Posts Tagged ‘Oblivion’

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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The Suffering Channel – Story Review

March 17, 2010

The bulk of the story is just talking about shit. Literally. Brint Molke is an artist on the brink of reluctant celebrity (or infamy) for producing works of art out of his ow shit. The twist is that he doesn’t take his crap and mold it into anything or fling it paintins. Instead, his body just seems to produce shit that is aesthetically pleasing and strongly resembling other works of art/people/objects. For example, as part of authenticating his “abilities” one of the figures he is to reproduce is Marylin Monroe’s iconoclastic image of her standing over a steam vent, attempting to hold her dress down while smiling a smile of envious delight.

This special ability of Brint Moltke is being covered by a “salaryman” named Skip Atwater who writes for a feature in Style magazine called What in the World. (WITH).  He is also supposed to cover a fledgling cable channel called The Suffering Channel which broadcasts, 24/7/365, images of, yes, suffering. Skip himself is a bit of a rube who simultaneously takes pride in his work while searching for exterior buts of motivation and reassurance that his work matters.

Meanwhile, Style magazine seems to be entirely staffed and ran by interns. Which makes Skip possibly the only paid worker we encounter from Style. Whenever the office world of Style is focused on, it always seemed as if it was a less hyper-competitive version of the world in Bret Ellis’s “American Psycho.” Skirts, blouses, bikes and heels get as much page space as dialog and inner office politics. While no one whips out competing business cards, there is still a definite air of personal competition when someone wearing a pair of silk hose that is”so delicate it can only be worn once” is mentioned.

The counterweight to Brint Moltke’s reluctance to step into the spotlight and Skip Atwater’s insecurities, is Brint’s large wife, Amber Moltke. Amber Moltke’s size is continually focused upon and even made into a bizarrely sexual force, especially as she simultaneously cripples a rental car while mauling the less than socially gifted Skip Atwater.  Not only is she physically indulgent, she is fame hungry in a way that is tunnel-visioned and predatory in a way that I’ve only seen approximated by “reality show” contestants as they fight and claw to either stay on the island or in the locked compound.

Against all of this is the reality that none of this will matter and that this article will very likely not be released and the majority of the people at Style will soon be dead. Style’s headquarters are in the world trade center. The date for completing this issue of style is September 10.  We know that on September 11, the towers will be gone and nothing much will be remaining. So all of this work, this conniving, this positioning, is for nothing.

Which seems to be the central thrust of this story. In the end, everything is ultimately for nothing and that the majority of our work will not have any long lasting appeal in the face of greater, more powerful events in human history. So as Amber Moltke shoves her embarassed, near reclusive husband before the cameras, quite possibly doing great emotional harm to him, we already know that nothing will come of it. Despite her repeatedly confessing to Skip that she believes her husband was horribly abused as a child and that this abuse affects him to the present, she willfully pushes  the story forward regardless of what affects it will have on him.

Meanwhile, the Styl e Magazine office hums along with a fascination of the superficial (such as one intern’s bicycle being of competition level and weighing only 8 pounds, allowing her to heft it easily and haul it into the building rather than leaving it padlocked on the street where it would no doubt be stolen) also leaves you with little sympathy for what you know their future will be and how their efforts to churn out their magazine full of thinly disguised tabloid news will be ultimately fruitless.

Even Brint Moltke offers little reason for sympathy as he is essentially forced on a death march towards a public bowel movement to prove the artistic ability of digestive system. At some point, he is just too pathetic to care about, as he sits dumbly while his wife negotiates away his dignity.

If anyone is deserving of sympathy it might be Skip Atwater who is just as bruised by his upbringing as Brint Moltke apparently is but has still managed to carve out a bit of a life for himself while also trying to convince himself that what he does is good for anything beyond that paycheck.

In the end, Wallace seems to be saying that we need to focus our lives less on the pointless shit and find what is truly purposeful for our existence. In the end, all of the Style Magazine-esque stuff is short lived and brushed from the world by larger, more powerful forces. By forces that do have some sort of meaning and purpose behind them, regardless of whether or not we agree or condone the purpose or the force, and that only things guided by purpose leave any significant traces upon our reality.

