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A good place to begin with Wallace
on 13 July 2011
Readers come to David Foster Wallace by any of a number different routes. During his life he published novels, short stories, a book on mathematics and collections of journalistic articles. Since his death in 2008, another collection, his unpublished thesis and an unfinished novel have emerged. Of all this varied production, the articles seem - rather worryingly - to be becoming more celebrated than the fiction. In addition, the long novel 'Infinite Jest' has erased much of his other writing in the public mind by virtue of its fabled length, ambition and difficulty, which has made it a novel arguably more talked about than read.
I have always felt that Wallace's best writing is in his short stories. The limits of the shorter form curb his single greatest weakness, which was his inability or unwillingness to rein in his tendency to digression. They make the concentration of his gaze and density of his prose at the level of the sentence and paragraph appear appropriate to the demands of the form rather than the accidental product of a failure to control larger structures - which is certainly a criticism that can be levelled at the novels.
I first read 'Oblivion' in 2005, and on rereading I find it to be both characteristic of Wallace and somewhat easier to approach than the early collections, and therefore a good place to start for the reader completely new to the author. In fact, it's the opening story, 'Mister Squishy', that presents the greatest test of endurance for the uninitiated, and I would actually recommend beginning with the shorter - and very funny - 'Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature' for the reader dipping a toe. But everything here - stories varying from a couple of pages to almost novella length - repays persistence.
Wallace has garnered a reputation for intimidating intelligence, formal difficulty and a certain doggedness in microscopic examination of the minutiae of common social habits and seemingly trivial phenomena. But what emerges here is a composite portrait of a mind preoccupied with the sheer difficulty of living in our times. Wallace is very modern: his stories concern themselves with the texture of day-to-day living in a way that makes few concessions to the reader's - or the traditional novelist's - sense of what might be important. His characters are often mid-level businessmen and bureaucrats whose personalities are difficult to separate from their employment. That employment is likely to be connected with the media, or marketing: Wallace was a connoisseur of the mediated environment and the novel kinds of people that that environment produces. Much of his writing here is droll social comedy.
Wallace was quite capable of seeing - and conveying - the humour in, say, a thirty-year-old's desperation in the face of his soul-destroying job. But if there is a common thread linking these stories it is an existential anxiety that constantly threatens to erupt from behind the façade of normal, uneventful life. Authors are always being accused of writing disguised autobiography, but there is much in these stories that resonates with what we know of the author's life, even though this is more a question of mood than detail. There is a deep seriousness here, and a persistent sense of dread, a question of a great deal being at stake in the answers to Wallace's questions, that should defuse any temptation to dismiss Wallace as a mere virtuoso of empty postmodernist trickery. Those tricks are there, but in 'Oblivion' they are finessed and incorporated rather than blazoned, and the real demands Wallace makes are emotional rather than purely formal.
Readers who are prepared to make the effort of attention that it demands will find this book worth the investment.