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Oblivion: Stories By David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown (336 pp., hardcover, $25.95)

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Reviewer: JOHN FREEMAN

 

If an artist's job is to criticize culture, then David Foster Wallace is American literature's high priest of carp. 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 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, pushing to the foreground a debate with himself over whether language is effective at all.

 

In this sense, 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 title story is nominally about a man who goes to a sleep clinic, only to discover that everything he ever thought about himself is a lie. "The Suffering Channel" is a mockumentary-style yarn about a sculptor whose preferred medium was excrement. These are the two most straightforward pieces in the bunch, and if that's what you're looking for, start there.

 

But if you want to jump in at the deep end, start with "Mr. Squishy," which begins with a focus group sitting in 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 focus-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 human emotion so deeply in the blizzard of information he marshals here that even a preternaturally patient reader may not get to them. Wallace isn't simply being difficult; he's 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 dramatic narrative arc by spending most of his story describing the fantasy world his narrator created in the mesh squares of a window that looked out over a muddy soccer field. Meanwhile, his schoolteacher writes "KILL THEM ALL" over and over on the classroom blackboard.

 

Unlike traditional writers, for whom story implies an evolution of their characters' 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. Slowly, however, they begin expanding, twisting, turning in on themselves with ellipses that acknowledge their inherent inability to actually say what the narrator truly means. As the protagonist of "Good Old Neon" explains:

 

Many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person's life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn't even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the content of one split second's flash of thoughts and connections, etc. -- and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we're thinking and to find out what they're thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it's a charade and they're just going through the motions.

 

And that's just one sentence. The real joy of reading these stories, then, is not having Wallace ferry us from point A to point B, but in watching his reptilian intelligence snake across the page, flick its forked tongue and nab yet another linguistic wormhole. Our language is possessed by the devils of fakery, Wallace suggests over and again, and by stretching it to the absolute limit, Oblivion tries mightily to exorcise those demons.

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