Oblivion – Story Review

March 15, 2010

The end leaves you wondering why you read the whole story. While such an ending was a humorous way of conluding a Bob Newhart series, it didn’t work so well for explaining away the biggest moment in the history of Dallas. It doesn’t do a whole lot for this story, either. Finding out all of what preceded was just a dream by the wife rings out as a hollow ending, an attempt to be cute in a book almost entirely devoid of cuteness. On the one hand, it opens up the possibility of the dream being a look into some unconscious feelings towards the marriage.

We are led to believe that the husband has, in some way, been consciously sleeping, perhaps faking his snoring, on some weird subconcious level while actually asleep, to irritate his wife. The bulk of the story is told in the clubhouse at a golf club by the husband to his father-in-law, which seems like an odd choice for a confidant when you’re essentially saying his daughter is nuts and is making their marriage a living hell by her incessant complaining about his snoring.

Honestly, if that’s as far as the story went before the woman wakes up and its revealed that this whole mess was really just a dream, there wouldn’t be much more to write about. What might save the story from falling into its clichéd ending is the little twist revealed just before the turn where you are given a hint that, at some level, the husband is purposefully snoring while asleep, something that should be impossible. This possibility is given an extra little push by a moment in the video from the sleep clinic that shows him slyly opening one eye to look at his still sleeping wife while he is snoring.

Now, by itself this certainly lends a creepy aspect to the husband that may not have been entirely there before. If he is somehow willing himself to snore while in deep sleep, and is weirdly subconsciously/consciously watching his wife to see if he’s effective, it raises a disturbing question over how strong the human subconscious is and how much control is really can assert over  a person’s actions. But what happens when we realize that this is all a creation of his wife’s unconscious mind?

Also, how reliable now is the narrator for the previous story? Finding out that it was all a dream throws the reliability of the narrator into serious question as the very notion of a dream lends a certain fog of uncertainty to it. All readers know that dreams are not reality but can work as representations of something about reality. So now we can no longer honestly look at the majority of the story as any sort of fact but only as some sort of representation of fact. Much of this collection has centered on stories that have passed through a number of filters and we are left to decide what has been filtered out, what has been allowed to pass and why. Part of what this story comes down to must essentially fit into this theme that rears itself in the  majority of the other stories.

Speaking of filters, this story passes through at least three. One is her husband’s, who is the narrator for the bulk of the story. The second is, obviously, Hope’s subconscious mind that we find has constructed the events entirely, and the third is the almost entirely unseen (aside from a few lines of dialog at the end) conscious Hope. At some point, it becomes crucial to figure out the meaning of the story in how it must relate to the conscious Hope’s world,f or her world is the only world that is mitigated by unreality. It’s the only world that’s “real” but the only picture we can draw from it now is from inferences made from the dream world told through the imagined lens of her husband.

Part of me does not believe the story works because it simply doesn’t give us enough information we can concretely say is True. I feel it is entirely safe to say that Hope’s dream must in some way be representational of Hope’s reality but we can’t judge how representational it is or of what it might be representing. At the same time, I would be hesitant to say that determining how/what the dream represents is what matters to Wallace in this story. Perhaps the exploration of narrator and time is what Wallace is looking to explore and the lack of information to encourage a reading of representation/reality is purposeful.  It might be Wallace’s way  of focusing our attention on what he wants it focused on. Rather than having a better story, Wallace may have been pushing for a clearer point.

Philosophy and the Mirror Nature – Story Review

March 14, 2010

I’m not sure what to make of the story. Even though it’s short, especially by Wallace standards, he packs a lot of information into it. A son and mother are suing a cosmetic surgeon for a botched surgery to remove crow’s feet that permanently ricters the woman’s face into a look of abject terror. Meanwhile, we also learn the son is on probation for not taking proper precautions in keeping poisonous spiders in his garage, something discovered by a kidfalling through the roof and into the glass enclosures that were housing the spiders.

The bulk (entirety?) of the story takes place through narration by the Son as he rides with his mother on the bus, has him talking about  how he goes with her to protect his mother while carrying a briefcase with little breathing holds tacked into it because he also brings some of his black widow spiders with him.

