I am with this post beginning what I hope will become a regular if occasional feature on this blog. I want to do more reviews of current books, but I really don't want to offer just my own single-perspective commentary. Instead, I've decided to ask another blogger or writer to write a parallel review, which I will post along with mine. The idea is to present two separate readings of the book chosen, readings which may or may not come to the same conclusions or focus on exactly the same issues. Readers can of course post their own comments on these reviews, and the final result could be a wide-ranging and, one could always hope, illuminating debate about the merits/demerits and implications of the book at hand.
For this initial experiment in dueling reviews, I have asked Tom Rakewell, of Rake's Progress, to join me in reviewing David Foster Wallace's Oblivion. Tom's review appears first. Mine follows immediately afterward. Thanks to Tom for helping me try out this idea.
By Tom Rakewell
To begin: I like David Foster Wallace’s writing in general, but I pretty much dread his short fiction. And further: I thought Brief Interviews With Hideous Men was an almost unmitigated disaster, to the point that thinking about reading Oblivion and having to say something bad about it made me feel a little nauseated. Then came the Michiko Kakutani review. Oboy. By this time I’d already agreed to make an ass of myself by appearing next to Mr. Dan Green in a critical forum and so was stuck. Ah, but never fear. Oblivion turned out to be a solid book. Not solid enough to convert the nonbelievers, perhaps, but full of the DFWian goodness that his readers and friends have come to expect over the course of a couple novels, two short story collections, a heaping helping of essays, and, of course, Mr. Wallace’s book-length forays into mathematics and politics (Up, Simba!, anyone?). In Oblivion, Wallace was even nice enough to leave behind some of his worst tendencies as captured in Brief Interviews—specifically, stories reading as if they had been conceived and cooked up in a laboratory, redolent of rubber tubing, acetone, and benzene.
And so I wrote a short and cautious “yes-but” review in the accepted book review boilerplate and then put it aside for a few days. At some point in that span, crippling anxiety and self-doubt took over, and I realized the review was very bad. Worse, it was incomplete, but I wasn’t sure why. Something about Oblivion bothered me. It wasn’t until I read Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster” in Gourmet that I saw what the problem was: I had/have some rather embarrassing and unfashionable moral qualms about the stories in Oblivion.
But let’s back up a bit, shall we? As I’ve detailed elsewhere, “Consider the Lobster” is, ostensibly, a fish-out-of-water exercise that in content and tone reminds one of Wallace’s earlier essay “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All.” In the latter, Wallace unleashes his powers of perception on the Illinois State Fair, going so far as to land in the ER as he tries to make nice with the natives at the Fair’s Dessert Competitions. “Getting Away” proceeds in more-or-less linear and expected fashion and ends on the lovely and enigmatic image of an East Coast Yuppie swinging in a massive arc high above the sticky carnival on something called the SKY COASTER. “Consider the Lobster,” however, is a good-natured description/indictment of the Maine Lobster Festival until about the halfway mark, at which point it delightfully and somewhat perversely morphs into an examination of the morality of killing, cooking, and eating lobster (and pretty much any other living thing). Characteristic angst aside, what struck me about the latter half of “Consider the Lobster” is the naked humanity therein—that is, Wallace asking a simple (and uncool) question of himself and us: How do I do what is right? (Or more simply: What to do?) Thus I realized that Oblivion suffers by avoiding this most simple and knotty of questions: What to do?
This is not to say that Oblivion is an immoral book, or even a bad one. It is, in my opinion, an unremittingly bleak book and nearly devoid of anything so banal as human tenderness. There are eight stories in the collection: five or six of them are lengthy (depending on your definition of lengthy), and length seems to serve Wallace best. Of these, “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” “Good Old Neon,” and “The Suffering Channel” stand out as the high points. They are horror stories of a sort, developing through aggregation, with the great gravitational force of Wallace’s smart, self-questioning, and digressive prose hoovering up shocking details and ultimately assembling them into messy puzzle box stories, overstuffed with clues and MacGuffins. If you like a tidy narrative topped off with a little epiphanic cherry on top, these stories are not for you.
