Kiki Benzon on narrative ecology and the “fradulence paradox” of Oblivion.
Mister Squishy, c'est moi: David Foster Wallace's Oblivion
Mister Squishy, c'est moi: David Foster Wallace's Oblivion
Emancipation is not a term I much like to use. Too loaded with foggy connotations of even foggier, poorly-defined “breaks” from (nonspecific) (nebulous? well, at least, invariably, nefarious) regimes or states of being. See: the imprecision is infectious. But upon reading David Foster Wallace’s latest short story collection, Oblivion (out this June in the U.S. and early July here in the U.K.), the term seemed somehow right. Though only two of the volume’s eight stories are, strictly speaking, “new” fictional offerings (the first six have appeared in journals from AGNI to Esquire), Oblivion is shot through with a largely consistent set of themes and arguments, rendering the work Wallace’s most penetrating, disquieting and altogether kick-ass compilation to date. Operating in a world where life and commercial narratives have become virtually indistinguishable, Wallace’s characters appear to us at points of solemn epiphany, ardent self-delusion, existential collapse and grotesque narcissism. There is the marketing Focus Group facilitator, Terry Schmidt, who “behave[s] as though he were interacting in a lively and spontaneous way while actually remaining inwardly detached and almost clinically observant” (9); there is Randall Napier, a frazzled yuppie, persecuted by allegations of snoring by his disconsolate wife and plagued by hallucinations involving “an endlessly ringing and unanswered public telephone” (194); and there’s the Style reporter, Skip Atwater, producing an article about a defecation “artist,” whose ambivalent state, Skip is convinced, comes “very close to the core of the American experience” (283). As in his preceding collection, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (1999), and his massive, polyphonic novel Infinite Jest (1996), Wallace represents basic human fears of mediocrity, unknowability and insignificance with uncanny perspicacity and linguistic cunning. What distinguishes Oblivion is its pervasive (often deeply encoded, implicit) didacticism - another dubious word, especially nowadays, but bear with me - about how fundamental ontological puzzles may be made less crippling, less horrible for those who would (as many of his characters do) rage against or succumb to or remain improbably ignorant of what one moribund character calls “the fraudulence paradox” (147). Life is fake and empty, but we go on living it as if it weren’t. It’s not the case, Wallace’s tales suggest, that one can be “emancipated” from the paradox, but rather that an individual may exist in spite of it - and exist, perhaps, with a modicum of happiness. Dare I say authenticity? Better not. And enough already with the regrettable terms.
If there is light at the end of so many tunnels of self-loathing and alienation in Oblivion, it’s not detectable without a measure of eyestrain. In “Mister Squishy,” for example, we are led through the proceedings of a “third-phase” target demographic group seminar at Reesemeyer Shannon Belt Advertising, where the commercial valences of a new Mister Squishy snack called Felonies! ® are being strategically assessed. Not only do the baroque, methodical assessments turn out to be (in terms of their empirical validity) bogus of the highest order, but also the conveners and test subjects (all, here, male) are portrayed as little more than walking aggregates of the various brands and products they consume or propagate; people are interpreted in exclusively “demographically meaningful” terms like age, race and haircut: Schmidt’s “own face and the plump and wholly innocuous icon’s [i.e. Mister Squishy’s] face tended to bleed in his mind into one face, crude and line-drawn” (34); his subjects’ faces “were well-nourished, mid- to upscale, neutral, provisionally attentive, the blood-fed minds behind them occupied with their own owner’s lives, jobs, problems, plans, desires, &c” (17). Marketing is pseudoscience, the story suggests, for pseudo-human beings; social-psychology, however bastardized here, is a means to sell stuff and make money. But while the scenario appears nauseatingly total and hermetic - a perfectly self-perpetuating capitalist fractal - subversive elements begin to puncture the façade: a spy/saboteur infiltrates the focus group, Schmidt cultures Ricin in his apartment, and a terrorist-and/or-performance artist figure with inflatable appendages and suction cups scales the R.S.B building. The perimeter of the ostensibly closed and contained marketing research space is eroding - via rather sinister forces, true, but eroding nonetheless.
