is a collection of eight of David Foster Wallace's short stories whose themes run the gamut from our entertainment-addled society to suicide to the act of writing itself. Wallace continually uses unreliable narrators and 'friend-of-a-friend' literary devices to make his point. And while they really are short (the longest is not quite 100 pages), they're in-depth enough to allow the reader to understand their various contexts and ultimate meanings.
"Mister Squishy" and "The Suffering Channel" (the first and last stories, respectively, in Oblivion
) deal primarily with entertainment, an idea Wallace explored to great effect in Infinite Jest
. They're both slightly absurd: "Mister Squishy" is about a focus group's reactions to a new chocolate cake cookie, while "The Suffering Channel" explores human excrement in great detail. This brings about an odd sense of closure; just as "Channel" follows "Squishy" in the physical book, so does excretion follow degustation. (I'm sure I'm reading too much into this, but I thought it a nice touch nonetheless.) Despite this, these stories were long and nearly uninteresting; together with the sixth story ("Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature"), they're the worst of the lot. To be fair, Wallace is never a bad
writer, although he does overuse whimsical tangents as a means to add depth to his writing, and it's quite evident here.
The second story, "The Soul Is Not a Smithy", is another surreal take on existence from the fringes of human culture. Its postmodern, layered storytelling provides a quite interesting view of the human imagination. Stories about childhood are hard to get right (children don't know what they don't know; adults know that children don't know what they don't know, but how can an author show this without accidentally proving that (s)he doesn't know what (s)he thinks he knows?) but DFW does a good job of it here.
"Incarnations of Burned Children" and "Another Pioneer" are next. Both are quite short and are among my favourite. "Another Pioneer" is particularly good: its fractured narrative provides excellent commentary on the nature of fiction itself. I won't spoil either of these stories, but they're fantastically written and easy to read.
"Good Old Neon" and "Oblivion" are the other two stories (I purposely ignore "Philosophy" because I found it terribly uninteresting). They deal with existential ennui, both individual and familial. Both stories are framed by significant plot devices, but if you look past the story you'll also see Wallace's incredibly apt musings on life, love and existence. They're top-notch works and they boast more literary depth than most of the other stories.
It's interesting to note that Wallace frames most of Oblivion
with subjective narrators, newspaper clippings, footnotes, dreams and the like. I wouldn't blame someone for taking these literary devices as an exercise in abstraction or metafiction. It doesn't feel like a gimmick, however; Wallace seems to know exactly how much postmodern wizardry to sprinkle into his stories to make them original but not over-rich.
All in all, Oblivion
is full of fine prose, wry humour and issues worth contemplating. Wallace plays the zany name card that I so love — one character's name is Skip Atwater — and he delves into issues of self-awareness, psychology and metahumour. If you're at all interested in postmodern fiction, you won't want to miss Oblivion