Oblivion

Oblivion: stories is the latest short story collection by David Foster Wallace (DFW).

Now, to preface this, DFW is one of my favourite writers. I’ve enjoyed each and every one of his books (the sole exception being Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, which I blame more on me than him: I’m wretched at math, and couldn’t get past the explanation of the number line, which is one of those rather basic concepts from which all sorts of complexities build, and thus not understanding this foundation made it rather hard to follow anything else), and so was quite inclined to like this as well. Fortunately, he did not disapoint. If you’re looking for a brief summary review (I’ll leave any potential spoilers to the ‘more’ part), the best thing I can say about this book is that it made me want to write. Like no other author I read, DFW manages to re-instill a love of language (perhaps more accurately semantics) in me that inspires me to put pen to paper. Of course, I’ve no illusions I’m DFWesque, but just the exercise in playing with words. And really, I don’t think I could ask for any more in a writier.

This collection details some of perhaps the most depressing scenarios ever put into one collection. It’s almost a how-to of pointless suffering. But this isn’t new, of course, in DFW’s work. It seems a real meta-theme of his how modern humans generate their suffering by their detachment from the emotive world, the barriers of pretense, convention separating ourselves. In this collection, DFW uses an interesting device to re-inforce this separation, also giving him more opportunity to play with narrative trust: Most of the stories are relayed second-hand. There’s the narrator, but he’s telling the story that the original narrator told to him. Which allows the current narrator to intersperse various comments about the original narrator, which, in doing serves to humanize (and thus call into question) the original narrator, as well as expose the biases of the current narrator. So in a sense you’re reading a story told by two different, in someways competing, but neither completely trustable narrators. Which is really fun.

The second aspect, which is true for all of these stories, is they’re not satisfying. Each one opens and closes after & before the story starts & ends (respectively). They’re each slice-of-life stories, with us readers simply thrown into the mix to fend for ourselves as it were. This is ‘difficult’ literature, in the vein of Pynchon (to whom DFW is oft, and I think justly, compared), but still accessible. I would warn potential readers who like to be able to pick up a book, read it, then forget about it that this probably won’t be possible.

There is a third commonality between the stories: unfulfilled foreshadowing of doom. Throught each story, there are hints that sometime in the future, something horrendous will happen to the world or characters in the story. This impending doom is never revealed, although for each story, you get a fairly good idea of what said doom will entail. This goes hand-in-hand with unsatisfying endings, although like most good short stories (in my opnion, at least), this leaves the reader writing the continuation in their own heads afterwards.

The stories are quite strong, and be hard-pressed to pick a favourite, but “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”, a story of an arachnophilic parolee accompanying his plastic-surgery-disfigured mother (a permanent look of insane terror) on the bus. It’s just so classicly DFW. No, were I to complain about this collection, it would be that there’s no new ground tread here. He’s written all these stories before; we know the over-specific descriptions, the meta-fictional aspects, the exasperatingly distinctive voices, etc. It’s something like when an music artist has one last record in the contract with the label, and has nothing really new to say, so remixes old songs, or simply puts out another album that sounds the same, just to get the deal done. If the musician is good, the album is good, but it still lacks some sort of spark, which is true of this book. Still, a must for fans, and recommended for everyone else.