Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Oblivion

Slowly, inexorably, I get closer and closer to starting Infinite Jest. I'm nervous about tackling such a huge and apparently difficult work without any lead-up to the work. Doing pre-reading is how I managed to finish Ulysses, by reading both Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. With David Foster Wallace, I feel compelled to read his first novel, a good amount of his short stories, and at least one book of his essays. I've already read Broom of the System (which I loved) and at least half of Girl With Curious Hair. Consider the Lobster is checked out from my library, so I have to wait. This brings me to Wallace's final collection of stories, Oblivion.


I've been told by a few learned readers of DFW that Oblivion is a good place to start before reading Infinite Jest. They say it tackles many of the same themes, uses many of the same techniques, but is far easier to read because of each story's relative brevity. I say relative, because in a 300 page short story collection, there are only 8 stories, one of which could conceivably count as a novella.

The stories are not just big in length, but in scope. They are filled to the brim with exhausting detail, detail that you wonder how much research DFW did before setting pen to paper. The very first story, "Mister Squishy" is typically Wallace-ian in its level of detail. The story is about a man leading a focus group to determine if a new snack food is worth putting on the shelves. Not only is there an exhausting level of detail about the main character, but also physical details of every member of the focus group. On top of that, there is a ton of math and statistics to pour over as the main character thinks about the science of focus groups. Plus, background information on how a company makes a snack, designs the package and logo for maximum profit, sells the product, and how they employ research firms to do focus groups. It's an extremely long piece, and it's told in a sort of nonlinear fashion. That is to say that the entire piece is told mostly in paragraphs spanning multiple pages with very little dialogue and sometimes, very little to connect each individual sentence together in this very long paragraph.

It's like reading an academic paper, which is surely one of DFW's aims. What is less obvious is what DFW is trying to get at with this story. Why did he write this? Was it merely an interest in the idea of the focus group, and how much science has been co-opted for the admittedly irrelevant realm of snack food? Was DFW just fascinated by what kind of a person would make his life revolve around products? Maybe it's none of these and maybe it's all of them. The best thing about "Mister Squishy" is how it resists so many things that we consider universal about short stories. There's no clear ending, no clear protagonist (there's a main character, but he's neither protagonist nor antagonist), there's a confusing section of first person narration which seems amazingly tangential, plus a plotline about a man scaling a skyscraper with a rifle that doesn't seem related at all. The paragraphs go on far too long, and even the footnotes are huge blocks of text. But all of these things, which a creative writing teacher would faint at, are part of the story's charm. It works, thanks to DFW's godlike lexicon and his seemingly endless store of knowledge.

Many critics complain that DFW is too smart for his own good, and his arrogance shines through inexorably. This doesn't bother me in the slightest. One of my favourite authors is Joyce, a man who said people could rebuild Dublin using a copy of Ulysses. The fact that DFW is truly a genius doesn't irritate me. It inspires me. His neverending conflict with fiction's form and content, his tenseness with philosophy and the world outside of academia. His constant desire to needle humanity, poke it and prod and turn it over, over and over again. These are the things that separate the writer from the rest of the pack. There is no one like DFW. He was a singular and unique voice that cannot be duplicated. His impact on literature will be felt for a long time.

This isn't to say that DFW is all intelligentsia. There is heart and humanity to these short stories, but you sort of have to look for it. In "The Soul Is Not a Smithy," easily the best story in the collection, DFW charts the psychological impact of a homicidal substitute teacher but through the gaze of a student daydreaming about another family and about his own lonely and depressed father. The form of the story is endlessly inventive and complicated, but the small details of the father make the story just soar. The story is told from the perspective of the student as an adult, with a marriage of his own, and he picks up all the memories of his father and sees them through a different perspective. The small images DFW uses to convey the father's vast emptiness are perfectly used.

Another highlight of the collection is "Good Old Neon". The narrator (one of the few first person narrators in the book) is a fraud, a man who can manipulate anybody and has made his life easier by manipulation and subtle coercion. However, he feels empty inside, constantly aware that he is a fraud and has no real personality. He ends up going to see a therapist, but wastes most of the time with trickery and subterfuge to gauge the therapist's intelligence. Until finally, the narrator relents, admits his phoniness. So begins an epic discussion of the logical problems brought up by such a paradox. How can you be a fraud all the time if for a moment you can admit to being a fraud?