In a way it explores the horror of disfigurement. The result of the botched surgery on the mother’s face causes such discomfort in those who see her that the son has to literally protect her on the street and find the best possible seat on the bus for shielding his mother’s face from other passengers. But Wallace doesn’t focus on the ostracizing aspects of the disfigurements. It would have been the most natural, and easiest, path for the story to take but the only way the mother is touched on is a tower of different ways of saying she looks terrible and the affect this malformity has on those who see her. The bulk of the story is her son saying (and showing) how much he is willing to care for her and for his spiders, while attempting to absolve himself of any blame in regards of the incident regarding said spiders and how the black widow is actually a timid coward, especially in comparison to the recluse spider.  IN fact, the Son is almost motherly towards the spider, doting on them and praising them as if they were his children. Meanwhile, we’re ot given any reason to believe he has been praised at all by anyone. He is clearly helpful towards his mother but I don’t believe he ever mentions her noting his kindness.   She just seems to go with him out of necessity of the situation. And despite his occasional mentions of looking out for her due to the extreme of public reactions to her appearance, it seems he is just as unemotionally paired with her as he must be with her due to his probation because of charges brought against him when the kid fell through the garage and into his spider cages.

With the help of this class wiki (or maybe it’s just a message board system, not sure on the difference) I was keyed in on a possible connection to a philosphical take to the story with a similarly named paper from 1979: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by Richard Rorty. unforunately, much like the person who made the post at the wiki (or message board), I’m unable to tease out much of a meaning in the connection, either. This makes me wonder if there is a connection, though, considering Wallace’s background, I assume there has to be.

What I do sense is a certain hopelessness to the Son character. He takes actions of his own, namely his collection of Black Widow spiders, but he doesn’t seem to have much control over what is actually happening in his life. A kid crawling across his garage, an intruder as it were, falls into his spiders and manages to get the Son in legal trouble over it. The legal trouble ties him to his mother who is forced into greater dependency on him because of a horribly botched cosmetic surgery that left her permanently looking like the woman in the shower scene from Psycho.

And maybe this is where the only real connection lies to the Rorty work. From what I’ve been able to gather, Rorty’s paper is largely a call for philosophy to deal with problems in a real way that ignores pointless argument for a view of the bigger picture. in effect, if something works, that’s what matters. Not what color the shirt is of someone taking part. with the life of the son, there are few extraneous matters. He is constantly dealing with what needs to be dealt with how they need to be dealt with. In effect, he is finding what works and focusing on it rather than a bunch of ancillary things that don’t have any connection to the ends he is trying to make meet.

Good Old Neon – Story Review

March 10, 2010

It would be easy to make much of this story in light of David Foster Wallace’s own suicide but I’m not sure that I have it in me to draw those comparisons. They are there, clearly,  but it’s just not something that I care to explore – at least not explicitly. The idea of taking someone’s work and attempting to apply it like a blanket to an author’s life seems, at the same time, too easy and too constructionist. I say constructionist because there comes a point where you simply can’t know the artist (or perhaps anyone) well enough to come to any sort of definite conclusion. So what you end up doing is constructing something to bridge circumstances to art to life and trying to dress these bridges in a certain way that presents them as near fact. Is there a part of an artist in all of their creations? Of course. Could you represent a story like Good Old Neon as a preface to an eventual suicide note? Sure. But it seems like an ugly process to me.

Looking at the story itself, again, the narrator comes out and lets you know that he isn’t reliable. And by the end of the story, when you discover that the bulk of the story wasn’t in fact first person but a sort of omniscient third person where the actual narrator is “David Wallace” relating a story that you must assume is largely inferred of the circumstances surrounding the suicide of someone he went to high school with. So even if the narrator isn’t being literally or cognitively dishonest, you still have to remember that there is a certain quality of the telephone game to this. Similar to “Another Pioneer” where a story is presented to the reader as overheard on a long planeflight of someone in another seat relaying this story to someone else, you have to become aware of the opportunities for individual interpretation to find its way into the re-telling of the story.