Wallace is especially skilled at depicting a gnawing sense of personal futility - both in terms of its cultural sources and psychological expression - but in Oblivion he seems to be ultimately concerned with the way in which this (to varying degrees, universal) problem is handled by those who confront it. The clinically phony Schmidt yearns to “[pour] out the most ghastly fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible thoroughgoing smallness ” but is rendered inert and cynical by the “grinding professional machine you can’t believe you once had the temerity to think you could change” (31-2). Rather than acting upon his attraction to a certain colleague Darlene Lilley - an attraction which would take but “one moment of the courage to look prurient or creepy” (33) to test its mutuality - Schmidt sublimates his desires by watching satellite television, collecting rare coins, and cultivating lethal toxins in his home laboratory (which, we are given to understand, is part of a campaign to poison Felonies! snacks and thus undermine the marketing regime Schmidt professionally perpetuates and personally loathes). Schmidt’s grave sense of purposelessness is matched by the narrator in “Good Old Neon,” Neal, who always had “an almost neon aura around him all the time of scholastic and athletic excellence and popularity and success with the ladies” and seemed “impressively and authentically at ease in the world” (180), but feels his life has been an obscene and irreversible hoax. Neal finally resorts to suicide as a means of escaping his incapacitating sense of fraudulence and the reality of inexorable, private “infinities you can never show another soul” (179).
Though Wallace’s renderings of psychic tumult are enough to make any homo sapiens shudder in grim soul-exposure (like, to be understood is to be found out), his stories are not simply overdeveloped anatomies of overdeveloped egos or, what Michiko Kakutani calls in her recent review of Oblivion, “claustrophobic portraits of self-pitying, self-absorbed individuals who are endlessly long-winded.” To receive them as such would be to miss the point of Wallace’s writing. Yes, pages of waffling and ennui number many in this collection - but they need to in order fully characterize the traps in which some people find themselves. And one of these traps is over-analysis itself. Near the end of the forty-some page confessional “Good Old Neon,” for example, the narrative perspective imperceptibly morphs from the disaffected Neal to a “David Wallace” who flips though his high school yearbook and tries to “imagine what all might have happened to lead up to my [i.e. Neal’s] death in the fiery single-car accident he’d [i.e. David Wallace’s] read about” (180). The bottom line, for the reflecting former schoolmate, is a hard and non-indulgent one. Troubled by those unshowable infinities?: “Of course you’re a fraud, of course what people see is never you” (179). Already snuffed your fake, egocentric self?: “[I]t wouldn’t have made you a fraud to change your mind. It would be sad to do it because you think you somehow have to” (180). “The cliché that you can never truly know what’s going on inside somebody else is hoary and insipid,” maybe, but this “David Wallace” entreats you to not “[mock] the attempt” (181). After so much parody, ironicism and “look mom, no hands!”ism in contemporary writing, Wallace’s (dare I say it) sentimentalism here is, for this reader at least, a breath of fresh fictional air. And it is on this count that Oblivion surpasses Hideous Men, a work which, though its psychological portraiture is gob-smackingly on, leaves its characters pretty much to their hideous selves without any sense that these selves could ever be other than what they are. It would appear, then, that the literary imperatives Wallace put forward in a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery - that unlike postmodernist “image-fiction” (167) and the self-conscious writing of Pynchon-clone “crank-turners,” new writing should reflect “real aspects of real experiences” (140) - have come to some fruition Oblivion.
The upfront treatment of Neal’s mind-forged manacles comes as a sobering jolt in “Good Old Neon,” but possibilities for emancipation from inertia and systematic embitterment are advanced in other stories, more covertly, on the level of narrative structure. No stranger to the unresolved and the nonlinear (as evinced by his psychological snippets in Hideous Men and Girl with Curious Hair (1989) and the spiraling Infinite Jest) [ link to Piotr Siemion’s review of Infinite Jest in ebr -eds.], Wallace exploits the alienating (read: critically rousing) effects of disrupted or convoluted (or altogether absent) plotlines. Denying the reader the anesthetic of causal, sequential stories, Wallace’s fiction has been (notoriously) replete with protracted digressions, foot/endnote feedback loops, baffling truncations and thornily difficult language. In Oblivion, Wallace takes these antics down a notch or two, employing a smaller range of verbal stunts - a diminution which helps to curb the sprezzatura -on-speed-osity that makes some of his earlier work come across more like an episode of Prodigy Showcase (a program that doesn’t exist - but could) (should?) than serious fiction. One tactic that stands out in the current collection is the complex intermeshing of narrative threads. In “The Soul is not a Smithy,” for example, a man relates how, as a slow-learning child in the midst of an elaborate daydream, he witnessed a teacher’s psychotic break and killing by the police. The daydream is catalyzed by things the child peripherally sees through the classroom window and achieves a kind of structural order from the window’s mesh, which was “divided into discrete