The story is an exercise in logical arguments and feels like DFW just showing off. For most of the story. It's not until the end that you realize DFW is playing a different game. Like I said before, one of DFW's strengths is his constant toying with the short story's form. At the end of the story, the narrator is committing suicide, and has been relating the entire story during this one infinite moment (this idea that time is relative and that words cannot possibly do the trick that thoughts and emotions do echoes throughout the collection. For a man so adept with words, he certainly had a low opinion of them [see Broom of the System for more on that])**. We find out that the story is really just DFW seeing an obituary for a man he went to school with, and DFW wondered what happened in the man's head before he killed himself. What was the story? What happened to this seemingly successful and happy man that drove him to kill himself? The story is not just an exercise in form, but an exercise in understanding a human being fully and completely. Surely, a critic with more knowledge of DFW could make some sort of connection between the story's narrator's avowal of fraud and emptiness and DFW's constant fight with depression and medication and eventual suicide. I'm not going to do that - I don't know enough about either the story or DFW. All I can do is merely point out that there exists a connection.

"Good Old Neon" might be my personal favourite of all the stories, even thought I recognize that "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" is, in terms of technical merit, probably superior. "Good Old Neon" kind of resonates with me. As a writer myself, I also look at people and wonder what their story is; I imagine their lives in detail and try to make a short story or a novel out of it. It's my interest in the complexity of humanity that makes reading DFW so enjoyable, other than, of course, DFW's intellectual trickery and vast lexicon.

There's a line in "Good Old Neon" that pretty much sums up how I feel about DFW as a writer. The narrator learns how to play chess, but becomes discouraged when he realizes there are better chess players out there and no matter how hard he works, he'll always be good or adequate and never great. This is exactly how I feel about DFW. I know that I'm good or adequate, but writers like DFW make me feel like a child. His ability and his intelligence simply loom over mine.

I've written a lot on the technical aspects of Oblivion and some of the emotional aspects, but how did I feel about the book overall? Well I can't say it was as entertaining as Broom of the System. While his first novel seems inconsequential and slight and definitely guilty of "showing off" it was overall more enjoyable than this book. Oblivion was sometimes tiring. Two of the stories in particular were quite tiring: "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" and "Another Pioneer". The former is a quick four page story about a man's mother getting horrific plastic surgery. It's boring and uninteresting. The latter is a medium length story about a man overhearing a conversation between two men on a plane. The conversation, told in exceedingly unbelievable detail, concerns a parable or myth about a pre-writing tribe somewhere in the world who produce a genius child, and the inevitable cultural backlash against a preliterate tribe and this savant, who increasingly brings up philosophical matters. "Another Pioneer" is interesting in subject matter (and the link between author and subject fascinating) but it's altogether tedious. It's just too much: too much detail, too much confusion over form and too much philosophy.

Really, these are the only two stinkers in the whole bunch, and I use that term in an ironic way. Even the stories that aren't as good as still complex and have tons of depth to them. While DFW was never going to be Alice Munro, he was still able to contribute something important to the medium of short stories, even with the ones that aren't so great. Most of these stories are so big and so complex as to be almost "complete" in the way that big novels are.

Overall, I enjoyed Oblivion. I thought that most of the stories were fantastic, if tiring, and only a couple were sort of annoying. I was never bogged down by DFW's unique authorial voice or his tsunami of information that he provides, like it or not. Reading DFW pains me because I wonder how much grief and heartache he went through to produce these works of art. I know as well as anybody that the act of writing is not something a person chooses to do but something they feel must be done. It's like a piece of you that you must extract. I've no doubt DFW was tortured in the way most great artists are. I've no doubt Oblivion was published at great personal cost to the man, but of great benefit to literature.

**Look! I did two Wallace-ian tricks: the nested brackets, offering an aside, and I did a footnote. Of course, I'm not going to make a huge block of text, like DFW does. You know, now that we're discussing footnotes, I gotta say that I'm rather ambivalent about them. DFW uses them a lot and wants to disrupt the flow of the reader, and he succeeds, so I appreciate the technical use of them. However, as a reader who reads mostly for entertainment, I like to read to enjoy myself. When he breaks up my rhythm, then I'm thrown off. So like I say, wholly ambivalent. Thanks for reading this footnote.

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