Personally, I prefer to read this as a straight metafictional autobiography rather than some sort of plea for help from suicidal thoughts. Looking at this story, how it follows “Another Pioneer,” and how the theme of unreliability of the story teller is carried over, Wallace seems to, again, be riffing on the lack of reliability in all story tellers. It’s something that makes me think of Brecht and the attempt to separate the audience from the work to make them think of the work. By forcing/asking/whatevering the reader to step back from whatever world they are trying to immerse themselves in and to look and think about what is being said and why it is being said, it seems to be a plea for the reader to become more discerning about what they read. For good and for ill.

“Good Old Neon” can hold up to this detached viewing. The story that continuously wraps back around itself, adding layer to layer, as the narrator recounts a life of continuously attempting to not only tailor himself but to tailor the expectations of those around to fit some idealized notion of who he should be, to  maintain the highest possible opinion of him by everyone, is not only sufficiently complex but also sufficiently enjoyable. Part of me has to wonder how Wallace felt about the average page turner. The books that typically end up on bestseller lists, books that are ripped through by voracious readers, devoured like a gluttonous meal before being just as easily discarded so as to move on to the next bestselling smörgåsbord.  thinking of some of the books that I have read, I am not sure they would stand up to a near constant distancing.

At the same time, I would question the good of practiced distancing from everything you read. Part of the power of a piece of art is the ability to capture someone and pull them not just emotionally but psychologically into a moment, a fabricated world. forcing yourself to become immune to such pulls seems to be just as much a disservice as a positive push towards retrospection and introspection. Part of the beauty of the power of art is its ability to pull a person in and to allow for the experience of something beyond the person’s own.

Which may come back around to the narrator’s original problem, the ability to give himself over not only to himself but to others. The idea that a person is constantly attempting to manipulate every situation and interaction for the greatest possible personal benefit strikes me as being very similar to this idea of distancing from works of art, specifically literature. In the end, perhaps Wallace is saying this attempt is ultimately a hollow endeavor that leaves the individual equally as hollow.

Another Pioneer – Story Review

March 9, 2010

A story of a story of a story of a…well, you get the idea. A long meandering thing without paragraphs, it relates a story that is closer to myth about a child prodigy who rises to prominence in a small jungle village only to have the people eventually turn and leave him behind as they burn their own village to the ground and move on to a new place.

Honestly, I’m not sure that matters at all. What might really matter in this story is Wallace tinkering with the idea of a narrator and the narrator’s reliability. Right from the opening lines where the narrator admits he only heard the story told once and this instance was on an airline by a passanger sitting in front of him who was relaying this story to another person. So the story had already been through the telephone a couple of times before finding its way to our narrator who also adds his own tics and touches throughout.

At some point the obvius connectin between the narrator in the story and the actual writer of The Story (in this case, Wallace) has to be considered. By setting up an obviously less than reliable narrator what could Wallace be attempting to convey about writing in general and possibly his writing in particular? From the few interviews I have seen of Wallace, it seems he does not have much faith in there being some sort of connection between the writer and his readers or that the readers are at all likely to cull from a work and consider important what the writer believes has been worked in as integral parts of the work and which should be considered important.  Where this usually comes up with Wallace in his interviews is when the conversation turns to him being a “funny” writer and how often things that readers find blindingly funny he inserted in all seriousness and never truly considered the possibility that they would be funny until getting response from his readers.

So who is to say that anything I (or anyone) culls from a Wallace (or anyone else’s) work has anything to do with what the writer may have intended? Or that maybe the writer is just as oblivious and lost in knowing what is being written as the reader is when reading it.

It is strangely conceivable that Wallace’s considers the possibility that authors themselves lack any real knowledge or perception of what they are creating, instead just reading into their own work ideas that are mere reflections of what they want to read into it. After all, the question is often raised and just as often skirted of where a writer conceives of his idea, as if it was something inseminated into his mind where it gestated before being birthed a few months later. And for how disdainfully writers treat this question, few if any ever truly answer it. Perhaps there is a sort of inner telephone game that goes on as the writer constructs his own narrative, getting the story second or third hand from disjointed thoughts that somehow come together to form a coherent whole.

