The Digressionist

By

Oblivion: Stories

By David Foster Wallace

(Little, Brown, 329 pp., $29.95)

Click here to purchase the book.

I.The gibbous moon, not full but fuller than a semicircle, is a part
that represents a whole, and there are evenings when we seem to
"see" the shadow of this wholeness: we naturally complete the
circle. This is not a bad emblem for how fiction--indeed, any
mimetic art--represents a world without needing to offer us all of
it. Fiction is a picture-making art, and we understand that
pictures are only made frames around the potentially limitless
canvas of the unmade. Obviously enough, fiction that took place in
real time would resemble the conundrum explored by Josiah Royce and
Borges, that of the map that is the same size as the landscape it
represents.

American fiction has been unusually burdened with the question of
form and immersion; one might call the major trend in modern
American writing "immersion fiction." The desire to write the Great
American Novel is, after all, really just the attempt somehow to
cover the nation, to provide a form big enough for American
bigness. (Did anyone ever imagine the Great American Novel a mere
novella?) American exceptionalism--the idea that American reality is
unique in size, quiddity, and strangeness--produces American
literary exceptionalism. Philip Roth's statement in 1961, about how
reality in America has begun to out- fictionalize fiction, is the
most famous example of a writer's frustration, but it might also be
seen as a warped declaration of respect, not so very far from
Whitman's joyous "the United States themselves are essentially the
greatest poem." It is surely not accidental that the dominant mode
of recent American fiction has been--despite injections of
fantasy--solidly realistic, and often epic in reach: think of
Richard Powers, William T. Vollmann, the Updike of the Rabbit
novels, Don DeLillo's Underworld, the Richard Ford of Independence
Day, Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Franzen, the later Philip Roth,
even Tom Wolfe. These writers have been keen to give us an American
reality-bath; teapot-sized tempests won't do.

David Foster Wallace is one of the leading American immersion
fictionalists. But his method is rather unusual. Rather than fill
his fictions with multiple scenes and hundreds of characters, he
bloats his sentences with mimesis. He wants his prose to register
all the many decompositions that language has already undergone in
ordinary American discourse--where "ordinary" means the sloppy
illiteracies of e-mail, the facilities of the Net, the neologistic
outlandishness of middle-management-speak, the knowing carelessness
of journalism. He wants his prose to be manically absorptive,
endlessly soaking up the foul linguistic run-off of contemporary
fluidity. His sentences--sometimes literally--aspire to be endless.
Despite the size of some of his books, he is in fact a
micro-realist.

And it should be said that he is very good at this. He has an
excellent ear. One knows this just by comparing him to writers whom
he has, however lightly, influenced. Jonathan Franzen's showing off
about neuroblasters and neural transmitters in The Corrections
sounded uncomfortably as if he had just Googled the information up.
Colson Whitehead's prose frequently seems unaware of its own
illiteracy, as when, for instance, he writes in John Henry Days:
"Lucien and the ice cream melt in the heat at deviant rates," when
really he means "divergent." Or this, from the same novel: "Once in
a while one of them said I love you, to flat sonant agreement from
the other pillow." Whitehead aims to do something Wallace usually
achieves with greater suppleness: he wants to borrow the precision
that a word like "deviant" or "sonant" possesses in its colder
official--that is, scientific or theoretical or
statistical--discourse, and then assault that precision within the
new, looser, warmer context of literature. This is deconstruction,
essentially. (Anyone puzzled about where theory went after it died
in the academy--or, more precisely, where the language of theory
went--need look no further than contemporary American fiction,
whose leading writers represent the first generation to have
studied literary theory and cultural studies at college.)

Wallace, like Whitehead and Franzen, likes the interruption, the
shock, that comes about with the jostling of linguistic registers.
Here, for instance, he describes a journalist whose low-tech
notebook--rather than a tape recorder or laptop--pleases him: "The
fliptop stenographer's notebook was partly for effect, but it was
also what Skip Atwater had gotten in the habit of using out in the
field for background at the start of his career, and its personal
semiotics and mojo were profound; he was comfortable with it." In
that sentence, "personal semiotics and mojo" is almost, in a strict
sense, meaningless; the point is precisely that meaning is being
mangled; meaning is being customized by Skip. Wallace is very
interested in free indirect style--in which an author's third-
person prose is so infected by the language of the character it is
inhabiting that it becomes almost indistinguishable from that
character's language--and certainly in this case Wallace is
attempting to inhabit the journalist's own language. This is Skip,
in effect, musing to himself. (Whitehead and Franzen, by contrast,
rarely seem to pull off their attempts at free indirect style.) The
only wobble comes with that sarcastic word "profound," in which
Wallace seems to wink at us, to pull away from his character, as if
saying to us, "How ridiculous of Skip that he should use the word
'profound' in the same sentence as 'personal semiotics and
mojo'--how can his relation to his notebook be in any way
profound?" A faint apprehension of satire, of mockery, never leaves
Wallace's treatment of his characters.

