Beyond the boundaries
David FOSTER WALLACE has earned a place as one of America’s most daring and talented young writers. His use of language is pyrotechnic, and he is impatient with traditional narrative forms. In his new collection, “Oblivion,” he is up to his customary tricks, but he has also plumbed a little deeper in matters of the heart.
Those who are familiar with Wallace’s inventive wordplay will not be disappointed. In “Another Pioneer,” a passenger on an airplane relates a conversation he overheard about a Third World village that has produced a gifted child able to answer any question put to him. In Wallace’s hands, the story itself is questioned: "[A]t certain points it became unclear what was part of the cycle’s narrative Ding an sich and what were the passenger’s own editorial interpolations and commentary....” Which, not incidentally, is a good way of describing Wallace’s writing.
“Good Old Neon” introduces us to a narrator named David Wallace, who is convinced he is a phony. He explains this to us after his death, or so he claims, leaving the reader unsure of his veracity. The title story is about a husband and wife arriving at a breaking point in their marriage because she claims his snoring keeps her awake at night, while he responds that he can’t even fall asleep because she continually accuses him of snoring. Finally, they check into a sleep clinic to learn the truth. What they discover astonishes the couple and the reader alike.
Of course, these being Wallace stories, such plot summaries are to some degree beside the point. There are stories within these stories, along with Wallace’s trademark footnotes, parenthetical comments and bracketed observations. His eye for cultural detail is ever sharp, his humor ever dry. “Gaultier slacks held their crease a great deal better if your hanger had clips and they could hang from the cuffs. The voluptuous humidity of the locker room was actually good for the tiny wrinkles that always accumulated through the morning,” the narrator of “The Suffering Channel” explains in an aside.
In a few places, Wallace leaves the reader more impressed with his intelligence than with the stories. But in “The Suffering Channel,” “Mister Squishy” and “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” Wallace transcends mere dazzling displays and explores human emotions with sensitivity. In the first two, Wallace does his usual number on our technocratic culture, where individuals end up speaking and thinking in technocratic terms, as their souls wither.
In “Mister Squishy,” for example, a Focus Group facilitator for an advertising firm oversees the testing of a new confection called Felonies! because of their sinful, high-calorie goodness. As members of the focus group stare at him with the “mildly sullen expressions of consumers who have never once questioned their entitlement to satisfaction or meaning,” he begins to wander beyond the boundaries of advertising jargon and acronyms into age-old human concerns. “Or maybe that even the mere possibility of expressing any of this childish heartbreak to someone else seemed impossible except in the context of the mystery of true marriage,” he suddenly thinks, breaking up his high-tech analysis. This conflict between marketing think and heartbreak begins to feel like a horse race, and the intensity of the contest is a testimony to Wallace’s magic.
Finally, “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” may well be a masterpiece. In it, the narrator reflects on a traumatic event that occurred in his fourth-grade classroom. The window through which he views this past event in his imagination happens to be the window he looked out of in the fourth grade, which was divided into rectangular vistas by protective wire mesh. As a boy, he would play certain scenes out in these rectangles, keeping tabs on happenings in his neighborhood, much as a movie director cutting and pasting clips.
The implication is that the world is limited by the ways in which we frame it, a take that is solidly within the postmodern paradigm Wallace works over so well. But as these scenes of terror and longing are replayed, an outer reality of flesh and blood seeps through the mesh configurations, and that reality makes powerful claims on us.
With “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” Wallace has shattered the myopia of theory and planted a flag on the surface of human terrain. The high stakes of life have supplanted postmodern playfulness, and in “Oblivion,” Wallace has laid down a marker that will be coveted by readers. *