Oblivion by David Foster Wallace. Back Bay Books. 336pp, $14.99.
1. agent of goodness & light: a.)
In a YouTube interview, a lawyer and author of several books about English usage asks David Foster Wallace what he thinks of genteelisms—those multisyllablic, latinate, important-sounding words like “prior to” and “subsequent to” that substitute for shorter, often Anglo-Saxon, down-to-earth-sounding ones like “before.” Revealingly, the guy who majored in English and philosophy at Amherst College, whose father was a philosophy professor, doesn’t answer at first. Instead, he reflexively makes a sour face. Only then does he suggest “genteelism” is an “overly charitable way to characterize” such “puff words,” and concludes: “This is the downside of starting to pay attention. You start noticing all the people who say ‘at this time’ instead of ‘now.’ Why did they just take up one-third of a second of my lifetime?”
2. agent of goodness & light: b.)
The upside to grammatical awakenings, Wallace continues, is that “you get to be more careful and attentive in your own writing, so you become an agent of light and goodness rather than the evil that’s all around.”
Such remarkable precision and forethought is what Wallace’s writing is all about—but only in the sense that it’s emblematic of a larger determined noticing.
Get that, and in many ways you get it all.
3. gastronomy as a way of being in the world
It should be noted in passing that when Wallace or his sister Amy (now also a lawyer, by the way) uttered a solecism at the dinner table, his mother, a professor of rhetoric and composition at a community college in Champaign, Illinois, where the family lived, would commence faking a coughing fit until the culprit had gone back and corrected his or her mistake.
4. hypotaxis as existential position
Wallace’s famous sentences are the opposite of those embraced by journalism and/or realism because the world he perceives is the opposite of the one assumed by those modes of writing. His sentences, in other words, are the opposite of transparent and easily comprehensible. They are Rube Goldberg contraptions that are typically dense, digressive, sometimes exhausting, exhaustingly obsessive, frequently mischievous in their use of jargon abutting against colloquialism abutting against lyricism, often sprinkled with comically stilted formulae, repetitions, incorrigible circularity, and parenthetical clauses loaded atop parenthetical clauses.
Their M.O. is hypotaxis, not simply as a showoffy stylistic swagger, but as fraught existential position.
That is, they understand, along with the narrator of “Good Old Neon,” that “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.”
Because that’s what the world feels like.
Because “what goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”
5. too fast & huge & all interconnected
The essential paradox at work in Wallace’s writing, which demands deep attention, readerly ninja concentration, then, is that it doesn’t believe in what it’s doing—at the same time it can’t do anything else but what it’s doing. It is a language desperately trying to capture the seven-ring circus of metacognitive consciousnesses which it knows it can’t capture while holding off the oblivion which it knows it can’t hold off, trying to stabilize a world of contradictory multiples that’s all catawampus and inconstance and complexity and clutter. It is a hyper-self-aware, unconfident language reflective of the hyper-self-aware, unconfident narrators frequenting Wallace’s fiction—especially those in his last collection—who know down at the synaptic level that what they know is that they don’t know, that their narratives almost always render into parables about the nature of Not-Knowing.
6. the literary hmm
Some readers can’t seem to work through Wallace’s language to reach what Wallace’s language is about—that its structure is the structure of his multiverse, and that that multiverse arrives to those who pay the kind of attention his fictions ask for as a series of existential heart slaps, a continuous complication shot through with loss, loneliness, Void with a capital V—the antipode, which is to say, of the universe he critiques in Mark Leyner’s fiction, which Wallace finds in his extraordinarily interesting 1993 essay in Review of Contemporary Fiction, “E Unibus Pluram,” to be a lot like “a piece of witty erudite extremely high-quality prose television. Velocity and vividness—the wow—replac[ing] the literary hmm of actual development.” Flash and burn writing. Snark writing. Writing as bluster, brag, and tinsel.
7. oblivion redux
One could probably productively argue that the eight narratives that comprise Oblivion (2004) represent a decidedly darker vision than the one(s) evinced in most of Wallace’s earlier work, but in a sense such an argument would be a tautology. After all, the painfully apt title belongs to this—his last short story collection, the last work of fiction he completed before binding his wrists with duct tape, kicking over the lawn chair he was standing on, and hanging himself with a black belt nailed into a patio rafter in back of his home in Claremont, California. Ambiguity, contingency, and death are everywhere.
8. sentimental posthumanism
At least three of the stories in Oblivion are as rich and beautiful and lasting as any I’ve ever read: “Incarnations of Burned Children,” “Good Old Neon,” and “The Suffering Channel.” They are capable of doing something remarkable, too—i.e., of ironizing irony; of being arch, self-conscious, and emotionally resonant all at the same time.
Or, as Paul Giles points out in his essay about the collection: “Whereas Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover” (and, one could add, Mark Leyner, of course, and the likes of Barth, Burroughs, Ourednik, Ishmael Reed, Gilbert Sorrentino, et al.) “used the ironic depthlessness of postmodernism to hollow out modernist claims to central authority, Wallace turns this irony back against the postmodern condition itself, establishing what Marshall Boswell has called a ‘complex structure of doubled self-reflexivity’ where the ironization of irony leaves scope for tantalizing glimpses of authentic presence.”