Still, the relentlessness of his commitment to decomposing his own
language can yield an authentic American loneliness, a hollowed
space filled only by brand names and the sound of corporate
jingling:

In his spare time Terry Schmidt read, watched satellite television,
collected rare and uncirculated US coins, ran discriminant analyses
of TFG statistics on his Apple PowerBook, worked in the small home
laboratory he'd established in his condominium's utility room, and
power-walked on a treadmill in a line of eighteen identical
treadmills on the mezzanine-level CardioDeck of a Bally Total
Fitness franchise just east of the Prudential Center on Mies van
der Rohe Way, where he sometimes also used the sauna.

In this passage, from "Mister Squishy," the first story in Oblivion,
Wallace describes an advertising executive at a company called
Reesemeyer Shannon Belt. The story takes place on the nineteenth
floor of a Chicago skyscraper, as Schmidt and a colleague lead a
focus group through a tasting and response session. They are
judging a new chocolate cake called Felony! Most of the story is
written in a hideous pastiche of marketing-speak, hovering somewhere
between Schmidt's consciousness and the consciousness of the
story's actual narrator. The story is fundamentally
unreadable--deliberately, defiantly so. One suspects that Wallace's
ideal here is the final collapse of the English sentence into a
gibberish of acronyms and data: "A bleach-alternative detergent's
agency had once hired Team ?Y to convene primipara mothers aged 29
to 34 whose TATs had indicated insecurities at three key loci and
to administer questionnaires whose items were designed to provoke
and/or heighten those insecurities."

Wallace renders a world from which the human has been all but
evacuated. Once or twice, "Mister Squishy" seems to open out, to
let us peer sympathetically into Terry Schmidt's voided
contamination. At one moment Schmidt is reassuring himself that
despite the awfulness of the job, he does indeed have an inner life
separate from the workings of Reesemeyer Shannon Belt: "he had a
vivid and complex inner life, and introspected a great deal."
Wallace's canny use of the horrid verb "introspected" alerts us to
the likelihood that Schmidt is simply deceiving himself, that he is
too far gone to be recoverable. Someone who thinks that he
introspects a great deal is probably not very introspective.

There are glintings like this throughout this talented, frustrating,
and finally intolerable book. Wallace is an avant-gardist, keen to
frustrate ordinary, linear comprehensibility. He is also something
of a moralist, outraged by the degree to which American
consciousness has been colonized by advertising and all kinds of
trivial mediation: "The anecdote, which the intern amused everyone
by trying at first to phrase very delicately, involved her fianc,
as an undergraduate, performing cunnilingus on what was at that time
one of Swarthmore's most beautiful and widely desired girls, with
zero percent body fat." The usual charge, that Wallace lacks
"heart," seems wrong-headed. In his strange way, he is deeply
interested in human beings, if not quite interested in characters
as such. Or rather, he is interested in humans at the point at
which they cede their humanity to the punitive conformity that
surrounds them. He backs into his characters, occupying the wake
they leave behind them as they disappear into American reality.

But he never moves us. His fictions strangely reproduce the extreme
coldness that they abhor. This cannot be overemphasized, since it
registers the high cost of the manic obstructions that his
sentences aim to be. Wallace has many ardent followers (his name is
just "DFW" on some college campuses), but surely no one has ever
claimed to be moved by him. Amused, impressed, challenged, even
finely tormented; but not involved, quickened, raised, imparadised.
Wallace may be torn between desiring the ordinary satisfactions of
readerly connection and disdaining their very ordinariness. Alas,
the latter impulse almost always vanquishes the former.