Incarnations of Burned Children – Story Review

March 4, 2010

What can be said about a three page short story? What can be said about this one is that I think the child has died by the end of the story. It is, of course, open for interpretation. It could just as easily be the child moving beyond a feeling of pain to a certain “otherness” that somehow displaces it from pain. But the description is too close to the stereotypical “near death” experience for me to go that route. But this is the last and least interesting of the instances of characters separating themselves from reality. The first instance is the wife upon discovering the child has dumped a pot of boiling water over itself. She is essentially and stereotypically panicked, bordering on useless. The other instance is the father rushing in, seeing his child severely hurt and burning and displacing himself out of necessity to be able to act. 

For the father it is an act of necessity, for if he “could hear the screams they would freeze him.” So the only way he can act is by displacing his emotional self from his psychological self. If he would allow himself to feel, those feelings would literally cripple him.

Which ties back into the woman’s reaction and women being, again stereotypically, more “emotional” than men and more open to the flood of emotions such an event would surely cause.

Given the almost blatant stereotypical reaction of the woman, though also an entirely understandable reaction, the most interesting duality is forced upon the father and the child. For the father, removing himself from the emotions of the situation allows him to act. In fact, the only moment where he  hesitates is upon removing the diaper, realizing the greatest majority of the scalding water has been trapped there, and seeing the horror of the disfigurement of his son’s genitalia (left mercifully un-described).  there could be a tie-in between the father’s ability to act when displaced from his emotions, and the son’s ceasing his crying when he seems to have distanced himself from his own body. 

There cold also be something in there between the discovery of the child’s genitalia being damaged and the child’s ceasing his crying. Having his emasculation discovered, the child may have given up his tie to the world or, if you believe the child is still alive but just distanced from the pain, that the discovery of this mutilation was equivilant to being outed and not having to bear the weight of it any longer.

In the end, it’s really a very short story that seems to be just story. It can be tied into larger themes throughout the collection but, at the same time, it doesn’t seem to have the depth to hold up a look at just itself. So at the same it is easily the most accessible story in the collection, the quickest and easiest read, but it also lacks the most depth.

The Soul is not a Smithy – Story Review

March 1, 2010

The Soul is not a Smithy (TSS) is a story of multiple story lines that do not so much converge as overlap one another.  In a way, it is very similar to the story that preceeds it, Mr. Squishy. Where Mr. Squishy is layered in the knowledge of the true workings of the of office and how everyone in the office interacts with each other, TSS is layered in time frames for each individual story. One story is about the narrator’s childhood when he and three other children are “held hostage” in their fourth grade class when a teacher had a psychotic episode and they didn’t realize they should run when when the rest of the students fled. Another story is a story the narrator creates for himself while staring out the windows of the classroom involving a fictive girl named Ruth who loses her job. Yet another story line is the story of the narrator as an adult trying to recount the events of the day he and three others were held hostage.

A feeling that emerges with reading Wallace is that the story may not necessarily matter.  This is something I’ve been moderately against in the past. Writing a story to prove a point seems like a hollow endeavour to me. The story suffers as it is buried beneath the weight of trying to prove a point, to espouse a theory, to argue an idea. Who I most often mention in regards to this is Ayn Rand – someone whose work I have enjoyed but have ultimately been left feeling a bit unfulfilled by.

With Wallace, and his extreme structuring, the idea before story might be brought the closest I have seen it taken to a successful marriage with it story without sacrificing the primary purpose of the work to the story.

With this collection in particular and with Wallace in general, I’ve read a lot mentioning his exploration of horror or terror. I mentioned it in the review of the first story, Mr. Squishy. But what becomes a larger theme with TSS, and which becomes a larger component of Mr. Squishy in retrospect, is how it deals with time and memory through structure. The narrator of TSS has clear problems with time and its organization, something that may have become worse with age as the need to organize time and events becomes more complex.

