympathetic to Rorty’s views, whether he fully agrees or not.

Oblivion, the title story of the collection, is in some ways one of the lighter tales, chronicling an increasingly bitter marital argument over a husband’s alleged snoring. His wife frequently implores him during the night to wake up and stop snoring, whereas he insists that often when she does this he has not even fallen asleep yet, and so what must be happening is she is dreaming he is snoring and then waking up and not realizing it was a dream.

Though it’s primarily about that somewhat goofy dispute, of course there’s a lot more going on, including most disturbingly hints about child molestation—possibly real, possibly fantasized or feared—either in the wife’s childhood by her father (a domineering, big shot businessman, patriarch of the family type who doesn’t hide his contempt for the husband) or at present or recently by the husband toward his stepdaughter.

The final, and longest, story in the collection is The Suffering Channel. This is the most openly humorous of the stories, which is not to deny that like Oblivion there may be darker elements Wallace is addressing, at least symbolically.

The comically ridiculous premise of The Suffering Channel is that there is a man in rural Indiana who defecates in the shape of totally realistic sculptures. The story is about a magazine writer for a People-type publication researching this “artist” for a possible human interest story, as well as researching a local cable TV station that airs nothing all day except still photos and videos of human suffering of various kinds (e.g., the famous photo of the napalmed little Vietnamese girl, a suicide caught on video, dental surgery on someone allergic to anesthetic, etc.). About 90%, though, in spite of the title, is about that first story—the guy whose feces come out as elaborately detailed reproductions of people and other things.

One of the weirder aspects of this utterly weird story is how people treat this “art” as mildly surprising but entirely possible, when it is clearly no such thing. Some do raise the possibility that there is some kind of cheating going on, but no more than they would if, say, the guy was unusually good at painting art forgeries or something.

The thing is, we’re not talking about a pareidolia type situation here, like people imagining that vague shapes in clouds are faces, but of feces that come out already in the shape of, say, some famous painting or sculpture of General So-and-So on a horse or what have you. In other words, a phenomenon that could only be supernatural if it were real.

This is one of those stories that showcases Wallace’s meticulous research and knowledge. There is a great deal of detail about such things as the culture of these popular magazines (e.g., how authority is exercised, what kind of office politics are involved, etc.), weather phenomena in the Midwest, how each character dresses and the social messages conveyed (down to how certain types of designer garments respond to dry cleaning and such), and on and on.

Of course I’m just assuming it’s all accurate; most such details in his stories are in areas of life that I know little or nothing about. I suppose it’s possible he’s getting a substantial amount wrong, or that it’s all bluff and he’s really not even trying to be accurate.

That’s the thing with his kind of postmodern writing though—you never know when he does or doesn’t feel obligated to play by the conventional rules. So a mistake isn’t necessarily a mistake. In his short story Lyndon, for instance, from Girl with Curious Hair, he anachronistically has people meeting in the Dirksen Senate Office Building a decade or so before there was any such building called that. So did he screw up, or is an anachronism like that just part of his postmodernist style?

I don’t know that I’d rank The Suffering Channel among my favorite Wallace stories, but strangely enough I found it to be more of a page-turner than almost any other. I became genuinely curious how it would all turn out. (Not surprisingly, it ends before that’s fully revealed. But it’s not quite as abrupt and unsatisfying an ending as I’ve learned to expect with his stories; it takes you along farther than most of his stories do and let’s you know at least some of how it turns out.)

On the whole I would say Oblivion is my clear favorite of the three collections of Wallace short stories I have read, and there’s no mystery as to why: As I’ve noted, on average the stories here are way more coherent and comprehensible than in the other two books. I assume this would still count as postmodernist fiction, but it’s mostly not the kind of postmodernism that just leaves me shaking my head thinking, “OK there are interesting, or at least unusual, stylistic elements here, but I don’t have the foggiest idea what’s going on.”

There’s some decent humor in this collection—not all that often in the sense of something like really witty lines, but more in the sense that you have to kind of grin in amazement that someone could invent such bizarre characters and circumstances from his imagination. So mostly not—for me at least—laugh out loud stuff, but inventiveness I could appreciate.

The more serious stories hit me harder emotionally, though I do think the seemingly more whimsical, comic stories are likely intended somewhat more seriously than readers may take them. In Wallace’s fiction, the grotesque and eccentric people are more than just comical. I think they represent just how difficult it can be to function in the modern world in an emotionally healthy, sane manner that enables you to genuinely connect with other human beings. Wallace was very insightful about such aspects of human nature, and I don’t think he’s laughing at his twisted characters and what they represent—or at least not just laughing—but lamenting it. There’s a kind of sadness to almost all his fiction.

But the stories that got under my skin the most or made me think and feel the most were probably the darker, most disturbing ones, especially Incarnations of Burned Children and Good Old Neon, and perhaps The Soul is Not a Smithy.

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