The main reason for this is that we are too busy drowning in his
immersion- lessons to get any air. Almost all the stories in this
book are more than forty pages long, and the last one, "The
Suffering Channel," runs to more than ninety pages. "Mister
Squishy" is sixty-four pages, in which every meandering sentence
strives to inhabit the ugliness of corporate language. Wallace is
famous for his manic garrulousness, though why, in the area of art,
this should be any greater distinction than having an unusually
long toe is unclear. Sure enough, when Wallace informs us about the
ingredients of a Felony!, a mere sentence or two will not suffice.
We must be sunk into it, have our faces rubbed in the synthetic
horror. Three-quarters of a page is consumed by this kind of thing:

A domed cylinder of flourless maltitol-flavored sponge cake covered
entirely in 2.4mm of a high-lecithin chocolate frosting
manufactured with trace amounts of butter, cocoa butter, baker's
chocolate, chocolate liquor, vanilla extract, dextrose, and
sorbitol ... which high-end frosting was then also injected by
high-pressure confectionery needle into the 26 x 13mm hollow ellipse
in each Felony!'s center (a center which in for example Hostess
Inc.'s products was packed with what amounted to a sucrotic whipped
lard)....

Again and again, Wallace shadows his subjects so closely that his
prose begs to take on their properties, to embody their
deformities. Mimesis--lots of mimesis--is all well and good, but
fiction needs internal and external borders. As Henry James rightly
notes in one of his prefaces, "Really, universally, relations stop
nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but
to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they
shall happily appear to do so." And Wallace's subjects are more
often cultural subjects than human subjects. Thus, while one proper
ideal of novelistic art is the author's self-sacrificial stylistic
collapse into the individual idiolects of his characters, Wallace
too often ends up only collapsing into the collective idiolect of
the culture that he is documenting. This is not without interest,
because Wallace is very often lively, but it is also supremely
ugly, and finally it feels drastically limited. Wallace's happiest
readers like to argue for the brilliance with which he can "do"
anything: he can "do" the language of a focus group, of a blank
teenager, of an insurance salesman, of celebrity journalism. But if
what you are super-mimetically "doing" is ugly, you will produce
super-mimetically ugly prose. Here, for instance, is Wallace
"doing" New York glossy magazine journalism:

The other Style piece the associate editor had referred to concerned
The Suffering Channel, a wide grid cable venture that Atwater had
gotten Laurel Manderley to do an end run and pitch directly to the
editor's head intern for WHAT IN THE WORLD. Atwater was one of
three full time salarymen tasked to the WITW feature, which
received .75 editorial pages per week, and was the closest any of
the BSG weeklies got to freakshow or tabloid, and was a bone of
contention at the very highest levels of Style.The staff size and
large font specs meant that Skip Atwater was officially contracted
for one 400 word piece every three weeks, except the juniormost of
the WITW salarymen had been on half time ever since Eckleschafft-Bd
had forced Mrs. Anger to cut the editorial budget for everything
except celebrity news, so in reality it was more like three
finished pieces every eight weeks.

The ugliness--and the boringness--of this prose resides not just in
its habitual lapse into acronyms, but in its
lowest-common-denominator phrasing. The mixed registers, the mad
and fiery powders of American discourse, offer the novelist great
prizes and useful explosions. Norman Rush, for instance, produces a
vitally peculiar prose, which superbly combines
near-pretentiousness with slightly off-key usages. Like Wallace, he
enjoys dislocating theoretical or literary or abstract language and
re-inserting it into conversational prose and free indirect style:
"It looked like the universal conspiracy of women, stanza nine
billion, on the face of it." Or this: "He hated the slings and
arrows of staircase wisdom." Or this: "I was manic and global.
Everything was a last straw. I went up the hill on passivity and
down again." This could not be anything but American prose. But it
is also recognizably a human idiom, because Rush grounds his
stylistic idiosyncracies in the idiosyncracies of his characters.
Wallace too often deprives himself of this human element, either
because his subject is empty culture rather than the full
individual, or because, on those occasions when his subject is
indeed an individual, he seems peculiarly intent on obstructing
individual communication.

