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'Oblivion' - Book Review

by David Foster Wallace

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Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

© Little, Brown & Co.

In their experiments with automatism (i.e. "dream-writing") and hive-mind collaboration (dubbed "exquisite corpses"), Dada writers such as Tristan Tzara and André Breton sought to break free from the shackles of artificially imposed narrative concatenation in order to document consciousness in its most raw and churning form. In Oblivion, David Foster Wallace's first new work of fiction since Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (which contained some of the most formally inventive meta-fictions since John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse), he cements his status as the most aesthetically and intellectually ambitious writer working in short fiction today, and continues the Dadas' mission to accurately limn in prose the processes of intellection and self-consciousness. But while the Dadas were exuberant and unrestrained, Wallace exercises a remarkable precision and gnomic control - instead of allowing his consciousness to leap about and latch on to whatever it may, he channels it in lambent lines through wildly inventive and specific modern scenarios.
Oblivion is less formally revolutionary than Brief Interviews, but stands as his most cerebral, dense and difficult work to date (barring the mammoth epic Infinite Jest, which can't really be fairly compared with short stories), a work obsessed with death, memory, and describing grand abstractions with unambiguous reams of lapidary prose.

Oblivion is a difficult book, and will be frustrating to some readers. Many fiction writers take a narrative arc, then pepper it with details at intermittent points along its length to engender a sense of self-containment and completion. Wallace excises a small segment of a narrative arc, and then packs it with a dense accretion of detail (with strategic omissions that befuddle and inclusions that seem, at first, meaningless to the narrative). Traditional fiction seeks to create an illusion of contiguity in the haphazard events of our lives; Wallace undermines the illusion of sequential narrative by filling a time-span with facts that often refuse to cohere as neatly as we're conditioned to expect.
The effect is striking, and mirrors how the mind actually works more accurately than traditional fiction. It's also disorienting, as the reader is plunged into the middle of an already unfolding, often convoluted story that suddenly peters out just as the details are beginning to converge, leaving the reader to intuit whatever lies tacit at the end of the arc, while still trying to piece together what's come before. This is especially apparent in the first story in Oblivion, "Mister Squishy."

"Mister Squishy" also demonstrates Wallace's proclivity for appropriating highly specialized, modern linguistic systems to ground his stories in the Now. Told from the point of view of a narrator whose omniscience becomes more discomfiting as the story inexorably unfolds, "Mister Squishy" contains several intertwined threads that would require one hell of a deus ex machina to untangle: a focus group ostensibly market testing a new snack cake that's actually a cover for a series of double-blind coups that ramify to the top of the advertising agency and beyond; the existential crisis of the focus group's facilitator, Terry Schmidt; and a man scaling the exterior of the building performing ominous operations with various high-tech equipment.
The dense demographic and statistical jargon in which Wallace couches the tale, and the stately march of superficial details that lend it a flat, impersonal tone, are sharply juxtaposed with the urgent human drama described therein, and drive the tale relentlessly toward its absent dénouement.

Another distinct quality of Wallace's writing is its peculiar take on linearity. Where most fiction's sentences proceed one to the next in a direction that seems to be across or outward, Wallace's lines spiral inward, a series of involutions where each thought connects not to one beside it, but to one within it, like a diminishing Russian doll. I'd love to cite a brief example, but there aren't any. Wallace writes in massive sentences that can run to pages, slaloming through colloquialisms and real-speech syntax that reflects not so much how we talk as how we literally think, as if someone is describing their thought process to you aloud as precisely as possible. Filled with bracketed asides and parenthetical digressions that mirror the fragmentary nature of thought (this was also the impetus behind the hundreds of footnotes in Infinite Jest), they remain prodigiously sculpted and punctuated.
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