The outcome, Giles says, is what we might call Sentimental Posthumanism.
9. really good work probably comes out of a
“Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself,” Wallace once told Larry McCaffery in an interview, “open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naïve or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something.”
10. incarnations of burned children: a.)
Three pages, two and three-fourths, about a toddler accidentally scalded with boiling water in the kitchen and his parents’ frantic guilt-swarmed reactions and how “the child breathlessly screamed, a high pure shining sound that could stop [his father’s] heart and [the child’s] bitty lips and gums now tinged with the light blue of a low flame the Daddy thought.”
11. incarnations of burned children: b.)
“If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child.”
12. incarnations of burned children: c.)
An unwaveringly powerful flash fiction, unapologetically emotional, its gorgeous prose as breathless and alarmed as the child and his parents, and yet its ending typical of those in Oblivion for its fast narratological swerve that forces the reader to reboot his or her reading strategies—the toddler dies, or most likely dies (the situation is not entirely clear, but when, in Wallace’s work, is it?), and yet, in any case, “learned to leave himself and watch the whole rest unfold from a point overhead,” his “self’s soul so much vapor aloft, falling as rain and then rising, the sun up and down like a yoyo.”
The word “yoyo” undermining the affective lyricism of what comes before; the affective lyricism of what comes before undermining the word “yoyo”; the result a defamiliarized, fraught inflection.
13. good old neon: a.)
A man named Neal, impressively intelligent, paralyzingly self-aware, believes he is a fraud, a phony, a charlatan: “pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked and admired.” He’s so good at reading other people’s needs, at being able to manipulate even his shrink, that he ultimately gets what he’s after, over and over again, and it eats him up. In 1991, he pops a bunch of Benadryl and crashes his car into a bridge abutment because, he explains from beyond the grave (from which location the whole story is told), “when all is said and done, I was nothing but just another fast-track yuppie who couldn’t love, and . . . I found the banality of this unendurable, largely because I was evidently so hollow and insecure that I had a pathological need to see myself as somehow exceptional or outstanding at all times.”
14. good old neon: b.)
A full forty pages into the narrative—viz., a single page before its conclusion—the reader comes to understand that the entire story has been an attempt by a certain writer metafictively named David Wallace, who has been thumbing through photos from his 1980 yearbook, to imagine how what happened to Neal could have happened, since from David Wallace’s stunted point of view, Neal had been nothing but the embodiment of confidence and success.
15. good old neon: c.)
Tucked into the lower righthand corner of the last page appears the cryptic conglomeration of symbols, numbers, and letters [NMN.80.418], which, upon reflection, isn’t so cryptic after all, but apparently the pieces’s dedication in the form of the narrator’s initials (a warped mirror, by the way, of DFW), followed by the year of his death and his batting average—all of which indicates that the membrane between fiction and nonfiction here, between metafiction and lyric essay, may have been hauntingly permeable, perhaps even prescient: a little joke that was no joke at all.
16. the suffering channel: a.)
The novella (significantly, the last in Oblivion) about an artist who shits out already-formed sculptures becoming the subject of one of the recently launched Suffering Channel’s tableaux vivants. The narrative of Skip Atwater, the journalist covering said artist. The narrative of the conversations and diurnal doings of those employed by Style, the glossy magazine for which Skip works, owned by a German conglomerate that controls forty percent of all trade publishing in the U.S. The narrative of the Videodrome-like Suffering Channel itself, a low-tech commercial one showcasing scenes of people in pain.
17. the suffering channel: b.)
“Desc. of Product: Real life still and moving images of the most intense available moments of human anguish.”
“(10) High light videotaped suicide note and handgun suicide of 60 year old patent attorney, Rutherford, NJ.”
“(11) High light legal liability video, intake and assessment interview of 28 year old suicidal female, Newton Wellesley Hospital, Newton, Mass.”
18. the suffering channel: c.)
Only gradually does it dawn on the reader of this weirdly funny, weirdly scatological novella that the Style employees are carrying out their work on the sixteenth floor of the World Trade Center, that it is July, 2001, and that everyone in the story presumably will be dead in just over two months. Such architectural irony is stunning, exquisite, moving like nothing else because it makes manifest what so much of Wallace’s fiction in general, and the pieces in Oblivion in particular, imply: that we live inside Pynchonesque systems that we don’t understand, can’t understand, often don’t even notice; that, within the contemporary moment, the idea of personal agony—like Egg McMuffins, Dan Brown novels, and the iPhone app featuring a virtual zipper—has become commodified; that the “really good work” grows out of pain, no matter how we might want to ironize and snark the observation away; that, as Zapp, the protagonist of David Lodge’s academic satire, Small World, comes to figure out after a kidnapping that almost took his life: “Death is the one concept you can’t deconstruct.”
Lance Olsen serves as chair of the board of directors at Fiction Collective Two and is the fiction editor at Western Humanities Review. He is the author of 11 novels, the most recent of which is Calendar of Regrets (Fiction Collective Two, 2010).
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