squares that appeared to look like rows of panels composing cartoon strips, filmic storyboards” (70). The boy’s fantasy involves Cuffie the dog, who strays from her owners, Ruth, the blind, ridiculed girl and her respectively vain and saintly mother and father. The adult narrator’s account at first shifts broadly between the drama invented by the boy and the one being played out in his classroom, which he only half-registers; but as the emotional temperature in the classroom rises - i.e. when the substitute teacher begins to repeatedly scrawl KILL THEM ALL amongst his chalkboard jottings on the XIIIth Amendment and students begin to cry, call out for Stepmutti, and vomit in fright - the pendulum swing between the two scenarios becomes increasingly rapid. The imagined invades the real, providing both cover from and allegorical expression of the actual terror taking place. But rather than enabling mere escape, the intertwined memory of the daydream and Mr. Johnson’s insane rupture and death provides a platform upon which the reflecting adult then interprets his father. “There was something about [the father’s] routine,” we are told, “that cast shadows deep down in parts of [the narrator which he] couldn’t access” (105) and the episode in classroom is - if elliptically - illuminating in this regard. Cuffie and Ruth thus give way to another recollected dream, a Kafkaesque scenario of “a large room full of men in suits and ties seated at rows of grey desks, motionless, silent” (108). Much like the students in the fourth grade Civics class, the “men in the dream appeared both as individuals and an anonymous mass” (108). The sheer banality of these images explodes into an understanding of “the deeper, soul-level boredom of his [father’s] job” (105) and how his “father sat all day at a metal desk in a silent, florescent lit room, reading forms and making calculations and filling out further forms on the results of those calculations” (106). Finally the narrator reveals that he is “one of them, one of the mass of grey faced men” (109) in the dream and that his eyes too are “are flat and opaque” (110). This all sounds a little cheesy, perhaps. But what’s exceptional is the way in which Wallace conveys the deep psychic structures of the cheese, a shifting architecture of experience represented by interpenetrating narrative strands, rather than the “let me tell you about my father,” shotgun, hear-my-plight approach that is so very au fait on the book-clubby circuit these days. Performing and not simply describing self-examination, the story conveys the real yet indeterminable effects of the Oedipal and traumatic functions that haunt the narrator.
Textual lines thus become “lines of flight” (pace Deleuze and Guattari) from regimental systems and modes of thought; lateral and regressive moves constitute advancement, though according to a logic that is less readily discernable than a Newtonian or naturalist cause-and-effect. Wallace’s stories enact an expansive and flexible mode of interpretation (of self, others and events) that amalgamates the peripheral, the focal and the alternate. This narrative strategy, a kind of literary-cognitive knight’s move, reaches its pitch in “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” where oscillation between subjects and storylines occurs at sentence and even phrasal levels. While exquisitely nuanced in their own right, Wallace’s sentences here derive much of their connotative power from their discordant relations to immediate neighbors. A large, goggle-wearing man relates the circumstances of both his and his mother’s legal troubles: she is suing her plastic surgeon for work which “did something to the musculature of her face and caused her to look insanely frightened at all times” (182) and he is charged with “failing due exercise of caution” (186) because a nine-year-old boy fell through the narrator’s garage roof, landed upon a “tempered-glass container complex” full of black widow spiders, and consequently died. The unfortunate pair ride a bus to an attorney’s office, and the son brings along a briefcase full of the lethal spiders in case anyone gives his mother grief about her “chronic mask of crazed suffering” (188). Freud and Lacan are invoked everywhere, from the son’s bizarre overprotectiveness to the many unsubtle “mirrors” like the mother who knits and her son’s fetishized widows, who are “industrious weavers” (187). But the exaggerated codependence of this particular relationship finds its objective correlative in story’s deeply involved narrative texture, where each sentence becomes itself a “mirror of nature,” reflecting and refracting (apparently) distinct lines of thought from one statement to the next:
Mother herself who is a decent-hearted if vain, bitter and timid female specimen but who is not a colossus on the roads of the human intellect, to put it frankly, could not ascertain at first if the look of insane terror was a response or the stimulus and if it was a response then a response to what in the mirror if the response was itself the expression. Causing no end of confusion before they got her sedated. The surgeon was leaning forward against the wall with the expression, Yes there was an objective problem with the surgery’s results. The bus is because we have no car, a situation the attorney says he can remedy in spades. The whole thing was carefully screened off and contained and even the state conceded that if he had not been up there fiddling on the roof of someone’s garage there is no way he could have come in contact with them in any form. (185)
An extended series of once/twice-removed connections, the textual pattern emulates the son’s skewed logic which blurs distinctions between parent and child, insect and human, legal and ethical.
