This review, as will any of my reviews of collections of short stories, will be set up as small reviews of the individual stories in the book.
David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion.
This was, for me, the only story in the entire collection that I must admit fell flat. It is a story with multiple levels that is primarily about a control group that is testing a new type of snack cake from the company Mister Squishy. The language DFW uses in the story is quite full of jargon, and simultaneously relies upon the reader to become extremely familiar with abbreviations related to both the company, the cakes, the people, the smaller company hired by the larger one, and others at a rapid rate. It also happens to be the second longest story in the collection and is perhaps the only one that feels long. It contains a big twist at the end of the story, but in the end I was left wondering what the point of the story was. It’s not like DFW to write a story or essay and not have a point, thus it is safe to say that I really just didn’t “get it” concerning “Mister Squishy.”
“The Soul is Not a Smithy”
What is boredom? What is anxiety? What is procrastination? Those are what Wallace examines with full force in the story of a child who is unwittingly taken hostage by a substitute teacher that goes insane during one of his lectures. What I felt most confronted by was simply his ability to point out what we do out of fear, or dread. In the process of our futile attempts at subverting this fear, we only ignore it, taking meaningless jobs and becoming gross consumers of retail that preys upon our subconscious dread that the abyss is actually right behind us. What does Wallace argue here? Not that the abyss is behind us, but that it consumes us while we think we avoid facing it.
Plainly speaking, The Soul is Not a Smithy is the one story by any writer that I would demand of anyone to read. I’ve never felt more spoken to by a story. I’ve felt the feeling it brought me only twice before. The first upon finishing John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and the other after completing DFW’s Infinite Jest. There is a feeling that arises within me whenever I encounter any reference to or quote from either of those masterpieces that refuses to quiet itself. Some stories just (im)perfectly get what it is to be human.
“Incarnations of Burned Children”
This story is only three pages, yet I would highly recommend that all parents of toddlers avoid reading it. I don’t want to sound harsh or even disturbing, but it wasn’t a storied that bothered me simply because I do not have children. Yet I can imagine that Wallace taps into every parent’s darkest nightmare with this story.
This was my third favorite story of the collection. A man on a plane overhears a story in which a messiah-like figure is born into a tribe and subsequently begins to solve every problem that the tribe brings to him. Members of another tribe become wary of the figure of the boy and devise a plan to undo his reign. I greatly enjoyed this story, especially its commentary on religion and the nature of being human in relation to the big questions, which Wallace accomplishes in a humorous fashion:
[Upon being asked] ‘What method of yam propagation is least apt to offend my family’s fields’ jealous and temperamental Yam Gods?’ the catastatic child apparently launches into an entire protodialectical inquiry into just why exactly the interlocutor believes in jealous and temperamental Yam Gods at all, and whether this villager has ever in quiet moments closed his eyes and sat very still and gazed deep inside himself to see whether in his very heart of hearts he truly believes in these ill-tempered Yam Gods or whether he’s merely been as it were culturally conditioned from an early age to ape what he has seen his parents and all the other villagers say and do and appear to believe, and whether it has ever late at night or in the humid quiet of the rain forest’s dawn occurred to the questioner that perhaps all these others didn’t really, truly believe in petulant Yam Gods either but were themselves merely aping what they in turn saw everyone else behaving as if they believed, and so on, and whether it was possible – just as a thought-experiment if nothing else – that everyone in the entire village had at some quiet point seen into their hearts’ hearts and realized that their putative belief in the Yam Gods was mere mimicry and so felt themselves to be a secret hypocrite or fraud; and, if so, that what if just one villager of whatever caste or family suddenly stood up and admitted aloud that he was merely following empty custom and did not in his heart of hearts truly believe in any fearsome set of Yam Gods requiring propitiation to prevent drought or decimation by yam-aphids: would that villager be stoned to death, or banish, or might his admission not just possibly be met with a huge collective sigh of relief because now everyone else could be spared oppressive inner feelings of hypocrisy and self-contempt and admit their own inner disbelief as well; and if, theoretically, all this were to come about, what consequences might this sudden communal admission and relief have for the interlocutor’s own inner feelings about the Yam Gods, for instance was it not theoretically possible that this villager might discover, in the absence of any normative cultural requirement to fear and distrust the Yam Gods, that his true religious conception was actually of Yam Gods who were rather kindly and benign and not Yam Gods he had to be fearful of offending or had to try to appease but rather Yam Gods to feel helped, succored, and even comme on dit loved by, and to try to love in return, and freely, this of course assuming that the two of them could come to some kind of agreement on what they meant by ‘love’ in a religious context, in other words agape and so on and so forth… the child’s response appearing to become more and more digressive and paenistic as the conventionally pious villager and the whole rest of the monthly queue stand there with eyes wide and mouths agape and so on and so forth for quite some time in the example, the more educate passenger’s articulation of the child’s response here being clear and distinct but evidently also rather prolix, even when slowly repeated, as well frequently interrupted with pedantic analytical asides and glosses
“Another Pioneer,” Oblivion, David Foster Wallace.
