From the publication of his first books, The Broom of the System in 1987 and Girl with Curious Hair in 1989, David Foster Wallace has shown himself to be a keen observer of American popular culture. In fiction and essays, his challenging prose has skewered American preconceptions, trends, and obsessions, particularly in terms of hipster culture and corporate chic. His mammoth novel Infinite Jest (1996) runs to more than one thousand pages; its publication revealed that the perspicacity of Wallace's insight was matched by his wildly ambitious energies. His ability to turn his satirical microscope on various icons of modern culture is particularly on display in his book of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), which takes on such cultural idiosyncrasies as cruise ships, state fairs, and competitive tennis.
Wallace's new collection of stories, Oblivion, provides free rein to his enormously creative muse. Perhaps because of their brevity and economy, short stories are a more forgiving genre for experimentation in fiction than are novels. It might prove difficult for an author to dedicate a whole book, for example, to a narrative written as if it were a report on a marketing focus group, or to sustain a lengthy narrative about a husband accused of snoring who turns out to be a dreaming wife, or to linger for hundreds of pages with the first-person, posthumous recounting of a suicide. In the short-fiction form, however, Wallace can actually create such stories successfully.
The label of postmodern has haunted Wallace since he began publishing. This often employed literary descriptor seems to mean something different each time it is used. Sometimes postmodern merely means countercultural; at other times, it means experimental, surreal, or metafictional. Each of these terms serves to describe various stories inOblivion.
Wallace's fiction often does not follow the linear plot progressions of realistic texts. While the intellectualism of his prose and his need to challenge the reader on a number of levels clearly owes something to the deep modernism of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, Wallace's work rarely indulges in the poetic impressionism of modernism. His satirical insights and focus on the cultural Zeitgeistreflect the fully grown flower sprung from seeds planted by such earlier postmodern writers as John Barthes and Don DeLillo.
One of the strengths of Wallace's prose in Oblivion is his ability to adapt an organic unity in his affectations of style. That is, the style of a given story in some way or another reflects the purpose and theme of the story itself. For example, “Mister Squishy” is about an advertising focus group that is being asked to try a new form of Mister Squishy snack cakes. Thirty-four-year-old Terry Schmidt is the facilitator of the focus group. Unlike most members of the group, he is conscious that they are being covertly tested, manipulated, studied, and analyzed in a perplexing number of ways. The prose style of the narrative of “Mister Squishy” follows a similar approach as a focus group's narrative report. The narrator of the story, for instance, casually notes details that seemingly have nothing to do with the story's development, observing at one point that:
There were four pairs of eyeglasses in the room, although one of these pairs were sunglasses and possibly not prescription, another with heavy black frames that gave their wearer's face an earnest aspect above his dark turtleneck sweater. There were two mustaches and one probable goatee. A stocky man in his late twenties had a sort of sparse, mossy beard; it was indeterminable whether this man was just starting to grow a beard or whether he was the sort of person whose beard simply looked this way.
This breakdown of eyeglass and facial hair trends bears little overall relation to the story, yet in its ridiculous attention to detail and its fixation on minutia, this approach mirrors the narrative style of a marketing focus group report, which must note and explore every mundane element in order to investigate what influence those various factors might have on consumer purchases. Wallace obviates the absurdist facets of corporate culture and anomalies like “targeted focus groups” further by introducing a surreal element: in this case, a wall-scaling, potential sniper or assassin. Tellingly, the story is never resolved, and the reader never discovers whether the climbing...
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