Reviewers of David Foster Wallace's books are often moved to speak of his intelligence, his mastery of information, his capacious knowledge of many different subjects and sub-subjects. Some are even prompted to use the word "genius" in describing their perception of Wallace as a finally very cerebral writer. John Freeman in the Denver Post, while avoiding the g-word, nevertheless concludes his own intelligent review of Oblivion with a faily representative judgment of Wallace's writing: "The real joy of reading these stories, then, is not having Wallace ferry us from point A to point B, but in watching his reptilian intelligence slither and snake across the page, flicker out its forked tongue and nab yet another linguistic fly off the wall."
I would not want to deny that Wallace is an especially intelligent writer, nor that his fiction displays a great deal of acquired knowledge, sheer information. But to describe Wallace's fiction in these terms doesn't quite capture what he really seems to be attempting in much of his most interesting work. In some ways to categorize Wallace as cerebral or to dwell on his intelligence (which many reviewers and readers seem to find intimidating) is to assign him a convenient and even ultimately condescending label--the brainy writer--and to overlook his actual, if somewhat off-centered, achievement as a writer of fiction.
In my view, Wallace's real subject is language, but not just language as the medium in which writers create stories, not just style, and not exactly the "failures of language," as Freeman has it, although ultimately language can only fail to communicate fully or to cohere into an entirely satisfactory aesthetic rendering of the world. What Wallace's stories try to do is to inhabit the consciousness of the characters they feature, but this can only be done by inhabiting the language-world of these characters, a world itself evoked by the very language they habitually use in confronting it and only through which can they perceive it to be comprehensible at all. His stories are composed of the stream of words by which his characters construct a manageable account of the reality they negotiate--although in most cases these characters do not literally speak in their own voice, tell their own stories.
Thus the beginning of "The Depressed Person," the best story in Wallace's previous collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men:
The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.
Despairing, then, of describing the emotional pain or expressing its utterness to those around her, the depressed person instead described circumstances, both past and ongoing, which were somehow related to the pain, to its etiology and cause, hoping at least to be able to express to others something of the pain's context, its--as it were--shape and texture. The depressed person's parents, for example, who had divorced when she was a child, had used her as a pawn in the sick games they played. . . .
This is, of course, the sort of language, used to create a distinctive discourse of jargon words, filler phrases, and practiced rhetorical moves, by which we might expect a "depressed person" to negotiate the therapeutic world she lives in. Going back to Wallace's very first collection of stories, Girl With Curious Hair, something similar is being done with characters like the Account Representative and the Vice President in Charge of Overseas Production in "Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR":
There were between these last two executives to leave the Building the sorts of similarities enjoyed by parallel lines. Each man, leaving, balanced his weight against that of a heavily slender briefcase. Monograms and company logos flanked handles of leathered metal, which each man held. Each man, on his separate empty floor, moved down white-lit halls over whispering and mealy and monochromatic carpet toward elevators that each sat open-mouthed and mute in its shaft along one of the large Building's two accessible sides. . .
Particularly the divorced Account Representative, who remarked, silently, alone, as his elevator dropped toward the Executive Garage, that, at a certain unnoticed by never unheeded point in every corporate evening he worked, it became Time to Leave; that this point in the overtime night was a fulcrum on which things basic and unseen tilted, very slightly--a pivot in hours unaware--and that, in the period between this point and the fresh-suited working dawn, the very issue of the Building's ownership would become, quietly, in their absence, truly an issue, hung in air, unsettled.
The Account Representative hung in air, dropping on his elevator's wire. This again-single junior executive was spare, lithe, had about him an air of exteme economy, was young for an executive (almost literally a junior executive), was most at ease with those he countenanced at a distance of several feet, and had a professional manner, with respect to the accounts he represented for the firm, describable along a continuum from smoothly capable to cold. His elevator descended with a compact hum that was usually hard to hear.
Again, these characters and their actions are being described through the kind of no-nonsense, robotic language that would mirror the perceptions of characters who can be adequately identified as "Account Representative" and "Vice President of Overseas Production." Thus, readers of Wallace's fiction ought to be thoroughly prepared for the first story in his new book Oblivion, "Mister Squishy":
In an unconventional move, some of this quote unquote Full-Access background information re ingredients, production innovations, and even demotargeting was being relayed to the Focus Group by the facilitator, who used a Dry Erase marker to sketch a diagram of Mister Squishy's snack cake production sequence and the complete adjustments required by Felonies! at select points along the automated line. . . .
The Focus Group facilitator, trained by the requirements of what seemed to have turned out to be his profession to behave as though he were interacting in a lively and spontaneous way while actually remaining inwardly detached and almost clinically observant, possessed also a natural eye for behavioral details that could often reveal tiny gems of statistical relevance amid the rough law surfeit of random fact. Sometimes little things made a difference. The facilitator's name was Terry Schmidt and he was 34 years old, a Virgo. Eleven of the Focus Group's fourteen men wore wristwatches, of which roughly one-third were expensive and/or foreign.
The story is a kind of inventory of the observations and memories that roll through Terry Schmidt's mind as he "facilitates" his Focus Group, captured entirely in this kind of advertising/marketing-speak. What unites all of the passages I have quoted is that they reveal the extent to which we all inhabit such language-worlds, ways of thinking that determine our interactions with the "outside" world, except that, caught as we are in these linguistic and syntactical webs, there really is no outside. And what each of these slightly different webs have in common is that they blanch our words of most of their vigor, leaving only edgeless, etiolated husks. If there are overriding themes in Wallace's fiction, this portrayal of an exhausted language has to be one of them.