In “Smithy,” two parallel stories—a terrifying mental breakdown of a substitute teacher in front of his 4th grade classroom and the gory, cartoonish story imagined by the narrator during same—give rise to yet another small horror: the narrator’s nightmares of the anonymity and boredom of “adult life” and his childhood ignorance of his father being enmeshed in this very anonymity and boredom. Wallace nicely evokes the tragedy of the father’s existence by describing the bench where he spent every weekday lunch break. The narrator admits the difficulty in:
…imagin[ing] what words he might have used to describe his job and the square and the two trees to my mother. I knew my father well enough to know it could not have been direct—I am certain he never sat down or lay beside her and spoke as such about lunch on the bench and the twin sickly trees that in the fall drew swarms of migrating starlings, appearing en masse more like bees than birds as they swarmed in and weighed down the elms’ or buckeyes’ limbs and filled the mind with sound before rising again in a great mass to spread and contract like a great flexing hand against the downtown sky.
This is an accomplished passage: empathic, lovely, and rare. Another fine moment comes in “Good Old Neon,” when Wallace rather deftly sneaks in the old pomo gambit of including himself as a character, entering in the guise of “Dave Wallace” to ponder the suicide of one of his high school’s golden boys, who turns out to be a tedious navel-gazer and self-diagnosed “fraud.” Wallace has covered this territory before—notably in “The Depressed Person”—but succeeds here with softer brushstrokes.
Other stories don’t hold up so well, however. “Mister Squishy” involves impending disasters and corporate double- and triple-crossings—every character is equally cutthroat and untrustworthy here—and it heartily appropriates advertising and business jargon to do so. At length. We know this jargon is bankrupt and often ironic, but the amusement wears off after the first ten pages and there are still fifty or so pages left.
The title story, “Oblivion,” suffers from the narrator’s annoying verbal tics:
And yet Hope has been wholly obdurate and unyielding on this point, insisting that it was I who was ‘the one who’s asleep,’ and that if I could or would not acknowledge this, my refusal to ‘trust’ her indicated that I must be ‘angry at [her]’ over something, or perhaps unconsciously wished to ‘hurt’ her, and that if anyone around here needed to ‘make an appointment’ it was myself, which according to Hope I would not hesitate to do if my respect and concern for her even slightly outweighed my own selfish insistence on being ‘right.”
and a “twist” ending that would make most soap opera fans blush. “Another Pioneer” is a parable-like tale that reads like an outtake from BIWHM’s “Octet.” “The Suffering Channel” moves along amiably enough, but nonetheless dogs this reader with the feeling that he’s reading an elaborate poop joke disguised as a mystery story.
This leaves the collection’s two short pieces. “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” is a humble grotesque that gamely tackles spider husbandry, botched plastic surgery, sociopathy, and the politics of riding the bus. The two-and-a-half page “Incarnations of Burned Children” has garnered some high praise in critical circles, although it’s hard to pinpoint why. Wallace abandons his usual style and tells the tale in a single telegraphic and breathless paragraph, appropriate to the panic of the young mother and father who tend to their scalded infant. There’s a trick of sorts coming, but this time it’s on the characters, who, just when they seem out of the woods, make a horrible discovery—Wallace deftly drops in a variation of an old chestnut (“If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child.”) and ratchets up the tension with a description of the poor, burned infant that is almost unbearable. Wallace might well have left it there—unfortunately, he adds on a fuzzy coda of sorts, employing pretty but empty prose that lessens the story’s visceral impact:
… when it wouldn't stop and they couldn't make it the child had learned to leave himself and watch the whole rest unfold from a point overhead, and whatever was lost never thenceforth mattered, and the child's body expanded and walked about and drew pay and lived its life untenanted, a thing among things, its self's soul so much vapor aloft, falling as rain and then rising, the sun up and down like a yoyo.
This sounds nice but comes apart like wet sand in one’s hands upon further scrutiny; transcendence is simply not earned through this kind of writing.
Despite their shortcomings, these are, on the whole, solid stories, and even the worst of them (“Mister Squishy,” I’d submit) has its rewards. If so—you might be asking—what is the real problem here? Well, for me, it centers on an exchange in a DFW interview from 1993—specifically, a section where Wallace addresses (among other things) Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho:
DFW: …I often think I can see it in myself and in other young writers, this desperate desire to please coupled with a kind of hostility to the reader.
