Oblivion

All day yesterday, the guy down the hall was the cover story on Salon (subscription or ad-viewing required). Which would have been weirder than it was, except that he’s been off on the book tour, so it wasn’t as though I was running into him in the copier room and straining not to mention that very odd artist’s rendering of a very old photo that graced my browser’s home page.

Not-mentioning may not have been as difficult as I make it sound, though; some percentage of my dealings with David are already founded on a principle of not-mentioning. For instance, and most notably, in the Big Novel class last semester, we of course read Infinite Jest, and on the last day of class, during our wrap-up, one of my students asked why David Foster Wallace didn’t come talk to the class about the book. I stammered something to the effect that he was as uncomfortable with talking about his work as I was with having the figure of the writer himself intrude into our reading and interpreting, and so, despite the fact that I was certain that someone had told him of our class’s existence, and that we were reading IJ, I had never mentioned it, and he had never mentioned it, and thus we were both operating under the polite fiction that it wasn’t happening, a fiction important to both of us.

So not-mentioning, maybe not so hard. All of that is a digression, however, from the point that I wanted to make about the Salon piece, which is — and this surprises me a bit, given my usual disagreement with the vast majority of what Laura Miller writes — the first of the articles about Oblivion that actually seems to understand what’s going on in the book. The stories are absolutely terrifying, though the source of their terror mostly lies just off the page, in something that we can’t quite grasp; what a slew of reviewers have pointed to as the stories’ over-wroughtness or smarty-pantsness has to do with Wallace’s attempts to get down in words precisely the thing that can’t be got down in words.

What I most appreciate Miller’s article for, though — and this may seem like a small point, but it’s really quite enormous in its implications — is the fact that she seems to have read and understood “Good Old Neon,” one of my favorites in the collection. For instance, here’s Walter Kirn (from his New York Times review):

Take “Good Old Neon,” the most personal and approachable of the stories in the new book. It centers, like much of Wallace’s work, on a philosophical conundrum: the question of whether human beings can be said to possess authentic selves or whether, like “David Wallace,” the story’s narrator, we are really just a bunch of shabby fakes cut off from our own and others’ essential beings by the inadequacy of language.

Or Scott Morris, in the Los Angeles Times (only available online if you’ve got a subscription or if, like me, you’ve got Lexis-Nexis access):

“Good Old Neon” introduces us to a narrator named David Wallace, who is convinced he is a phony. He explains this to us after his death, or so he claims, leaving the reader unsure of his veracity.

How much attention to textual detail does it take to figure out that “David Wallace” is in fact not the narrator of the story, but is a projection of its actual narrator’s dying consciousness? More than many usually competent readers are capable of, I suppose: at a book-tour event in Los Angeles, Wallace’s introducer in fact described the story as being about the suicide of a character named “David Wallace.” Miller seems to get it, thank goodness, though there remain a few points of slippage (the sentence with the “merely” is weird, and weirdly never contradicted, as it sounds like it’s going to be):

The narrator of “Good Old Neon” (another ad man) is smothering in self-awareness. “My whole life I’ve been a fraud,” he announces, relating a history of triumphs, each one curdled by his consciousness that “all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people.” Admitting as much to a psychoanalyst only leads him to further spasms of self-loathing: “My confession of being a fraud and of having wasted time sparring with him over the previous weeks in order to manipulate him into seeing me as exceptional and insightful had itself been kind of manipulative.”

This dilemma, in which every layer of self-knowledge is nested inside yet another layer that scrutinizes it mercilessly for inauthenticity, is a Wallace trademark. When, not surprisingly, these contortions drive the narrator of “Good Old Neon” to suicide, he is revealed to be a childhood acquaintance of “David Wallace,” and the story itself an effort to imagine his inner life on the part of Wallace, who has recently “emerged from years of literally indescribable war against himself.” This, of course, suggests that all of “Good Old Neon” is merely Wallace’s solipsistic effort to attribute his own miseries to a man who might have killed himself for entirely other reasons.

It’s easy to conclude that the suicide speaks for Wallace earlier on, when he ruminates on the inability of language to convey “the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life” because “what goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”

This is what Wallace has tried to do in much of his fiction, using footnotes (which his dimmer critics have interpreted as mere postmodern smart-alecking) or, in these stories, parentheses and brackets. He wants to show how a great web of inchoate feelings and trains of thought and immanent understandings of multiple situations is operating in any person at any point in time. The breadth of human consciousness can never be squeezed through the narrow aperture offered by one word at a time without distortion or oversimplification or, basically, the expenditure of lots and lots of “English.”

