Thursday, March 15, 2012

People and Spaces: "Oblivion" by David Foster Wallace

On February 21st of this year, David Foster Wallace would have been fifty years old. This milestone date was met with an unexpected outpouring of support via social media, with readers and admirers sharing a variety of quotes, video links, and seemingly "forgotten" articles by and about Wallace. Not that any fan of Wallace needs any real push to immerse him/herself in his writings, I realized I'm within range of completing his complete published bibliography within the next few years, and I decided to read Oblivion, his 2004 story collection. Among his story/essay collections and novels, no single title has ever received "bad" reviews, but there seems to be a definite hierarchy to their respective receptions (and, as I've heard via anecdote, Wallace himself despised his debut novel The Broom Of the System). Oblivion doesn't get mentioned a lot, and I found that to be a good thing, since it made for a rare opportunity to go into the pieces with no subconscious influences other than Wallace's other stories.

Recently, I read the perfect description of Wallace's writings, the deceptively simple term "maximalist." In Oblivion, this seems to be heightened, especially in the exploration and juxtaposition of minute and more universal details (again, this could easily apply to his entire canon). And it bears mentioning that any single piece of his short fiction can be examined with a full essay, so a single review of a collection will not touch on every detail or plot point. "Mister Squishy," the opening story, explores the mix of corporate and personal lives, with a focus group testing a new snack cake, while an employee pines for his coworker. A "human fly" appears as well, seeming both random and necessary for the story's arc. For an opening story, it thrusts the reader right into Wallace's expansive details, and manages to be both explicitly funny as well as finding odd humor in even the most casual observations:

"Precisely 50% of the room's men wore coats and ties or had suitcoats or blazers hanging from the back of their chairs, three of which coats were part of an actual three-piece business wardrobe; another three men wore combinations of knit shirts, slacks, and various crew- and turtleneck sweaters classifiable as Business Casual. Schmidt lived alone in a condominium he had recently refinanced. The remaining four men wore bluejeans and sweatshirts with the logo of either a university or the garment's manufacturer; one was the Nike Swoosh icon that to Schmidt always looked somewhat Arabic. Three of the four men in conspicuously casual/sloppy attire were the Focus Group's youngest members, two of whom were among the three making rather a show of not attending closely (Wallace 9)."

Just as precisely, Wallace can use the same details for uncomfortable, painful effects (as seems to be the prevailing theme in the collection as a whole):

"...which was another reason why Schmidt had stopped looking at the sky or going out at night or even usually ever opening the lightproof curtains of his condominium's picture window when he got home at night and instead sat with his satellite TV's channel-changer in his left hand switching rapidly from channel to channel to channel out of fear that something better was going to come on suddenly on another of the cable provider's 220 regular and premium channels and that he was about to miss it, spending three nightly hours this way before it was time to stare with drumming heart at the telephone that wholly unbeknownst to her had Darlene Lilley's home number on Speed Dial so that it would take only one moment of courage to risk looking prurient or creepy to use just one finger to push just one gray button to invite her for one cocktail or even just a soft drink over which he could take off his public mask and open his heart to her...(Wallace 33)."

"The Soul Is Not a Smithy" is my favorite piece in the book, since it manages to upend nostalgic sketches of childhood with scenes of domestic terror and a stunningly rendered portrait of a schoolteacher who snaps into a schizophrenic coma. The buildup to the teacher's collapse is done slowly and carefully, and unfolds almost like a scene in a thriller novel, since the reader is led to expect the worst climax.

"Meanwhile, the Xth Amendment (the first I-IX are what compromise the familiar Bill of Rights, although the Xth Amendment was adopted simultaneously in 1791) contains the phrase The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, and so forth, which Mr. Johnson, while at the board, according to Ellen Morrison and every other pupil taking notes, wrote The powers not delegated KILL to the United States THEM by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it KILL THEM to the States, at which time there was again, evidently, another long classroom silence, during which the pupils all began looking at one another while Mr. Johnson stood with his back to the room at the board with his hand with the yellow chalk hanging at his side and his head again cocked to the side as if he were having trouble hearing or understanding something, without turning around or saying anything, before picking up the board's eraser once again and trying to continue the lesson on Amendments X and XIII as though nothing unusual had taken place (Wallace 87)."

It is too tempting to read too much into a story, given Wallace's 2008 suicide, but it's impossible not to be disheartened and moved by the story "Good Old Neon." In this piece, a young man explores the ways in which his life has been a fraud and a layered misunderstanding, all told from the beyond following his suicide. He details his attempts at therapy and the psychological manners in which he manipulates others. Despite the memory of Wallace's death hanging over my reading, I was touched by the story's dignity and psychological explorations; it's another example of Wallace's ability to inhabit any subject as an artist and as an expert researcher. Even if suicide wasn't acknowledged in the piece, it would still read as a personal story, given his lifelong battle with depression and emotional instability.

"Once again, I'm aware that it's clumsy to put it all this way, but the point is that all of this and more was flashing through my head just in the interval of the small, dramatic pause Dr. Gustafson allowed himself before delivering his big reductio ad absurdum argument that I couldn't be a total fraud if I had just come out and admitted my fraudulence to him just now. I know that you know as well as I do how fast thoughts and associations can fly through your head. You can be in the middle of a creative meeting at your job or something, and enough material can rush through your head just in the little silences when people are looking over their notes and waiting for the next presentation that it would take exponentially longer than the whole meeting just to try and put a few seconds' silence's flood of thoughts into words. This is another paradox, that 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...(Wallace 150-151)."

"Oblivion" is the painstaking title story, dealing with an older married couple beset by a husband's snoring, and the battle between his insistence that he is awake when his wife accuses him of doing so, and her insistence that it's a problem that he is unwilling to address. Wallace is just as keen to domestic scenarios as he is to anything else, and the fights and repetitious struggles faced by the couple are set up to be unique takes on the oft-told story of suburban family strife. The final story, "The Suffering Channel," manages to be hilarious yet slightly faulty. A newspaper editor for a People-like publication is writing a story about an artist who defecates perfectly formed, dynamic sculptures (Wallace is the only writer who can detail waste in hilarious yet appropriately sickening details). My view of the story's fault is a minor one: for someone as vastly talented as Wallace was, it seems as if he was going for obvious metaphors (art, creation, waste, and reception), and the piece works much better when taken at face value as a hilariously offbeat fable.

I haven't mentioned all of the stories in Oblivion, but the samples I've provided give a rounded summary of the styles and themes. Why isn't this book as consistently well-regarded in the Wallace bibliography? Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is generally assumed to be his best collection of stories, and perhaps it is due to the titles stories linking together to make it feel like one thematically tight piece of writing. Oblivion works as a true "collection," and the similar tones are divided by drastically different subject matters. Has Oblivion been more read by Wallace completists? I feel it's just as important as his other works, and I was very pleased by the sense of discovery as I continue to make my way through his published pieces. It's not "classic" Wallace, since all of his writings are connected by his voice, research, and details, but rather "expected" Wallace, which is not all meant derisively. For anyone looking for further readings, or even as a starting point for his writing, this is just as good a place as any to pick up or dive in.

Work Cited:
Wallace, David Foster. Oblivion: Stories. Copyright 2004 by David Foster Wallace.

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