A couple of months ago, I reviewed David Foster Wallace’s book of essays, Consider the Lobster. I read that book with increasing pleasure (and perhaps a tinge of surprise), and in the end was really blown pretty much flat by his talent: humor, dazzling clarity, seriousness, and compassion for some of the weirder parts of humanity shone from every essay. I’m still talking about it, in fact: I am a minor Consider the Lobster evangelist.
I read Oblivion, a book of Wallace’s short stories, because I was hoping for another hit. Unfortunately, I found most of the stories almost unreadable. A couple of them were interesting and one was fantastic, but… how shall I put this? I really admire George Saunders’s short stories, in his books Tenth of December and In Persuasion Nation; they’re weird, wise, compelling punches to the gut, almost like parables. They’re compassionate, too, and often funny, and despite being set in some world that is not quite ours, they are deeply human. David Foster Wallace’s stories in Oblivion seemed as if George Saunders were writing stories, but had sustained some kind of traumatic brain injury after which he just couldn’t stop talking.
The first story, “Mister Squishy,” is a good example of this. Wallace likes to play with basic narrative issues (who is talking? where are we? what is going on?) but the premise is, or appears to be, a focus group in which a number of men are testing out Felonies!, a new kind of high-end dark chocolate snack cake. The story goes into immense — indeed, what I thought might possibly be infinite — detail. It spirals up, from deception to deception, from the members of the focus group to the managers to their managers to high-level executives, all deploying schemes and neuroses. Wallace is convincing about marketspeak, statistics, and the kind of baroque methodological assessments that really serve no one but the corporate entities that engendered them. The leaders 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.
Fully seven of the Focus Group’s men had small remains of Felonies! either on their shirtfront or hanging from the hairs on one side of their mustache or lodged at the inner corner of their mouth or in the small crease between the fingernail of their dominant hand and that nail’s surrounding skin. Two of the men wore no socks; both these men’s shoes were laceless leather; only one pair had tassels. One of the youngest men’s denim bellbottoms were so terrifically oversized that even with his legs out splayed and both knees bent his sock-status was unknown. One of the older men wore black or rayon socks with tiny lozenges of dark rich red upon them. Another of the older men had a mean little slit of a mouth, another a face far too saggy and seamed for his demographic slot.
But sinister forces are at work: a spy infiltrates the focus group, a manager cultivates ricin and botulin toxin in his apartment, and a Mister Squishy figure (terrorist? performance artist? we don’t know) scales the outside of the building. The story is 63 pages long, a novella really. I got the point of it, but it took me days to read.
“Oblivion” is about a man whose wife accuses him — nightly, and with increasing acrimony and desperation — of snoring. He is convinced she is totally wrong, and he’s actually awake when she accuses him. The man’s voice is pompous, repetitive, self-centered. We suspect he’s just not listening to his wife’s entreaties — these men! So far, so banal, until a darker cast kicks in; he’s so tired that he actually begins to hallucinate. His language begins to slip, and both the images and the words show us what may really be going on. We begin to suspect that he’s not just irritating, he may actually be criminal (and also irritating.) And then the final layer — barely longer than a paragraph, at the very end of the story — arrives, and all our assumptions are turned upside down. Again, a very interesting story (I read it twice) but we have to drag ourselves through 50 pages of mind-numbing detail before arriving at the narrative payoff. Wallace leaves us the way into his fiction, but how strait the gate!
I am perfectly happy with the idea (an idea that David Foster Wallace embraced publicly and with vigor) that serious fiction doesn’t need to be 100% pleasure. Entertainment that is primarily seeking your money (The Avengers, say) is probably going to tip in the direction of pleasure; it’s more lucrative. If you make your audience uncomfortable, or force them to work hard to unlock pleasure — something more serious fiction or film tends to do — it will engage fewer people (even intelligent people) and it will engage them less of the time. That’s perfectly okay, though it probably makes it more of a challenge for the publishers.
But most of these stories — as interesting, as serious and well-constructed, as moving and as funny and as good as they are — just didn’t warrant the investment. I know! I didn’t have to read them: his house, his rules, and I didn’t have to play. I do in fact think that Wallace wanted to challenge his readers but also nourish them; he said over and over again that he wrote (and read) in order to engage in a conversation, in order not to feel alone in the world. These stories, I felt, for the most part, were an ungenerous way of reaching that goal: as Douglas Adams says, they are on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard. I want to work for my fiction, where work is play for mortal stakes. I just don’t want to be told, as I’m reading, that if I can’t hack it, I can take my marbles and go home.