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Oblivion: Stories Paperback – 28 Apr 2005
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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 (Zadie Smith)
The heir apparent to Thomas Pynchon (Douglas Kennedy, THE TIMES)
David Foster Wallace comes with a high reputation to live up to, and in these superbly written stories, he does ... there is a strong element of jokiness in these tales, but it is a deadpan, cumulative humour, not satire of the stand aloof, easily mocking variety ... Here he has shown once again that his is a major and entirely distinct talent (SUNDAY TELEGRAPH)
With the exception of Don DeLillo, no writer better depicts the crushing effect of the information age on the soul. His strangely dignified characters fight desperately to maintain sovereignty over their inner lives against the onslaught of high technolo (Stephen Amidon, SUNDAY TIMES)
* A brand new short story collection from 'the most significant writer of his generation' (TLS)See all Product description
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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.
In the first one, Mister Squishy, we are given the thoughts and thought -processes of a middling marketing officer for a large corporation in New York as he speaks to a focus group of men who are testing a cake bar called Felony, which has the company's logo Mr Squishy face behind bars. The idea is that this cake bar is so good it is almost illegal. This story is far too long and has a sub-plot that comes to nothing and as such it is the most disappointing story in this collection. However, I have to say that the impressive thing about it is the denseness of the writing. It is deep and reflexive and hugely digressive without ever seeming to leave its subject. That is, it goes deep into its subject, much more deeply than a writer usually has the capacity for, and this makes it both uncomfortable and complicated to read. The kind of concentration needed is not rewarded by much insight, other than the fact that the narrator knows how empty and pointless these kinds of marketing exercises are and how pointless are all the statistical and technical paraphernalia that surround them.
The title story Oblivion is about a couple whose daughter has left home for college leaving them to personal irritations concerning whether or not the husband snores. This is darkly comic and disturbing, but again, far too long.
The last story in this collection is a masterpiece and converted me to agreeing with the blurb, penned by Douglas Kennedy, that calls the writer "The heir apparent to Thomas Pynchon". It is surreal, believable and marvellous. The detailed and digressive prose is works its way into the imagination of the reader and captivates and entrances as the events unfold. Called, The Suffering Channel, this story has a potentially offensive and weird subject matter concerning works of art made from human excreta. It is also hilarious to the point of hysteria. At one point I had to put this book aside since the kind of concentration needed to continue has an intensity and exclusiveness that is almost exhausting.
Much of this work offers an experience in reading that makes demands on the reader and is therefore to be appreciated in the same way as classical prose such as George Eliot's Middlemarch or, indeed, Thomas Pynchon's V. One has to take it steady rather than try to read in devouring mode. Yes, it is difficult, but only because of this demand for concentration of the deepest kind. Nevertheless, the entertainment factor, when it comes off best, is much higher than for other kinds of writing. I found myself absorbed, engaged, and in the end completely approving.
Now I want more.
The stories were mmost boring, difficult to read .
This Author seems to have no respect for the reader,
Life is too short to read David Foster Wallace,
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what interests him interests the reader
surely, only 10%/15% of his work was done