Ultimately, this does not seem to me a particularly "postmodern" technique, although Wallace is of course tagged with that label and does acknowledge the previous generation of posmodernists as inspiration. It is more an attempt to capture the Way Things Are, in other words a modified version of realism. (Although there is an undeniable accompanying emphasis on monitoring the way things are, as well.) The "stream of consciousness" method used by many of the most prominent modernist writers was itself a modification of realism, an attempt to get at what is most immediately "real" in human experience, consciousness itself. What Wallace is doing seems to me a further development of this kind of psychological realism, although he finds himself writing in an era when even human mental processes can't really be trusted as authentic, determined as they are by culture, by genetics, by forces beyond conscious human control. Wallace might be most usefully considered as a realist writer caught in a postmodern age in which "old-fashioned" realism has been discredited.
How then to tell stories when the language you must use is so thoroughly inflected by artificial discourses, however authentically you manage to portray the inauthentic? Of course, you really can't, except by simultaneously noting the way in which what you're doing is telling a story. Again Wallace could be said to be a writer of "metafiction," perhaps the original brand of postmodern fiction, but that his fiction is so often fiction about fiction-making is really a function of the essentially realist strategy I have described: since the artificial discourses permeating postmodern culture are themelves used to construct stories about the world, an unavoidable subject of Wallace"s fiction is going to be the ways in which these stories work. Thus in Oblivion, almost all the stories are in part about the fashioning of stories, two of them, "Another Pioneer" and "Good Old Neon" quite explicitly.
One could certainly have greater or lesser enthusiasm for an approach to fiction like the one employed by David Foster Wallace. I have considerable enthusiasm for it, but it does make for especially hit-or-miss results. In my view, in Oblivion "Another Pioneer," Incarnations of Burned Children," "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature," and "The Suffering Channel" are mostly misses, either because they don't add up to anything in particular or because they go on far too long in carrying out fairly obvious or simply uninteresting ideas. However, if Wallace's stories are to be assessed fairly, it has to be done by judging how well or how provocatively he accomplishes the aesthetic tasks they seem to be pursuing, how much he makes us believe that the kind of fiction he wants to write has produced genuinely engaging and artful works of fiction.
"Mr. Squishy" pays off its initial premise simply as a bravura performance that does make us believe in the portrayal of its protagonist's own feelings of being trapped inside a worldview he really no longer believes in. One even comes to have some sympathy for his plight, as it becomes ever clearer that he has gone as far in his chosen "profession" as he's likely to get, having accomplished little of value. "The Soul is Not a Smithy" succeeds in finding a fresh angle on a somewhat familiar story of sociopathic frustration turned deadly. (The story is narrated by a daydreamy student who tells us, ultimately, what happened on the day his substitute teacher ran amok.) The title story turns out to be a rather affecting account of a couple dealing with their own peculiar version of empty nest syndrome, although even here the story could be read as at least as much about the narrator's attempt to understand through recounting them his own ongoing experiences as best he can--or, as it turns out, perhaps his wife's attempt?
In my opinion, the best story in the book, perhaps one of the best things Wallace has yet written, is "Good Old Neon." In some ways the story brings together many of the concerns of the book as a whole (the existence of unexplained, and unexplainable, suffering, our fear of "oblivion" even as we rush headlong toward it), but ultimately it will stand alone as a compelling and provocative piece of fiction that successfully uses the presuppositions of metafiction to both create a worthy addition to the canon of such works but also to transcend the narrowly schematic uses to which those presuppositions are often put. At its core, "Good Old Neon" is indeed a story about a story, although we don't know that until its conclusion. We do then discover, however, that "Good Old Neon" has been an impersonation by "David Wallace" of one of the latter's high school classmates who died in a "fiery single-car accident he'd read about in 1991," an attempt by the fictionalized author of Oblivion to "imagine what all must have happened to lead up to" that crash, why someone "David Wallace had back then imagined as happy and unreflective and wholly unhaunted by voices telling him that there was something deeply wrong with him that wasn't wrong with anybody else and that he had to spend all his time and energy trying to figure out what to do and say in order to impersonate an even marginally normal or acceptable U.S. male" would drive into a bridge abutment.
It is a wholly convincing impersonation, and emotionally charged in a way we perhaps don't expect from David Foster Wallace. And it is precisely in the act of "baring the device"--the story self-reflexively disclosing that it is indeed a story--that "Good Old Neon" produces its greatest emotional effect. For in addition to the genuine human feeling for the distress of its imagined protagonist the story encourages in us, even more compelling is the revelation that it was some such feeling on its author's part that led "David Wallace" to write the story in the first place. Although Wallace has of course enjoyed his share of critical acclaim and a surprisingly wide readership for a body of work that presents its own share of "difficult" reading, he has also provoked some hostility among those put off by the surface mannerisms of his work. In not a few of the reviews of Oblivion can be detected a demand of sorts for more heart and less brainpower. But displays of emotion in themselves do not gain a writer much aside from cheap effects. It's the way emotion (or ideas or insights or anything else) gets embodied in felicitous forms and resourceful language that matters. Wallace's fiction contains plenty of emotion, it's just that he's a writer who's also always interested in the nature of the container.