Posts Tagged ‘Mr. Squishy’

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace – Book Review

March 24, 2010

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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Mr. Squishy – Story Review

February 26, 2010

Mr. Squishy is a dense, jargon filled, lumbering behemoth of horror. Except I don’t think horror is the correct term. Terror or dread are much closer to the truth, for Mr. Squishy and for the collection as a whole, in describing the feeling fostered by its reading. Mr. Squishy is a 64 page story built around the machinations of an ad agency, their focus group for a product of high end snack cakes, and the levels of secrecy, of study, and of office politics that layer over each other.

Throughout the work we are barraged with lingo, with jargon, with symbols I frankly don’t know if there is a greater meaning to outside of their being a simple symbol used for naming. For instance, one group is designated by a triangle with a y immediately following it. Having never taken a marketing class, or involved in any type of advertising corporate structure, I can only take such a symbol, first, at face value and then see if such a symbol can also have a meaning within the story but which is disconnected from any “real world” meaning the symbol may have in marketing.

The rampant use of jargon/symbols/etc. combined with Wallace’s signature maximalist density is something that nearly made the story a non-starter for the collection as a whole. Whether the story is really a masterpiece whose complexity is so great that I simply can not appreciate it for what it is or it is just a cumbersome piece of work that lumbers along beneath the weight of its own over-written immensity, I’m not sure. Either way, I’m not sure it was the best way to begin a story collection but is something Wallace can get away with by the simple weight of his reputation.

Perhaps the language was meant to help foster this idea of otherness, of terror, of displacing the reader into an uncomfortable world where the language is near foreign (it would be interesting to see how this story would be translated to foreign language and how much of the dense jargon is kept and how much is replaced by an erstwhile translator trying to make it more “accessible”).  But it’s too jarring to have this effect, at least within the context of the story. Instead, it creates a tension outside of the story, constantly removing you from the reading with a state of discomfort. It could be that Wallace was gunning for a Brecthian response, creating a work so jarring that it forces the reader to disconnect from the work to give the work greater thought and to force the passive viewer into active participation with the text, but this isn’t something that is consistant with other stories within the collection or with Wallace’s past. While his other works can be lengthy/cumbersome/etc., they can also be accessible – something this work can not claim to be in any real shape or form.

A way to read Mr. Squishy that might be more rewarding would be to read it as a bleak satire on case studies and business management course material. Not only is the story filled with specialized verbage but it also written with a certain disconnect that is reminiscent of college text books. Full of information, ordered in a seemingly coherent (but strangely inaccessible manner), it smacks of a $112 text book a student is forced to buy once, use for three semesters and never open again.

In the end, I think this was just a story that didn’t quite work. The idea of exploring the drama within an ad agency doing focus group testing that is just the facade for other tests being done upon the test takers in an effort to even more narrowly refine the information gleaned from the focus group testing, and repeating this over and over to construct a multi-layered conspiracy worthy of The X-File s (but minus the aliens)(maybe) has a lot of potential and Wallace was a writer who could be counted on to do something different, complex and interesting with it. Only his work seems to buckle a bit beneath the weight of its own complexity.