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FICTION

Stories well worth the work

Oblivion

By David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown, 329 pages, $35.95

Did you miss the shattering twistedness of his story collection Girl with Curious Hair? Are you one who shied from the forbiddingly gargantuan novel Infinite Jest? Did you not heed those emphatic friends-of-friends who swore on their lives and bibles and badges of geekdom that Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (stories) and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (essays and non-fiction) had redefined the meaning of funny and would alter the rhythmic peaks and troughs of your brain's electromagnetic output?

David Foster Wallace is back with another collection of stories, Oblivion. Wallace isn't so much a prose stylist as he is a prose gymnast. Or a prose gymnast gone spelunking; he visits the unlit corridors of human consciousness armed with a prodigious intelligence that he loves to prove to be all but useless.

The opening piece, Mister Squishy, set in high-altitude, glass-and-steel corporate America, watches a targeted focus group convened to assess the marketability of Mr. Squishy-brand Felonies: a new "high-concept chocolate-intensive" snack cake. Terry Schmidt, the focus group's facilitator, who "at night in his condominium sometimes without feeling as if he could help himself masturbated to thoughts of having moist slapping intercourse with Darlene Lilly on one of the ponderous laminate conference tables of the firms they conducted statistical market research for," is also unaware of a figure harbouring malign intentions and an M16, presently scaling the exterior wall of the tower in which the group is now convened.

There is a focus group saboteur (our narrator) seated at the table, outfitted with, among other things, an emetic prosthesis. Schmidt's higher-ups are hatching plans the upshot of which would be Schmidt's profession's obsolescence. He is at a point in his collapsed life where he regularly refers to his reflection as Mr. Squishy.

A high percentage of the sentences in this story are cast in the passive voice. The unmistakable sense, in the reader/consumer, of having been surveilled, then acted upon, eerily mirrors Schmidt's predicament. "This was all artful bullshit," is a sentence that appears near the end of Mr. Squishy, putatively referring to something a corporate higher-up was saying.

Another Pioneer is an overhearing of the recounting by the narrator to third parties of his having been told by the acquaintance of a friend of having overheard during a trans-Atlantic flight the narration of "the cycle's variant or parable or whatever you may adjudge it to be": a kind of Creation of Modernity myth. It is a truly hilarious parable with a parable within it, including a gloss on the function of the parable, concerning how far we've wandered from the Truth, and the impossibility of re-approaching it in a culture where knowledge is so rarefied, fractured and specialized.

In Good Old Neon, we're given the testimonial of a suicide speaking to us from beyond death, itemizing his life as an entirely fraudulent human being. He talks us through the excruciating final moments of his existence, then ends up imagining his high school classmate David Foster Wallace imagining the course of his (the fraud's) life and death literally in the blink of an eye. This risky bit of authorial presence not only worked, it made the top of my skull come off.

The effect of the best of these fictions is akin to the bewildering perceptual terror we experience upon waking from a particular kind of nightmare. Nightmares where there is, yes, some central tableau of such acute horror that we should, by rights, be bent over, catatonic and drooling. As we're living through those first waking moments, though, we feel certain it wasn't, in fact, the image of, say, the snarling hellhound with an infant's giggling face that is the real cause of our distress. No, that lingering awareness of a real and purely malignant force is inarguably linked to the ambient qualities of the nightmare. Perhaps the volume throughout was muffled, low or weirdly filtered. Perhaps the sky -- glimpsed peripherally -- was an indescribably synthetic, almondy colour, and somehow too high. Perhaps our feet were attached to their opposite ankles. Perhaps it was the urinal scent of steamed asparagus; the dilation of time, or the doubling of perspectives. You know what I mean. It's nearly impossible to talk about Wallace's fiction without flailing around trying to articulate even a sliver of the ineffable.

Be warned, Wallace's prose is not easy. Highly stylized, unapologetically intelligent, at times deliberately prolix and convoluted while voicing a protracted and painful hilarity; this writer seems to feel the triple-bind of self-awareness mixed with a commitment to exit the facile dead ends of irony more acutely than could possibly be good for his mental health. Wallace is a writer who still believes in asking readers to participate actively in the experience of literature, even when he's being aneurysm-inducingly funny. His body of work has pushed contemporary fiction beyond hyper-educated metafictional horseplay, and the stories that make up Oblivion again pay huge dividends.

If you like to read stories in which characters, at times of very dramatic crises, say to you straightfacedly, through the thin scrim of paper, in the comforting timbre of the capital-N Naturalist mode, things like "panic gripped my guts," or, "panic, like a fist, punched me in the lung," or, "now I'm feeling panic," don't bother with Oblivion. If, on the other hand, you enjoy experiencing the grey teeth of evolutionary malfeasance -- the bite that bestowed on us the big brain, and with it, self-awareness -- bother with Oblivion.

Contributing reviewer Ken Babstock is author of two collections of poems, Mean and Days into Flatspin, and poetry editor at House of Anansi Press.

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