After reading his Infinite Jest last Summer, I’ve been consistently disappointed by the further fiction I’ve perused by the postmodern American writer, David Foster Wallace. Oblivion: Stories, however, is great. It’s funny, it’s moving, it’s engaging and (having read it slowly over most of a week) full of images and actions that seem memorable, but I suppose the test will be THE PASSAGE OF TIME.*
Oblivion, like Girl with Curious Hair but unlike Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, contains only a few stories, most of which are short, one of which is a novella. The quality is consistently high and, even though very dense in places, Oblivion is almost always engaging. The content of the stories is very varied (they are: the mystery surrounding an outsider artist allegedly able to shit sculpture; snoring and its effects on a marriage; the death of an infant; consumerism, advertising and loneliness; a hostage situation in a school; prehistoric politics; depression; botched plastic surgery**), and the styles play with modes of narrative in quite an interesting way. Though the novella at the end (“The Suffering Channel”) appears far more accessible than the other stories in the collection, this is only due to its use of dialogue and normal-length paragraphs, the absence of which is only really noticeable when looking at the book, rather than reading it.
DFW’s prose flows. The story “Another Pioneer”, for example, is 20 pages of unbroken text, but it reads swiftly and amusingly. The very short “Incarnations of Burned Children” has far more emotion in its three pages than many full length novels do, in fact it feels almost uncharacteristically empathetic. There is a lot in the whole collection about sadness, and a lot about regret. A lot about people looking back on events in their life (or the lives of others) and tracking their consequences. There is a lot about shit throughout (particularly in the novella), and there is a general focus on The Body which always pulls me in and draws me close.
A special mention, however, has to be given to “Oblivion” itself, the title story. This is about an ostensibly successful man reflecting on his life in the moment of his suicide. Knowing, as we all do (smugsmugsmug), that DFW killed himself about four years after this collection was published, the reader (now) is obviously given to thoughts of comparison between this depressed narrator and the depressed man who wrote him. If this is, as it feels, an open evocation of the mental illness that would lead to DFW’s death, then it is a brave and essential read. If it isn’t, if it’s a fictionalised guess at the thoughts DFW would later have, then it loses no value. It’s an acute and rather arresting description of serious depression that on its own merit renders Oblivion: Stories worth reading.
In this collection there is literary dexterity, there is great wit and there is great insight into the human psyche. I laughed, I thought, I shook with terrified emotion. Maybe I should reread Brief Interviews as an older man.
* Infinite Jest (and here’s my point) contains things that I quite genuinely think of, unbidden, several times a week. It changed how I tie my shoelaces; how I think of people in wheelchairs, of junkies in drag, of tennis-players, of recovering coke addicts with a heart of gold, of veiled women, of arthouse cinema, of- I could go on. Read Infinite Jest, it’s fucking brilliant.
** That’s all eight of them, simplified, and not in the right order.