David Foster Wallace
Oblivion: Stories

By Sophie Elmhirst

There is something about David Foster Wallace's new collection of short stories, Oblivion, that is irritating to the point of distraction. But I'm still not quite sure what it is.

Wallace is the darling of contemporary American fiction. He was declared a genius, among other things, when he wrote Infinite Jest. (It's long, seriously long, and apparently very "clever" – although I haven't read it and I've only met people who claim they have, only to admit they haven't.) Listen to Zadie Smith effusing on Oblivion's cover: "[Wallace is] a visionary, a craftsman, a comedian... He's so modern he's in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us. Goddamn him."

Goddamn him indeed. Smith's quote tells another story, though. And that is the story of McSweeney's, the independent publishing house established by Dave Eggers. In its time, Eggers has drawn together an impressive array of collaborators – Smith, Wallace, Nick Hornby,Jonathan Safran Foer. They are all part of a young, transatlantic elite whose trademarks are gentle subversion, twists of irony (Eggers devotes paragraphs in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to the misuse of irony), deft wit and cleverness. Sheer, unadulterated, look-at-me cleverness. McSweeney's is an exciting story – a testament to Eggers's energy and devotion to his craft (he is also committed to encouraging it in others and has set up two writing workshops on America's western and eastern coasts), and a wonderful encapsulation of the electric writing talent on both sides of the ocean.

But it's the cleverness that gets me. Eggers, Smith and Hornby are fundamentally entertaining – they tell good tales in crafted prose. Wallace, as Smith concedes in her breathless encomium, is on a different level. There is an edge, an undeniable virtuosity to his writing. He can inhabit alien voices in the most extraordinary, uncanny way. There are moments of truth that make you catch your breath. He shatters cliches wherever he turns. But, quite a lot of the time, it's just not that great to read.

An example: "As any decent small-set univariable probablity distribution would predict, not all members of the targeted focus group were attending closely to the facilitator's explanation of what Mister Squishy and Team **Y hoped to achieve by leaving the focus group very shortly In Camera to compare the results of their individual response profiles..."

A little context: in this 66-page story, "Mister Squishy", written in unrelenting, perfectly executed management/corporate-speak, Wallace charts the progress of a marketing meeting, and dips into the lives of the protagonists. It's impressive. but it's also unreadable. It's like watching a world-class pianist practice scales: it might be dazzling, and you certainly couldn't do it yourself, but it doesn't mean you enjoy it. Wallace is simply showing off. There's a coldness, a cynicism about this way of writing which is more than irritating – it's unsettling. It's as though he's laughing at his subject – the poor fools who are stuck in meetings all day, trading vacuous jargon, wasting their lives away. He uses his writerly dexterity to elevate himself above the mundanity of everyday life, hollowing his unsuspecting characters out from within.

There's an intriguing narrator in one of the best stories, "Good Old Neon", speaking after his own suicide. He has suffered all his life from being a fraud, adopting false characteristics depending on his surroundings. One gets the feeling that wallace is incriminating us all in this exaggerated portrait – it's a scathing attack on the unavoidable insincerity, the behavioural superficiality from which we all suffer, and which we all perpetuate: "We all go around trying to use English to try to convey to other people what we're thinking... when in fact deep down everybody knows it's a charade and they're just going through the motions."

It is this very fraudulence, this element of "charade", that plagues Wallace's writing. But then, of course, that's probably why he created such a character. It's not as though he's unaware of what he's doing – on the contrary, it's all part of the plan. Wallace is cleverer than thou, a step ahead, laughing at you before you even realise there is a joke. And again, while this makes you sigh in admiration, it can also be exclusive and alienating. Technique, intellect, cleverness: they're all undoubtedly impressive, but they pale in comparison to a little slice of authenticity, and, dare I say it, soul.
JC posted 10 December 2008 (17:16:31)
Your words are not out of point. But if you don't see a soul in these stories, then we are talking about different things when we refer to that 'soul'. Which brings us back to the charade you mention.
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