The lack of complexity for this organization as a child is revealed in the narrator’s day dreaming in the classroom as the substitute teacher quickly unravels in front of the chalk board. Looking through the window panes, the young narrator breaks his day dream up into comic book style panels for each pane of glass, and he takes this separate story tangents and builds them up with the use of other panels, creating a complex mosaic of imagery broken by each edge of each window pane-  just as each panel in a comic strip is broken apart in a conventional comic. Throughout the narrative of the day dream, the young narrator never becomes lost, and this “story” is the thing the older narrator seems to recall most clearly.

Where the narrative fractures is where the older narrator has had to rely on outside resources to construct what was happening in the classroom apart from his day dream.  In effect, someone was coloring between the panels of the story constructed by the young narrator and the old narrator is having to go in and figure out how to combine the worlds created by his younger self and the world “created” by the accounts of people who had been witness to the event happening around the young narrator.

So what does this say about memory and our construction of it? Well, I think the idea that the memories we are most sure about are the ones constructed most solidly from within ourselves shouldn’t be dismissed. In other words, it’s the idea that our memories, and hence the definition for ourselves, is necessarily a self-made construct. And perhaps this is the true process of growing up. The ability to create your own narrative structure.

The problem with the narrator is that what has become the climax of his formation of a person is something that he has no real first hand knowledge of. In effect, his adult existence has been built upon a house of cards arranged from the collected detritus of the memories of others. It is a disassociation the narrator would also feel towards his father, who comes home in a perpetual funk. This disassociation breeds within the narrator a fear of growing older, of coming to suffer from whatever it is that his father suffers from.

Which brings us back around to time and its link to memory. Time is, essentially, a mental construct. We measure it, as best we can, through whatever cycles are occuring around us but that’s like treating a disease’s symptoms rather than treating the disease. Time itself  is more a construct of our anxieties than anything. As a child, the narrator was essentially outside of the time loop for a moments, as all children are. But he was conscious of time in a way that made him recognize that something was wrong with how his father behaved and to associate this, in some way, with growing older.

I get the feeling that the psychotic break in the classroom, while the narrator was “outside of time” has a more significant connection with how he views his father. And that there is a lesson there about the dangers of opportunities and time missed and the repercussions it can have down the road.

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.

DF Wallace, new novel, a linky and a thought or two

March 3, 2009

This blurb about an unfinished novel by the late David Foster Wallace caught my attention today. “The Pale King” centers around the life at an IRS agency in Illinois and focuses on boredom in some way (such as it being its theme). 

Wallace was a guy who existed on he edge of my reading world for awhile (something that has become a running theme of posts I make as I start to read some of these “periphery” guys and realize they were pretty solid little writers that I should have read far sooner) and had make a point of actually reading when I heard of him having committed suicide. Of course, I discovered this like three months after he had passed. And am still just getting around to starting his short story collection, “Oblivion.”

Which has been alright so far. I’ve never been big on the stream of consciousness thing. It’s just not my thing. And with how meticulously Wallace constructs it, it’s even less my thing for long swatches of text (and I still have Broom of the System and Girl/Hair to read, heh…).  But for every four pages of text that feels like I’m throwing my head against an unmoving cinder block wall, he’ll pop up with a few pages of knee buckling beauty.  Where I read someone like Delillo and just not care for it, for me Wallace is a writer with the ability to transcend the page and strike out at a metaphysical self of the reader that few writers have the ability to do. Doesn’t mean I particularly enjoy reading him, so far, but in the little bit I have read he has had moments of startling perfection.

Anyway, where was I going with all of this? I’m not really sure. I really just wanted to hit on Wallace’s new unfinished novel, my unfinished reading of Wallace’s finished short story writing and how I sorta kinda not care for stream of consciousness writing which is odd because the vast majority of my blogs are exactly that. So it’s great when I write it but mediocre when others do it. Such is the curse of being a writer, eh?

Oh, and here is Newyorker’s awesome biographical piece on Wallace. Even if you have never read a word by the man, his life story is interesting and touching. Really just an insanely smart guy who was a bit messed up and could never find a way to really manage it or be helped with managing it. Hope he’s in a better place.

I forgot about this as my G/F texted me and I had to listen to a long boring rant. So I didn’t get this posted on monday so this appears to be my Tuesday blog. Maybe I’ll try to double up later. A lesson to the fellas – stay invisible until your work is done.