I have not always been especially kind to the late David Foster Wallace in these metaphorical pages—I believe respect for the dead (and the living as well) requires both honesty and full disclosure—but those comments were always in regard to his non-fiction, and today we are dealing exclusively with his short fiction, of which I am a long-time fan. I’d read two of the pieces collected here before, the phenomenal “Mister Squishy” and “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” both in McSweeney’s.
The obvious place to start a discussion of Oblivion would be with “Mister Squishy,” as it is quite clearly a DFW signature piece, and overwhelmingly verbose and precise account of a seemingly innocent and quite banal but actually bizarre series of events. I won’t say any more about it, though, as Mr. Beattie has already covered it quite well. The other story in the collection that could be referred to, in an un-ironic way, as a tour de force, is the novella length piece that closes the collection, “The Suffering Channel.” So many things are going on at once in this story that it’s difficult to decide where to start. There’s a tremendous tension between the New York upper crust of “soft news” publishing and the working class state fair/arts and crafts circuit of small town Indiana. DFW satirizes both, but what makes the satire as effective as it is, isn’t that he exploits the differences between these two communities, but rather that he exploits their similarities. Both of these societies, who look at each other like aliens, have the nakedly ambitious dragging the insecure behind them, kicking and screaming. DFW also spends tremendous time on body consciousness in both communities (it exists, in the working class world, though it takes a markedly different form). Ultimately, though, as in his non-fiction, DFW’s egalitarian-seeming satire comes down on the side of the upper class. The Editorial Intern (not her name, but it’s how she’s mostly referred to) is as deeply insecure as Brint, the artist who sculpts his own shit while it’s still inside his bowels. But in addition, she’s beautiful, well-liked, exceptionally well-connected, kind, etc. She’s easily the most likeable character not only in the story, but in the entire book. Even some of the cattier editors and interns, despite their clique-ish sniping and superficial posturing are more attractive characters than any of the working class characters, who often come across as merely crass or disgusting. (The point of that overlong sentence being that, in DFW’s world, it seems that the rich are shallow but beautiful, while the poor are shallow and nasty; not very remarkable in itself, but he makes it entertaining.) Most of the emotional force of the piece comes from the sense of impending doom that looms over everyone who works for Style, the magazine at the centre of “The Suffering Channel.” The reason for the lingering scent of tragedy? The entire piece takes place in July of 2001. It hangs like a fog. Or like something else that hangs amorphous and all spread out. DFW almost kills it when he explicitly states that the beautiful Editorial Intern “had ten weeks to live” (p. 326). Overall, though, it’s really quite well put together.
Next up is Long Story Short, by Elyse Friedman.