"Try to be one of those," Henry James counseled fiction writers back in 1884, "on whom nothing is lost." For James, "humanity is immense, and reality has a myriad forms," and for a writer to represent them in art, his mind has to be an "immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider web of the finest silken threads . . . catching every airborne particle in its tissue." Three decades later, Virginia Woolf said that the task of the novelist is to convey life's "luminous halo, [the] semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." Amazing: a century ago, writers still talked like this, with the brazen confidence that, with the proper aesthetic/religious application, writers could still—and let's throw in D.H. Lawrence to wrap things up—"get the whole hog . . . be the bright book of life."
Compare such confidence, now, with the following (I know, long) passage from Oblivion, David Foster Wallace's new book of short fictions: "Many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person's life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn't even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second's flash of thoughts and connections, etc.—and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we're thinking and to find out what they're thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it's a charade and they're just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant."
Next to the oracular high moderns, Wallace sounds like a dithering kid (e.g., "English we all communicate with each other with"), overwhelmed with the immensity around him rather than confident that he can find a companionable form to capture it all. But this dithering quality of his (of his narrators, to be precise), his nervous obsessive urge to fill space with enough chaotically charged language to get across a sense of the sublime limitlessness of experience, is one of the things that makes it pertinent to compare Wallace to past heavyweights. His style, simultaneously pop and avant-garde, as aggressive in its display of "knowledge" (bureaucratic, scientific, literary) as it is diffident in its latchkey-kid emotional vulnerability, is characterized by an "all-over" scattershot spray of seemingly random detail that accrete like Pollock's paint whippings across canvas into blazingly original creations. And his vision: it's large, ladies and gentlemen, head-swimmingly complex, brutal in its evocation of the way postmodern economic, bureaucratic and discourse systems put us all in soul-murdering double binds, but also tender in the way an ingenuous American innocence comically struggles against them. He provides as much of a shock of recognition to his readers, I imagine, as The Sun Also Rises did in the '20s or Heller's Catch-22 in the '60s.
There are plenty of strong young American writers who've emerged since the 1980s—this is a good time to care about contemporary literature—but for a lot of us, there's nobody who quite gets across the feeling of being alive and conscious in this new millennium, whose spider web captures quite as many airborne particles (so many of them now toxic), as David Foster Wallace.
Five of Oblivion's eight fictions are novella-length; rather than "develop" in terms of plot or character, though, they metastasize, and against their crazed growth Wallace provides little narrative resistance. The opening story, "Mr. Squishy," starts out as a satire on consumerism—it's about a focus group testing a new Ding-Dong-like snack cake—but before Wallace is done, we're given a densely researched parody of American statistical marketing and of corporate politics; a picture of the atmosphere of corporate offices that is etched with hallucinogenic clarity; and a portrait of the terrifyingly private despair of one character, the Focus Group Coordinator, that is all the more hopeless for the cheery capitalist ethos that hems him in. Though Wallace has reined in his notorious use of footnotes, his 500-word sentences still abound, and he can only contain the metastasis of the story by a fancy bit of narrative corralling at the end.
Though this collection doesn't entertain with quite the antic gusto that Wallace's work usually does—"The Good Old Neon" makes it clear that Wallace is dealing with his problematic need to impress his reader and isn't spinning cartwheels in fear of losing him—the last novella, "The Suffering Channel," is the most casual, least prohibitive story he's written in years. It starts out about a People-magazine-like reporter who's eager to write up the story of a Midwestern man's ability to create wholly formed works of art out of his feces. Now, we're not talking about a man who shits and then forms, but about a guy who evacuates fully formed works of art, detailed poop sculptures of, say, Marilyn Monroe iconically holding her skirts down over that subway grate. Hilarious possibilities here, wondrously exploited (including the, I think, sub rosa suspicion on Wallace's part that his own writing is "shit" that comes out logorrheacally). But Wallace lets the story take its own damn course, and so we're treated to a beautifully extended and entertaining representation of the world of girl interns working for New York pop magazines, as well as the gruesomely potent (and perhaps now inevitable) idea of a cable network called the Suffering Channel, which offers up 24/7 reality TV at its most intense: hospital security video of mothers sitting by children afflicted by late-stage cancer, video of tortured political prisoners, "50-year-old male coming abruptly awake on table during abdominal surgery," etc.
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 clichd 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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