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Bookmarks Issue: 
12-Sept-Oct-2004
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Stories

A-OblivionWallace’s second collection of stories features another gathering of unreliable narrators and gleeful cultural skewering. In "Mr. Squishy" the protagonist, Terry, seeks focus group input on a new line of snack cakes while he lusts for a co-worker. "The Suffering Channel" focuses on the forthcoming issue of a vapid magazine named Style, headquartered in the World Trade Center just months before 9/11. The narrator of the title story, which discusses the state of sleep versus wakefulness, states: "It’s interesting if you think about it, how clumsy and laborious it seems to be to convey even the smallest thing." With Oblivion, Wallace continues on his determined quest to do just that.
Little, Brown. 329 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0316919810

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[The stories] are less tales than tableaux vivants, first sketched in outline and then, over multiple iterations, fleshed out. If a short story is an arrow loosed at a target, then Wallace’s missile finds its bulls-eye by way of a spiral path through phase-space." Jan Wildt

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[W]ith these eight stories (or with most of them), he has finally freed himself from an ironic, hey-watch-me-produce-this-work-of-genius smarminess that tinged his early work. Amid its singularly effusive style, Oblivion contains Wallace’s rare insights … and moments of unflinching self-examination, often on a societal scale." Andrew Ervin

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"You read these stories in almost the same way that you can’t help stare at a really bad accident, or listen to someone using the bathroom. Wallace walks all through territory that makes you squirm with discomfort, but it’s territory you find yourself drawn back to." Debra Bruno

Hartford Courant 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The real joy of reading these stories, then, is not having Wallace ferry us from point A to point B, but in watching his reptilian intelligence snake across the page, flick out its forked tongue and nab yet another linguistic wormhole. Our language is infected with a virus of fakery, Wallace suggests over and over again, and by stretching it to the absolute limit, Oblivion tries mightily to cure those ills." John Freeman

Newsday 2.5 of 5 Stars
"There’s something less immediate about Wallace’s tone nowadays. … Some of the brand name digressions read less like Joyce and more like John Dos Passos’ USA, a brilliant trilogy that tends to stay on the shelf. One would hate to think of that happening to David Foster Wallace." Daniel Handler

Houston Chronicle 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Wallace is either a genius, the virtuoso prose stylist of our postmodern age, or he’s the smartest frat boy vulgarian you’ve ever encountered, who basically dresses up plots that might have been stolen from South Park with fancy pants prose. I reluctantly tend toward the latter judgement." Steven E. Alford

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"In this volume … he gives us only the tiniest tasting of his 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.’" Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Some critics scream self-indulgence, while others lash back with claims of genius. No one denies the verbal wizardry of the MacArthur Grant-winning author of Infinite Jest. And yet Wallace’s prose style lies at the epicenter of the debate. Does his wordiness obscure a lack of substance, or is the key to his intent found in that same verbosity? Reactions to his stories elicited similar controversy. More than one of his boosters notes a welcome turn towards naked emotion, most notably in "Good Old Neon." Others question his maturity and moral sense, and criticize the unfinished quality of some of the stories. These polarized opinions, however, seem to ensure that Wallace will not fade into oblivion.

Also by the Author

AS-SupposedlyFunThingA Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again Essays and Arguments | David Foster Wallace (1996): If you’re a Wallace fan, you’ve already moved on to Infinite Jest. If you’re just getting started, this collection of essays is a wonderful mix of Wallace’s complex prose and humanity.