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Book Reviews Tuesday, June 15, 2004
Irony and heart
Literature�s infinite jester finds a new direction in old-fashioned naked emotion

David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace (Photo by Nancy Crampton)
Jun 13, 2004

Top Stories

June 13, 2004

OBLIVION, by David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown, 329 pp., $25.95.
It would be best to state right and first off that David Foster Wallace's new collection of stories is very, very good. Already you might find a whiff of faint praise here, which is often the damnation that happens to writers like Wallace, who keep on producing works of sheer merit without any sizable falter. Most of these canonized writers end up retackling similar themes, and as the books endure, these themes define their time. Then time passes.

In 1996, "Infinite Jest" rocketshipped Wallace out of the cultish ghetto into every thoughtful reader's hands, and rightfully so; the book is a wonder in every sense of the word, achieving everything a novel ought to achieve, as well as three or four more things nobody'd thought of yet. His work since then has been equally terrific: "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men" is one of the greatest short-story collections we've got; "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" gathered his journalism in all of its hilarious clarity; and "Everything and More," a short history of infinity, has all the grace of pure mathematics without the parts that make me want to bang my head against the wall.

But what once was startling about the voice behind "Infinite Jest" now reads simply like the work of David Foster Wallace. Some of his themes seem dated -- you know, like the work of John Cheever is dated, or Nabokov or Homer. "Infinite Jest" first put into concise form -- all 1,079 pages of it -- the numb despair of late capitalism's unrelenting sales pitch, with a reducto-ad-absurdum irony that re-created the culture it was skewering. Nowadays, you can get that from any Radiohead song. The world's caught up to David Foster Wallace, which is bad news for the world, since its citizens might read less of him.

"Oblivion" contains stories that are utterly unprecedented, even if they are unprecedented according to the precedent Wallace has established: The slippery nature of art, the excesses of celebrity culture and the geeky and often shadowy science lurking behind bland consumer product are all familiar stomping grounds. "Mister Squishy" concerns a focus group giving opinions on a brand of snack cakes called "Felonies! -- a risky and multivalent trade name meant both to connote and to parody the modern health-conscious consumer's sense of vice/indulgence/transgression/sin vis � vis the consumption of a high-calorie corporate snack." The group has been infiltrated by biological terrorists whose attention to detail is eerily similar to the Felonious moguls. "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" sees an act of schoolroom malevolence through the refracted lens of overanalyzed memory.

"Another Pioneer" retells an overheard airplane conversation concerning a controversy in an unnamed Third World country, while "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" and the title story explore the slippery sciences of (respectively) plastic surgery and sleep disorders, each viewed through domestic squabbling.

"The Suffering Channel," the 100-page story that ends the collection, finds a visual artist whose media and methods cannot be mentioned in a family newspaper, who becomes the latest attraction on a burgeoning cable channel: "At first it's just montages of well-known photos involving anguish or pain: a caved-in Jackie next to LBJ as he's sworn in on the plane, that agonized Viet Cong with the pistol to his head, the naked kids running from napalm. There's something about seeing them one right after another. ... A loop of 1,200 of these, four seconds per, running 5 p.m.-1 a.m. EST; no sound; no evident ads."

This may be the opposite of infinite jest, but it's not the opposite of "Infinite Jest," which imagined a movie so fascinating that viewers reached a comatose state of infantile pleasure. Still, however well-proven the thematic anchors, Wallace's prose strengths are here in spades. The red-herring use of specific detail ("The facilitator's name was Terry Schmidt and he was 34 years old, a Virgo") turns unexpectedly sinister ("The executive intern never brushed her hair after a shower. ... She had 10 weeks to live") and the dictionarial precision (a "remarkable but statistically meaningless coincidence") slips into absurdist metaphor ("The mental image Scott Laleman associated with Alan Britton was of an enormous Macadamia nut with a tiny little face painted on it"). I laughed out loud reading this book.

But there's something less immediate about Wallace's tone nowadays. A narrator refers to "The Bride of Frankenstein" as a "1935 classic of the studio system," and it's that "studio system" that feels a step behind. In 1996, the year "Infinite Jest" was published, calling attention to the corporate ghosts behind the celluloid ghosts was smart; now it's snarky. Some of the longer brand-name digressions read less like Joyce and more like John Dos Passos' "USA," a brilliant trilogy that tends to stay on the shelf. One would hate to think of that happening to David Foster Wallace.

The best of "Oblivion," however, puts such worries to rest in a surprisingly conservative way: through old-fashioned, direct emotional contact. "Good Old Neon" begins, "My whole life I've been a fraud," which feels like Updike, and leads us through a thoughtful, quiet biography of loneliness and emotional dishonesty, leading us steadily to a firestorm. The sudden intrusion of a character named David Wallace feels like an old-fashioned touch, and it works: The fraud is suddenly connected to another human being. The story is Wallace's first weeper, and not an "alone in a hotel room at midnight with too many cable channels" weeper, but something as desperately heartfelt as Alice Munro. Without sacrificing any flourishes, "Good Old Neon" moves past the horror of a fact-smothered world to the horror of leaving such a world -- just the tonic for an age in which irony is eternally assumed.

The other departure is "Incarnations of Burned Children," a brief, raw moment of danger that finds a center of gravity in a statement that feels like E.B. White: "If you've never wept and want to, have a child." Nowadays, such a sentence is 10 times riskier than using terrorism as a comedic device, particularly for Wallace, whose tone rarely allows for such naked sentiments. "Good Old Neon" and "Incarnations of Burned Children" end up feeling more visionary than the rest of the collection, an encouraging sign from a writer too skilled to let himself collect dust. He's shifting, just like the world, and we're all the richer for it: Only David Foster Wallace is keen enough to become the next David Foster Wallace.

Daniel Handler's 12th book as Lemony Snicket, "The Grim Grotto," will be out in the fall.

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc. |  Article licensing and reprint options


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