'Oblivion': Too much effort, not enough payoff

I'd give you a sample sentence from David Foster Wallace's new short-story collection, "Oblivion," but then I wouldn't have room for the rest of the review, or, really, anything else on this page. For sheer length, they compete with Molly Bloom's orgasmic cries. As you read, you search for a period, or a point, and you try to recall the original point of the sentence, which, eventually (you assume), the writer will get back to. Just as his stories contain their own stories, and stories within those stories, so his sentences contain digressions, and digressions from those digressions. Think you're reading about this? No. You're actually reading about that. I wouldn't mind this literary shell game, except this is often more interesting than that.

Take "The Soul Is Not a Smithy." Initially the story is about an incident at R.B. Hayes Primary School in Columbus, Ohio, in 1960, when a substitute teacher goes crazy and holds four students hostage. The narrator is one of those hostages — if "hostage" is even the right word — and he's a bit of a daydreamer.

In fact, that's the reason he was held hostage in the first place: He was so busy dreaming up his stories — which, in his mind, fit like cartoon panels into the school's reticulate wire-mesh windows — that he missed out on what he calls "the most dramatic and exciting event I would ever be involved in in my life." So do we.

Wallace ("Infinite Jest") is a bit sadistic this way. Instead, we hear the narrator's story, about a stray puppy and its owners, the Simmons family, and their trials and tribulations, which grow darker and more violent as an air of menace begins to choke the room.

Wallace is brilliant in re-creating the neat, orderly world of a 1960 civics classroom: "The desk and chairs were bolted securely to each other and to the floor and had hinged liftable desktops. ... Inside your assigned desk was where you stored your No. 2 pencils, theme paper, paste, and other essentials of primary school education."

But all of this serves a story that goes nowhere, or, more accurately, goes into the mind of one of its characters and just stays there. At one point, the long-term substitute teacher, Mr. Johnson, begins writing the words KILL THEM on the chalkboard, and it's tense, and I'm interested, and then Wallace writes, almost jauntily, "At the same time, in the window ... " and we return to the Simmons family. I nearly threw the book across the room.

Let me repeat: Wallace is brilliant. He does what Philip Roth — back in 1962 — wrote was almost impossible to do: He out-imagines American culture. The characters and situations he creates are just as absurd — if not more so — as the ones that appear daily in our lives and on our TV sets. No mean feat.

"Mister Squishy" is about a focus group for a new high-end snack cake ("Felonies!"), but who or what is actually being test-marketed isn't revealed until the end. In "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature," a woman has plastic surgery that turns her face into "a chronic mask of insane terror." "The Suffering Channel" concerns a glossy celebrity magazine and two of its articles: about a cable channel that shows only images of human suffering, and a man in Indiana whose bowel movements are considered works of art.

All brilliant ideas — and Wallace goes exactly nowhere with them. More accurately, instead of moving his stories forward, he moves within them, and blurs the reality of them.

Yes, David Foster Wallace is talented. Yes, his writing expands the mind. Yes, his stories are, at heart, existential, as great stories should be.

But there's too much unnecessary detail, too much repetition here, and the man can't — or won't — just write a decent freakin' story. Where's the payoff for the reader after all that work? Once in a while, you know, reading should be a little fun, too.


by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, 352 pp., $25.95