So often in Wallace’s earlier work are “plots” and ideas obscured, clarified or aped by the forms which contain them: “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” is a long, annoying metafictional story about long, annoying metafictional stories; in “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life” two loners’ tepid attempts at connection are detailed in a few measly sentences, with the final phrase thrice repeated to connote the cyclic pervasiveness of modern alienation; and in “The Depressed Person,” parasitical footnotes impinge upon the tale-proper about a depressed person whose illness transforms her into a parasite to those who try to help her. While these and other stories are superbly crafted closed-circuits of form and theme, they offer the reader few points of entry other than a simple recognition of the systems and scenarios represented. Oblivion is a relatively “porous” (a favored Wallacian term) work in that its structures and forms are less ways to “prove the point” of the stories they put across than currents which engulf the reader while drawing her along. Nowhere is this more the case than in “Incarnations of Burned Children,” a three-page textual gush which describes the first panic-stricken moments after parents discover their infant drenched by scalding water. Not describes, really, but rather is:
… the Mommy over his shoulder invoking God until he sent her for towels and gauze if they had it, the Daddy moving quickly and well and his man’s mind empty of everything but purpose, not yet aware of how smoothly he moved or that he’d ceased to hear the high screams because to hear them would freeze him and make impossible what had to be done to help his own child, whose screams were regular as breath and went on so long they’d become already a thing in the kitchen, something else to move quickly around. (115)
The torrential prose becomes the coursing thoughts and gestures that are set off by an unimaginable accident. A similar narrative principle is at play (though less successfully so) in the title story “Oblivion,” where movements among the various fraught dimensions of Randall Napier’s life - golfing rituals with a surly father-in-law, frustrating interviews with a dopey psychotherapist, vaguely erotic impressions of his daughter, exhaustive/ing analysis of his alleged snoring - convey the age-old philosophical problem of locating the real; what seems at first to be a straight-forward account of one man’s ordinary unhappiness is complicated by an escalating surrealism, leading up to the “final” revelation that everything we (think we) have learned about Mr. Napier is actually the substance of a dream. Or (strike the suspenseful minor chord) is it? Thus, the problem with “Oblivion,” the weakest tale in the collection: an otherwise gripping mystery about indeterminable reality is reduced to the late-1970s music video trope (courtesy Keats), “like wow, do I wake or sleep or what…”
Oblivion is kind of like a handbook for the mid-life crisis victim. Its characters - mostly men - find themselves confined to prisons both vocational and psychological. Dead marriages, pointless jobs, beige apartments, circadian monotony. The fraudulence paradox. We are Mister/Ms Squishys: agentless, empty-calorie snack-food fuelling an insatiable capitalist stomach. But lest this all sound a bit patronizing, I should say that Wallace doesn’t claim exemption from the pangs of meaninglessness. The writer, the artist is potentially the biggest fraud of all, or so it is heavily implied in “The Suffering Channel,” which begins with the poignant exchange:
“But they’re shit.”
“And yet at the same time they’re art. Exquisite pieces of art. They’re literally incredible.”
“No, they’re literally shit is literally what they are.” (238)
Shit and art: distinguishable how? Both inhabit the general ontological sphere of excrement. One wonders, though, as does a Style employee later on in the story, “What sort of person goes around displaying his own poo?” (246). A person like Wallace, I guess - or, at least, metaphorical expressions of said poo. But that which is displayed in Oblivion is not simply a demonstration of the literary “firepower” that “David Wallace” in “Good Old Neon” finds emotionally dehydrating, but also an expression of “the realer, the more enduring and sentimental part of him” (181). The shift itself suggests the potential for a break from precedent, from the established code. It’s Mister Squishy - see: malleable - not Mister Stiffy. Just watch that expiration date.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Life Distilled From Details, Infinite and Infinitesimal.” Review of Oblivion. New York Times. 1 June, 2000.
Wallace, David Foster. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999.
—. Girl with Curious Hair. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.
—. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.
—. Oblivion. Boston: Little, Brown, 2004.
—. and Larry McCaferry. “An Interview With David Foster Wallace.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction. 13.2. (Summer 1993): 127-150.