August 2004

Adrienne Martini

fiction

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

As elitist and lit-snobbishy as this sounds, my favorite book ever -- the tome I would choose if I had some advanced warning that I would be stranded on a deserted isle -- is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Not only would the words easily keep me amused for however many years it would take for rescue to arrive, its 1000-page-plus paperback edition would also be mighty handy during my everyday island chores. Jest’s heft could easily crack a hairy coconut. It could be a fine step-stool to help me reach tantalizing bananas. Its depth could stop a bullet, should Nazis invade my island and try to take it from me. Handy book, that Jest.

While I’m in a confessional mode, I need to mention that I’ve read Infinite Jest twice. And, should time and endurance ever allow, I’ll probably read it at least once more. It keeps evolving, Jest does. The second time through was a completely different experience than the first time. Both reads were good, granted, but different. (A parenthetical: Lest you think that I’ll only read high-toned lit-ra-ture, here I must mention that I recently read smatterings of Harry Turtledove’s Conan of Venarium, which some helpful person at Tor mailed to me. It’s not bad, all things considered. And there are lots of fights and burly men. I wouldn’t read it again, but it was fun while it lasted.)

This may be one of the core questions in what makes any given work great -- does it create a strong desire to reread it. Recently in the Washington Post, the astute Michael Dirda commented on this phenomenon:

"A true literary work makes us see the world or ourselves in a new way. Most writers accomplish this through an imaginative and original use of language, which is why literature has been defined as writing that needs to be read twice. Great books tend to feel strange. They leave us uncomfortable. They make us turn their pages slowly."

It’s a definition that fits Infinite Jest. It also neatly fits Wallace’s latest, a collection of eight short (for Wallace, at least) stories called Oblivion. I’d read quite a few of these pieces when they first came out. Here, though, the second time through, they suddenly made a different sort of sense. And, I suspect, if I pick up this collection in five years, they’ll be different again.

Which isn’t to say that they’ll be any easier to read. Wallace’s prose has never been effortless for the reader. You have to ferret the meal of the story from beneath a silo full of words. There are sentences, like one in "Good Old Neon," that literally runs the whole page and requires careful attention in order to find its point. But once you do, the impact is like a boot to the head, but in an enlightening way.

There are other boots, like "Incarnations of Burned Children," which is almost impossible to read if you have a child. It’s a credit to Wallace’s immense talent that this 4-page story drags up the stuff of parents’ nightmares -- but the acknowledgment of the accomplishment doesn’t make it any easier to read. Same goes for "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature," an equally brief tale about a bus trip that leaves the reader feeling as if tiny little spider legs have been crawling around on your limbs, ready to bite.

The true stand-outs, however, are "The Soul is Not a Smithy" and "The Suffering Channel." "Smithy" is nominally about a teacher who goes mad in front of the classroom; "Suffering" concerns a magazine writer covering a midwestern artist who sculpts great works out of his own shit. But underneath these details -- and there are a lot of details here -- are stories that seem to be trying to define what it means to be an American. One indirectly incorporates the bombing of the World Trade Centers. The other hints at the cultural unrest that followed the Korean war. Each is equal parts foreboding and funny, grasping hysterically through the darkness in the hopes of discovering some universal truth.

My only Foster Wallace-ian complaint is how his stories end, which they don’t do so much as simply stop. I’m sure their abruptness is all part of some larger scheme, but, personally, I’d like more closure. That may stem more from a need to feel like these are finished tales, rather than those whose deeper rhythms are still shifting, both in my mind and in my culture’s heart.

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown
ISBN: 0316919810
336 Pages