Take the book's title story, a forty-seven-page exercise in
unreliable narration. A colorless married man, a mere integer at
his workplace--he is an "Assistant Systems Supervisor" for a
company "which provided out-sourced data and document storage
facilities and systems for a number of small- and mid- sized
insurance providers in the Mid-Atlantic region"--tells us about the
trouble that he is having in his marriage. Or rather, he fails to
tell us about it; instead he tells us about his snoring problem.
His wife has begun to wake at night, violently accusing her hapless
mate of disturbing her with his infernal snoring. The man is
convinced that he does not snore: "I do, of course, have my
personal faults, as do all or most husbands; but 'snoring' during
the year's cold weather months (like most, my hay fever is seasonal
or, more technically, an 'Auto-immune system' response to certain
cases of canicular pollen) is not one of them."

Unreliable narration is the name given to this kind of storytelling,
the smudged hermeneutics whereby it is our task as readers to
puzzle out the gaps and the slippages of a first-person account
that knows less than it thinks it knows about itself. In this
story, Wallace lets us see that the real problem between husband
and wife is not the snoring, but a deeper mistrust of which this
has become the casus belli. The husband's inability to see this
deeper problem, and his pedantic fixation on the question of
whether he does indeed snore or not, is clearly part of the very
marital difficulty that he is evading, and the reader is allowed to
piece this knowledge together. There is also a suggestion that the
husband may have a fantasy relationship with an invented daughter,
and--at the end of the story--that the husband may in fact have
been dreaming the entire narrative while in bed.

Wallace hardly needed these further elements of unreliability. But
these are not the real problems with the story. The real problem is
that Wallace goes out of his way to make the story almost
unreadable. Not content with making the narrator facetiously
unreliable, he makes him repellently fussy and preening. He gives
him a style that resembles a bad parody of late Henry James. Thus
the husband has a tic of putting many of his words in quotation
marks, and of redundantly repeating certain words: "my wife's
original or 'maiden' name.... I gripped the small table's 'burled'
or beveled sides in a show of distress...."

The pomposity of this narrator has disastrous results for the story.
What might have been an affecting and genuinely ironic domestic
tale, about a man's comic-pathetic inability to read correctly the
warning signs in his marriage, becomes instead a fantastic and
repellent exercise through which the reader can barely drag
himself. Moreover, the hideousness of the husband's voice stacks
the cards against him, precluding any possibility of sympathetic
identification. "Look at this pedantic little idiot," Wallace seems
to be saying, "which we can tell by looking at his absurd manner of
speaking." So irony is starved to sarcasm, and sympathy to
voyeurism. It is literally impossible for the reader to enter the
story; Wallace has sealed all the gates.

Wallace is greatly gifted, but he has a curious kind of autism: it
is as if he forgets that the voices who tell his stories are also
humans whose presence might or might not be pleasurable to
encounter. And there is a further problem. Despite the numbing
pedantry of the narrator's style in this story, it too often
resembles Wallace's own numbing pedantry of style. In the following
passage, the narrator tells us of sitting with his stepfather-in-law
at the local golf club:

The Raritan Club's distinctive escutcheon and motto, for instance,
appeared both to recede and come into an almost excruciant focus on
"the Hole"'s opposite wall, beneath a perceptually tiny stuffed
tarpon whose every imbricate scale seemed outlined or limned in
almost "Photo realist" detail.... I gripped the small maple table's
"burled" or beveled sides in a show of distress....

Now does "beneath a perceptually tiny stuffed tarpon whose every
imbricate scale" sound like an Assistant Systems Supervisor
talking, or does it sound like David Foster Wallace? In the same
story, the narrator refers to "a career beverage waitress," a funny
and smart locution, but also closer to DFW than to the ASS (ah, so
that's what this man is!), and delivers himself of this opinion
about a man's beard: "Jack Vivien (whose circumoral balbo or 'Van
Dyke' was, admittedly, frankly and incongruously 'merkin-esque' or
pudendal in appearance). ..." Here is the familiar, vaguely
sophomoric, knowing young man's tone, always an adjective ahead of
his readers ("circumoral" is a neologism). It leads us straight
back to Wallace, as indeed do all the "voices" in this collection.

There is really only one voice in this book, and it belongs to the
writer whose weakest piece here, "Another Pioneer," is a
twenty-three-page shaggy-dog story whose only apparent raison d'tre
is to deploy the following words: "albinistic," "melanistic,"
"thanatophilic," "ptotic," "trypanosomic," "hemean, " "omphalic,"
"catastatic," "malefic," "extrorse," "protasis." Ironically enough,
the intrusion into the husband's narrative of Wallace's own
distinctive signature as a stylist would matter less if Wallace had
not made the husband so distinctive a "stylist" in the first place,
with his drab pedantry and endless reformulating of pet phrases.