LM: In your own case, how does this hostility manifest itself?
DFW: Oh, not always, but sometimes in the form of sentences that are syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis's "American Psycho": it panders shamelessly to the audience's sadism for a while, but by the end it's clear that the sadism's real object is the reader herself.
LM: But at least in the case of "American Psycho" I felt there was something more than just this desire to inflict pain—or that Ellis was being cruel the way you said serious artists need to be willing to be.
DFW: You're just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing. I think it's a kind of black cynicism about today's world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what's always distinguished bad writing--flat characters, a narrative world that's cliched and not recognizably human, etc.--is also a description of today's world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we'd probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it'd find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend "Psycho" as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it's no more than that.
LM: Are you saying that writers of your generation have an obligation not only to depict our condition but also to provide the solutions to these things?
DFW: I don't think I'm talking about conventionally political or social action-type solutions. That's not what fiction's about. Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being.
In short, what bothers me is that the stories composing Oblivion—although they satisfy on a certain level and are good enough at what they set out to do—seem less about “what it is to be a fucking human being” and more about “dramatiz[ing] how dark and stupid everything is.” That “Consider the Lobster” is happily concerned with the former only drives home the point that Wallace can do more, and has—recently, too. The whole issue puts me in mind of John Gardner’s criticism of Donald Barthelme in “On Moral Fiction.” According to Gardner, Barthelme:
knows what is wrong, but he has no clear image of, or interest in, how things ought to be…[his] diagnosis of the evils of the age can be amusing, and perhaps, for some readers, moving. On occasion he celebrates a real human value, such as stubbornness, or touches on our tragic vulnerability, as in “Sentence.” The world would be a duller place without him, as it would be without F.A.O. Schwartz. But no one would accuse him of creating what Tolstoy called “religious art.” His world is not one of important values but only values mislaid, emotions comically mislaid or sadly unrealized, a burden of mysteries no one has the energy to solve.
Now, this is pretty withering criticism, and I’m going on record with (1) my disagreement, at least as far as the most Barthelme is concerned; and (2) my reluctance to join Gardner on this crusade for “moral fiction” and/or “religious art.” Yet, it strikes me that when writers like Donald Barthelme (and Wallace) fail, they fail much as Gardner describes, erring on the side of coldness and anthropologic satire. In other words, they write stories that you can respect, but never love. (Don B. seems to agree. When an interviewer once asked him “What’s your greatest weakness as a writer?” Barthelme replied: “That I don’t offer enough emotion. That’s one of the things people come to fiction for, and they’re not wrong. I mean emotion of the better class, hard to come by.”) Further, it strikes me that in Oblivion Wallace struggles when it comes to following his own rubric—under which “good art” is “art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” Oblivion’s stories do have “as dark a worldview as [they] wis[h],” which Wallace clearly carves out a space for; they do not, in my view, “illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human.” The child in “Incarnations” might have to “liv[e] its life untenanted” (“its”!?), but that hardly helps us. No doubt this is a tough standard for a writer to live up to, and I would not expect Wallace to listen to you or me when we suggest ways of meeting it. Nonetheless, I wonder: Is it too much to ask that he simply listen to himself? That he follow his own example?
But let’s get to the point: Should you read David Foster Wallace’s new story collection, Oblivion? Yes, I think you should. Wallace is frustrating at times, and I’m contending that here, in Oblivion, he frustrates by focusing so intently on the dark and stupid that he all but denies the existence of the human and magical. But I’d also like to contend that Wallace is funny, smart, and—deep down—considerate of the reader’s precious (good) time. He has, as had D. Barthelme, “a sharp eye for modern man’s doubts and anxieties, free-floating guilt, politics, manners, turns of speech.” (That’s Gardner, again.) Wallace can drive you to throw a book across the room but offer enough to make you pick it back up again. And I hope you will at least pick this one up.
I’d also like you to join me in hoping that Wallace, in his next book, offers more illumination, more possibilities, more of that “emotion of the better class.” That the simple humaneness and poignancy found in his best essays and in the high points of Infinite Jest bleed over into his short fiction a little more, giving Mr. Wallace the ability to begin mending hearts just as he breaks them. He’s more than capable, and we as readers require nothing less.
The Nature of the Container
By Daniel Green
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.