Oblivion by David Foster Wallace – Book Review

Alright, the journey is over, Oblivion has been read and I can finally sum it up. First this has been an experience for me. The idea of going through a collection of short stories and reviewing each story while saving a review for the collection as a whole until the end has been illuminating. I found that was giving more thought to the stories as I went, that I was looking at how they were fitting together to form a coherent collection and, in the process of this, I think I got more out of the individual stories. Whereas before I may have missed a point or theme, reviewing each story was helpful in acting as roadsigns for finding different paths to take in each work.

What stood out the most for me was Foster exploring the concept of the narrator and the narrator’s reliability. What Foster does that is somewhat different from other authors is that he finds ways to undermine the narrators in his stories without necessarily making the narrators dishonest. In Mr. Squishy the various eyes we see the story through are proven time and time again to be unable to accurately portray all that is going on. The idea that what we are given are perceptions of what is happening rather than a factual account is contnually reinforced.

This brand of unreliability is explored again in Another Pioneer where we are given a story as told by someone who is hearing it re-told which, in fact, is also a re-telling and on and on and on. The story is told by way of the children’s game of telephone where a rather simple message is relayed through twenty or thirty people and becomes a complex jumble by the end.

With Oblivion we learn at the end that all that preceded it was a dream, again absolving the narrator of being labeled as purposefully unreliable – doubly true when we realize that the narrator wasn’t the narrator at all but just a figment of the dream the actual narrator used to filter her story.

With Good Old Neon we are given a narrator who is openly honest about how distrustful he is but this very openness makes you want to trust him about his deceitfulness. After all, why would he lie about his natural inclination to lie about everything? Other than it would fall perfectly within his nature to lie about it. So is the story we’re told also a lie meant to fit with what we, as readers, would want to hear?

Finally, there is The Suffering Channel which has the most distanced look at a process of skewing narration to fit expectations. Essentially a story about a guy who, literally, craps art work, a magazine attempts to find a way to make it “fit” their image and the expectations of their readers. While the people working at the magazine might not be pushing for outright lies in their coverage of the artful defecator, they are at least bordering on dishonesty as they shift to portray him in a favorable light.

Where does this leave Incarnations of Burned Children? It is the shortest story with the least ambiguity regarding the narrator. Over a few short pages the story is told in almost a misty dreamlike way as a father and mother react to their child being scalded by a pot of boiling water that has fallen on it. Aside from possible negligence by the mother, who we are led to believe was “watching” the child at the time of the accident, we are not given any reason to doubt the veracity of the account.

But every other story in the collection deals with a possible inherent unreliability of narration. Are we meant to assume a certain unreliability to the narration of Incarnations of Burned Children? After all, the mother is shown in a very unflattering (and stereotypical) light in the story while the father is also stereotypically the figure of action and decision and all in all favorable – aside from overlooking the fact that his child’s diaper is soaked with boiling hot water and the child’s genitalia is possibly forever mutilated.

Or is Wallace making another comment with having this story be the least ambiguous in narration?  Another fairly straightforward tale is Philosophy and The Mirror Nature about a man who has a spider fetish and must go with his mother everywhere to ward off her being attacked in public because of being horribly disfigured from a cosmetic surgery to remove crow’s feet.  There certainly appears to be a significance to the fact that the two stories dealing most directly with how a family reacts (and supports itself/eachother) in the face of disfigurement or tragedy appear to have the most reliability.  Is there something about the family dynamic in the face of tragedy that calls for an inherent reliability or, at the very least, honesty? The other stories all deal with story arcs that are either unrelated to the family or are relatively trivial by nature (such as a husband’s snoring interrupting his wife’s sleep).

And when Wallace is talking about the narrator is he also talking about our own perceptions and the reliability of our own thoughts? In The Soul Is Not a Smithy we are shown a man trying to recollect the events of a day when his substitute teacher went nuts and had to be gunned down by the cops but the majority of the facts from that day are given to us by sources outside of the narrator’s memory. We are shown a person constructing his “version” of things from the versions supplied to him from others while, in some way, passing the version off as his own.

So while Wallace continually presents us unreliable narrator after unreliable narrator, is he also bringing into question our own ability to construct the narrations of our lives? It seems to me that Wallace might be saying that we are all inherently unreliable but for moments where reliability (or thought) isn’t an issue, moments where we just act without consideration for appearance or where appearance takes a clear backseat to the necessity of a situation.  There are moments in life where spinning a story is simply inappropriate and, what Wallace seems to be suggesting, is that these are such moments.

Mr. Squishy

The Soul is Not a Smithy

Incarnations of Burned Children

Another Pioneer

Good Old Neon

Philosophy and The Mirror Nature

Oblivion

The Suffering Channel

Assorted David Foster Wallace Material

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