Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown and Company 2004  384 pp. 25.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford  


It’s been five years since David Foster Wallace last published any fiction, which suggests that some forest-killing manuscript, a la Infinite Jest, having sent an innocent UPS delivery person into early retirement, is now devouring the time and energy and quite possibly the soul of a senior New York editor.  In the meantime we have Oblivion, a collection of short stories that come in modestly under four hundred pages.

Wallace is no doubt the only MacArthur Fellow from Philo, Illinois and his new volume is his first fiction in five years.  Yet, there is a certain familiarity about these stories that suggests that despite his impressive verbal agility, Wallace can’t seem to write himself out of his own obsessions.

Eight stories comprise this collection, two short ones, with the rest of substantial length.  They cover focus group meetings, a deranged elementary school teacher, a horrible accident to an infant, a supernaturally intelligent tribal child, an analyst’s patient, a bus-riding psychopath, a battling married couple, and an artist with an unusual production process.

While the subjects of these stories vary, they are linked by a couple of ongoing plot elements common to Wallace’s fictional work.  First is the milquetoast whose interior life would be unfathomable to anyone who knew him.  Wallace glories in presenting the soul-deadening life of an inconsequential person and, in the process, revealing a gruesome secret this person successfully conceals.

The second plot element involves the narrator babbling away, going out of his way to explain to you every little detail of his supposed story, all the while demonstrating that his storytelling is an elaborate ruse to prevent you from arriving at the real truth of his condition.

As one of Wallace’s narrators says, “It’s interesting if you think about it, how clumsy and laborious it seems to be to convey even the smallest thing.”  Yet, the narrator, and by association, Wallace, continues to do so, filling page upon page with sentences whose complexity and length would make Henry James blush.

With a single exception, these are not so much short stories (lacking as they do a story arc or a single emotional jolt) as vignettes, openings into a type of rococo, involuted consciousness in which we witness the downward spiral of an internal life, evidence of which is nowhere available on the surface.

One of the narrators seems to supply a reason for both the actions and the prose of Wallace’s characters:

“The conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective significance.  … this was the single great informing conflict of the modern psyche.  The management of insignificance.  The accommodation of a whole new kind of fear, of death by demography—the fact that terror of being average was itself completely average.  It was the great syncretic bond of US monoculture.  It was everywhere, at the root of everything—of impatience in long lines, of cheating on taxes, of movements in fashion and music and art, of marketing.”

This insight, already offered to us in the Fifties by a number of works of popular sociology, no doubt bears repeating.  Given that Wallace is primarily a stylist, the question must be asked not so much what he’s trying to convey as how he conveys it.  And here readers will find themselves divided.  Wallace is either a genius, the virtuoso prose stylist of our postmodern age, or he’s the smartest frat boy vulgarian you’ve ever encountered, who basically dresses up plots that might have been stolen from South Park with fancy pants prose. 

I reluctantly tend toward the latter judgment.  When you find yourself wondering when, if ever, a short story will end, you know there must be a problem.  To paraphrase Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper, to represent an insanely annoying character, one doesn’t need to write insanely annoying prose.

One doesn’t need to be a critic to observe that Wallace uses his prose to show off his intellect and verbal skills; that’s fine so long as there’s a payoff.  However, let’s consider one element of his prose, his vocabulary.  In one shortish story one finds the following words: evection, canescent, protasis, epitatic, hemean, nigrescently, ptotic, intaglial, catastsais, and extrose.  Should we thank Mr. Wallace for expanding our vocabulary, or are we being asked to say to ourselves, “Gee, that Wallace is one smart fellow”?  You make the call.

David Foster Wallace has published the funniest book of essays I have every read, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.  As an essayist he is brilliant, up there with Gore Vidal.  However, his fiction has become self-indulgent and off-putting, and Oblivion does nothing to change that impression.