II.

Like all immersion novelists, Wallace is digressive. One might say
that the great problem with digression, as a literary mode, is that
the only way to experience the aura of the digressive is to endure
digression itself. The shaggy-dog story is excruciating precisely
because it is shaggy; and alas, that is also the only way to
experience its excruciating shagginess. For many readers, this is
too high a price to pay. Likewise, the great limitation of
immersion is that the only way it can represent something is by
embodying it rather than by gesturing toward it.

The original digressionist is Laurence Sterne, that master of the
shaggy-dog story, or "Irish bull," and David Foster Wallace owes
more than a little to that writer: the bulbous comic sentences, the
manic listing, the spiralling footnotes (Infinite Jest has more
than one hundred pages of them), the playing around with voices,
the self-referentiality, the insistent and even relentless
"comedy," the cod-scholarly interest in jargon and technical
discourses--all this can be found in Tristram Shandy. Thomas
Pynchon is the great American Sternean, and Wallace has also
learned a good deal from him. T.S. Eliot's advice about the
importance of "relevant intensity" in good prose undergoes almost
an inversion in the hands of such writers. Irrelevant intensity
becomes a motor of the prose, a generator of the comedy and loose
abundance.

But another channel flows into Wallace's style, and this is the
Nabokovian- Updikean influence. Those stylists, Flaubert's children
all, miss no detail, and are constantly fondling their lusters.
Valry complained of Flaubert's style that "there is always room for
one more detail." Nabokov and Updike are very fine precisionists,
but their styles at times freeze detail into a cult of itself.
Aestheticism is the great risk here, and also an unnatural
exaggeration of the noticing eye: thus Updike logically terminates
in the psycho-pointillism of Harold Brodkey or the micro-realism of
Nicholson Baker, in which the tiniest swirls of dust or the sound
of a dishwasher receive elaborate, luxurious discrimination. The
Nabokov who writes, "An elderly flower-girl, with carbon eyebrows
and a painted smile, nimbly slipped the plump torus of a carnation
into the buttonhole of an intercepted stroller whose left jowl
accentuated its royal fold as he glanced downward sideways at the
coy insertion of the flower," becomes the Updike who notices the
rain on a window thus: "Its panes were strewn with drops that as if
by amoebic decision would abruptly merge and break and jerkily run
downward, and the window screen, like a sampler half-stitched, or a
crossword puzzle invisibly solved, was inlaid erratically with
minute, translucent tesserae of rain."

One of the reasons that Wallace always sounds like himself, even
when he is ventriloquizing someone else, is that this
Nabokovian-Updikean micro-realist is too often showing his hand.
Nabokov and Updike are more lyrical writers than Wallace; he adds a
mathematical precisionism to their fanatical observing. The
narrator of "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" recalls a traumatic
experience in school by way of telling us his school daydream. He
spends his hours in the classroom staring out the window:

All of the school building's windows had a reticulate wire mesh
built directly into the glass in order to make the window harder to
break with an errant dodgeball or vandal's hurled stone.... The
wire mesh, which divided the window into 84 small squares with an
additional row of 12 slender rectangles where the first vertical
line of mesh nearly abutted the window's right border.. ..

Terry Schmidt, of "Mister Squishy," rather implausibly notices that
"the conference room's carpeting was magenta pile in which wheels
left symmetrically distended impressions when one or more of the
men adjusted their excecutive swivel chairs slightly to reposition
their legs or their bodies' relation to the table itself." And
recall that the useless narrator of "Oblivion," the Assistant
Systems Supervisor, noticed the "perceptually tiny stuffed tarpon
whose every imbricate scale seemed outlined," and in the same story
notices of his stepfather-in-law's wrist how "thin, sallow and, as
it were escharotic or flaky the flesh of his left wrist and hand in
the air appeared." Such writing always veers uneasily close to
self-congratulation--see what pearls I can find in a grain of
sand!--and is actually a distance away from deep noticing. Compare,
for instance, Bellow's beautiful observation, in Seize the Day, as
Tommy Wilhelm takes "the big but light elbow" of old Rappaport in
his younger hand. There an entire process of aging and mortality
has been feelingly compacted into five short words, and the reader
jumps with recognition, as he cannot when being cleverly taught the
word "escharotic": yes, we say to ourselves, "big but light," that
is just what an old man's protruding knobbly elbow is like.

