Gruesomely Potent

David Foster Wallace is perhaps now inevitable

Not that he can't work the short forms when he wants to. "Incarnations of Burned Children" is three pages long—and absolutely harrowing. Here, a father comes upon his diapered child screaming after a steaming pot of water overturned on him. While the mother stands frozen in fear, the father diligently douses the child with cool water ("he'd ceased to hear the high screams because to hear them would freeze him and make impossible what had to be done") and can't understand, as the cold dousing continues, why the child's screams continue unabated. Only minutes later does he discover that the child's diaper remains filled with the scalding water, that he's allowed the trembling child to boil in it. After stripping off the diaper, the parents whisk the baby to the hospital, and in an abrupt point-of-view shift to the child, we learn that "the child had learned to leave itself and watch the whole rest unfold from a point overhead, and whatever was lost never thenceforth mattered, and the child's body expanded and walked about and drew pay and lived its life untenanted, a things among things, its self's soul so much vapor aloft, falling as rain and then rising, the sun up and down like a yoyo."

This seems paradigmatic: Wallace's characters often suffer from irremediable childhood trauma and live their lives "untenanted" (powerful word), their souls dispersed into atmospheric vapors. They look at their own lives from "overhead"—abstracted, like the schoolboy in "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" who composes cartoons in his head in order to cope with the suicidal teacher at the front of his classroom. Or, like the suicidal narrator in the book's most moving, most revealing story, "Good Old Neon," think of themselves as false and clichťd characters from some TV rerun. (He begins his tale by announcing, "My whole life I've been a fraud," largely because, we learn later, "at an early age I'd somehow chosen to cast my lot with my life's drama's supposed audience instead of the drama itself.") For such characters, life is too painful, too distantly unreal, too fucking much: they don't want to be one of those on whom nothing is lost. But those are Wallace's characters; Wallace himself is another matter. As labyrinthine as postmodern life and consciousness are, he still takes up the challenge of the masters, and no matter how inadequate the language and the forms of fiction seem to be, he's still pressing with all his might, with all his marvelously marshaled gifts, to break through to new forms, to communicate "all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life." In the end, Oblivion is a cubistic meditation on time and death, on the revelations that live in the interstices of time and consciousness. It's a world Wallace has opened up to the rest of us, but like all great fiction, it comes to us not as novelty, but as something we've known, somehow, all along.

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace; Little, Brown & Co. Hardcover, 329 pages, $25.95.

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