And yes, that is one sentence.
“Good Old Neon”
“Good Old Neon” is a story about a man who feels that his entire life has been his own acting a fraud. He reveals quickly that he is telling the reader about what it was like to be alive, but that he has already killed himself. The story consists of his quickly going over moments in his life where his condition was the most dreadful and his pain the most poignant. These memories trace from his childhood to his eventual meeting with a psychoanalyst, culminating in his own suicide (this is not a spoiler, as he tells you from the beginning that the payoff of reading the story is finding out what it is like to die). The insights into the human condition that Wallace offers in this story are enough to affect the most stoic of readers. While his ramblings on paradoxes and time may be lost on some, or seen as irrelevant (which would actually mean that they were indeed lost on these hypothetical readers), the troubles that the narrator, Neal, goes through are universal. This is one point that the story is trying to make: these feelings of inadequacy, or existential dread, are something every human being feels, yet the experience of them is totally subjective, forming a paradox.
“Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”
This story is by far the funniest in the collection. A woman receives facial reconstructive surgery only to find that it leaves her hideously deformed, looking always as if she is just about to scream. Wallace’s use of one liners in this story through the voice of her son, who rides the bus with her every day, is remarkable. Almost every sentence is laugh-out-loud funny when it’s not incredibly disturbing. And rest assured, if the sentence’s final words are italicized, then you will burst out laughing.
I’m not sure what the connection is between the title of this short story and the title of the book. The short story itself is about a couple’s marital problems (specifically the feeling of an empty nest and the husbands incessant snoring). The story is an exhibition of DFW’s ability to play with his readers’ emotions. One is never quite sure what is going on, or even if the narrator is reliable. The end of the story relies on a big twist that even the best readers will probably not see coming, revealing yet another level to the story that beckons a second read-through. Still though, I don’t understand why this particular story is the title of the collection, nor do I even comprehend why this story is named “Oblivion.” Those points, however, are irrelevant. “Oblivion” is a great story, but does expect a significant effort from its reader. (But if you’re reading DFW, then you’re probably ready to give a lot of effort to your reading anyway).
“The Suffering Channel”
It’s interesting to me that the first and last stories in the collection were the two that really made little impact upon me. “The Suffering Channel” has big ambitions, but in the end reveals itself as a curtain elaborate metaphors that reveals a brick wall behind. Simply put, the lace of the curtain is more interesting than what it covers. The premise is this: A man with a unique talent for creating art (namely: shitting it out, the word “shit” being of importance) is interviewed by a journalist for a magazine. The reader is let in on the fact that this magazine is headquartered in the World Trade Center and the date in which the magazine will release the upcoming issue is September 10th, 2001. Really, I found the payoff of the story annoying. DFW is making an attempt to point out how quickly life can end, making all the shit we do absolutely pointless. However the metaphor is too forced. I expected something a bit more nuanced from Wallace. One gets the distinct feeling that he could never quite get this story to take the shape he wanted it to take; causing him to extend its length tremendously (it is very nearly 100 pages) before finally getting a least a semblance of what he wanted and declaring it done.
Oblivion is a read that is worth your time, and may be the best place to start with David Foster Wallace. I cannot emphasize enough, though, that “Good Old Neon” and “The Soul is Not a Smithy” make the book worth twice what anyone will pay for it.
Recommended to: Those looking for a unique collection of short stories that will challenge them as a reader, and those who loved Foster Wallace’s novels but are wary of short stories.
Avoid as if it were that probably racist article about Baltimore that your friend from high school that you haven’t seen in ten years just posted: Those who need paragraph breaks in order to stay sane, those who don’t want to have to pick up a dictionary when they read, and those who don’t enjoy David Foster Wallace (but really, what is wrong with you?!)