All that “English” apparently sets the book up to be massively misread, and the book’s author to be the focus of much reviewer abuse of an often personal nature. Take, for instance, Joel Stein in Time Magazine (again, subscription or Lexis-Nexis required):

David Foster Wallace writes so beautifully, is so show-offishly smart and understands the intricacies of human emotion so keenly that a reasonable person can only hope he is terribly unhappy. Which, if this collection of short stories is any indication, he is.

Or Michiko Kakutani, in the New York Times:

Clearly Mr. Wallace is a prose magician. The best of his earlier fiction and essays demonstrates that he can make the English language run, jump, leap, snarl and whisper; he can do meta-fiction, old-fashioned fiction, ironic shtick and post-postmodern sentiment or some combination of them all at the same time. In this volume, however, he gives us only the tiniest tasting of his smorgasbord of talents. Instead, he all too often settles for the sort of self-indulgent prattling that bogged down his 1999 collection, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” and the cheap brand of irony and ridicule that he once denounced in an essay as “agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture.”

Or again, Walter Kirn:

One reason it’s tempting to follow the smart set — that anxious clan of stylishly camouflaged, overeducated social maladapts that functions in the literary world a lot like those old guys sucking White Owl cigars do in metropolitan Off Track Betting parlors — and flatly declare David Foster Wallace a genius and the greatest young fiction writer of his time, is that doing so is much, much easier than actually reading his sentences (compared to most of which this one is a haiku).

And, apparently, snark is even easier. Which makes something quite clear to me: however much (and I’ll admit this here, publicly, in ways that will no doubt come back to haunt me) I envy the guy down the hall his talents and his successes, there’s something about that kind of life-in-the-public-eye that I don’t covet much at all. This kind of oblivion — writing anonymously, to little response — has something going for it, I think.

4 thoughts on “Oblivion

  1. Glad to have KF back in fine form (anonymously with little reax)and happy to anticipate further returns (with big public reaction).

    Re. Miller’s review. That “merely” appears in a sentence where the reviewer is switching from “”David Wallace”” the entity in the fictional world to “Wallace” the author [not Wallace as author function]. Miller is baiting the reader and caught perhaps on her own hook. The adverb “merely” is indeed undermined by the verb “suggests” that precedes the clause. “This, of course, suggests that all of ‘Good Old Neon’ is merely Wallace’s solpistic effort to attribute his own miseries to a man who might have killed himself for entirely different reasons.” The argument seems to proceed along the lines: Wallace fails; fiction succeeds. Intriguing, if I am not myself, my identity cannot be stolen. Even if my identity could be stolen and the self I ennunciate could coincide with the ennunciated self, there is still no guarantee that identity determines the stories that unfold. There is a social contract at play where the game of fakery is at stake. Who I appear to be is not who I am and because of this who I appear to be is not deterministic of the performative responses of my interlocutors who remember the reserve of who I am and willing to be surprised. If the person before me has a history, they are not “finished”, they are not “perfected”, they can evolve or devolve. I wonder if the trope of fakery in American literature has travelled from agents to persons: from secret agents to secret persons and how this might be related to the deployment of various phases of technologies of communication. If so, I am willing to argue that there may be another phase soon where the screen effect comes into play and the dream of control meets the limits of the agency of control : talking about X is not the same as talking to X — X as an individual can control access to X but only as a member of a collective can X influence the social discourse that sets the rules of how talk about is handled. I think the key is “devlove”. In societies where one can imagine senility as a condition that will not by-pass one _and_ one can imagine that a community of care will be at work, there is less fuss about the “about” because the to and from is observed and thus reverberates on the about. That is KF doing an interview with David Wallace need not privilege the voice of the author, it can provide a model of dialogue between cultural workers. That’s a dare to mention.

  2. I must respectfully disagree about Oblivion. I loved IJ, and the essays. But the goodness of IJ was certainly not dependent on the “neat ideas” in it – the film, for instance, that you watch until you die. Those are nice, but they are secondary to the life of the book, which is the language and the characters — who are entirely palpable in their language spheres. Oblivion is almost entirely written in the same infinitely recursive, smart grad school style. The one story that breathed was the George Saunder’s influenced Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Otherwise, the mannerisms seem (like the black widow spiders in that story) to have wholly taken over a number of stories that, pared down, are often nothing more than sub-Thurbian New Yorker sketches — albeith with scatology thrown in. That a book can be written in such a way that the language seems, at first, opaque to the reader doesn’t bother me — I’m a big fan of J.R. But these stories lack Wallace’s self adminstered antidote to his own intelligence — his ability to imitate other voices. Intelligence alone is merely a multiple choice test. And who wants to read one of them — or three hundred pages of them?

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