In the stories that make up Oblivion, David Foster Wallace joins the rawest, most naked humanity with the infinite involutions of self-consciousness--a combination that is dazzlingly, uniquely his.
These are worlds undreamt of by any other mind. Only David Foster Wallace could convey a father's desperate loneliness by way of his son's daydreaming through a teacher's homicidal breakdown ("The Soul Is Not a Smithy"). Or could explore the deepest and most hilarious aspects of creativity by delineating the office politics surrounding a magazine profile of an artist who produces miniature sculptures in an anatomically inconceivable way ("The Suffering Channel"). Or capture the ache of love's breakdown in the painfully polite apologies of a man who believes his wife is hallucinating the sound of his snoring ("Oblivion").
Each of these stories is a complete world, as fully imagined as most entire novels, at once preposterously surreal and painfully immediate.
In his best work, Infinite Jest, Wallace leavened his smartest-boy-in-class style, perfected in his essays and short stories, with a stereoscopic reproduction of other voices. Wallace's trademark, however, is an officious specificity, typical of the Grade A student overreaching: shifting levels of microscopic detail and self-reflection. This collection of eight stories highlights both the power and the weakness of these idiosyncrasies. The best story in the book, "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature," assembles a typical Wallaceian absurdity: a paroled, autodidactic arachnophile accompanies his mother, the victim of plastic surgery malpractice ("the cosmetic surgeon botched it and did something to the musculature of her face which caused her to look insanely frightened at all times"), on a bus ride to a lawyer's office. "The Suffering Channel" moves from the grotesque to the gross-out, as a journalist for Style (a celebrity magazine) pursues a story about a man whose excrement comes out as sculpture. The title story, about a man and wife driven to visit a sleep clinic, is narrated by the husband, who soon reveals himself to be the tedious idiot his father-in-law takes him for. While this collection may please Wallace's most rabid fans, others will be disappointed that a writer of so much talent seems content, this time around, to retreat into a set of his most overused stylistic quirks.
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I pretty much love everything else I’ve read by DFW. But this book really shows how troubled Wallace was at this time in his career. It does nothing to disguise the ugliness that the author seemed to see all around him and transmogrify into fiction. His writing style is still signature-DFW, but the subject matter is just dark, pessimistic, and patently unattractive. If you enjoyed Infinite Jest (which you probably did if you finished it) it’s absolutely no guarantee you’ll like oblivion.