Sternean digression, combined with Nabokovian micro-realism, is then
further inflected by Wallace's great investment in various forms of
unreliable narration. The total effect--the aggregate of all this
authorial obstruction-- is often intolerable, though I suspect this
comes as no news to Wallace, and may even afford him a shivery
postmodern satisfaction at a job properly done. One could say that
a definition of unreliable narration in Wallace is that his
narrators do not realize how boring they are: his fiction represents
voice without personhood.

Above all, his immersionist's willingness to saturate his fictions
in the germs that he is documenting makes them sick themselves. One
sees this in the book's most engaging story, "The Suffering
Channel," which closes the collection. It concerns a New York
magazine called Style, and because the offices of this magazine are
on the sixteenth floor of 1 World Trade Center, and because we are
told of one intern that "she had ten weeks to live" and that
another will survive "the tragedy by which Style would enter history
two months hence," we know that this is a September 11 story, and
we steel ourselves accordingly. A writer does not choose this
material lightly; he knows its gravity may have a way of judging
his lightness. And so the story is something of a test case for
Wallace.

At Style, a contributing writer named Skip Atwater is trying to
pitch a story about an Indiana man called Brint Moltke, who can
produce perfectly sculpted shit out of his ass. Isn't this a new
kind of art? Atwater goes to Indiana to interview Moltke and his
domineering, obese wife. He feels the need to warn the couple that
exposure will bring great celebrity, but perhaps much awkwardness.
Moltke's wife manages the negotiations; her husband is silent. In
New York, the glamorous young fashion interns start referring to the
piece as "the miraculous poo story." Meanwhile, in Chicago, a new
cable TV channel has started up, named "The Suffering Channel," in
which snatches of videotape of people suffering terrible
experiences play in a continuous twenty-four-hour loop. The
unfortunate Mr. Moltke will eventually, at story's end, be filmed
excreting on The Suffering Channel.

The Swiftian side of Wallace's moralism is often on display in this
story, which has passages of vivid, harsh, finely controlled
writing. The emptiness of the Manhattan magazine world is an easy
quarry for Wallace's spade, and he digs very happily. The tale's
meaning is not exactly subtle: a few months before real suffering
will engulf New York, the media world is just fiddling with shit.
That the media is itself shit is made usefully explicit, when we are
reminded that most of Style readers read the magazine in the
bathroom. So: we are what we read.

But the story, all ninety pages of it, like all the others in this
book, acutely fails to move the reader. The story ends with such
abruptness that suspicion stirs that it was a half-finished novel
that ran out of energy. It hardly helps that, once again, Wallace
mocks his characters rather than comprehends them: the interns and
scribes at Style are all paper-thin New York women of terrifying
superficiality. Wallace's decision to make the Indiana man's wife a
stock Midwesterner, a woman of surpassing and menacing obesity,
writes off the only possibility for human sympathy. So the story
takes place in the familiar space of Wallace's fiction: a world
voided of human substance. And then a revealing and deeply
symptomatic thing happens. Wallace tries to inject pathos, and
fails. Coming out of his Indiana motel room one day, while
negotiations with the Moltkes are at a delicate stage, Skip Atwater
almost steps into a pile of shit, and on a piece of paper outside
his door, the words "Help Me" have been formed in human excreta.

It should be a significant turning point in the story: we assume
that Moltke is desperately communicating with the journalist,
letting him know that his wife is bullying him into an exposure
that he secretly dreads. But the scene has, instead, a giggly,
juvenile weightlessness to it. Wallace never thematically develops
this new information: in the ten pages that follow, and close the
story, this cry for help is never referred to again. It is just
dropped. And observe what Wallace does with this message:

He [Skip] knew that great force of will would be required to try to
imagine the various postures and contractions involved in producing
the phrase, its detached and plumb straight underscoring, the tiny
and perfectly formed quotation marks.... In a sense, the content of
the message was obliterated by the overwhelming fact of its medium
and implied mode of production. The phrase terminated neatly at the
second E's serif; there was no tailing off or spotting.

"There was no tailing off or spotting": how is it possible to read
these words and not assume that Wallace is sniggering? The sentence
about "the various postures and contractions involved in producing
the phrase"--how can this be anything but a hideous lapse of tone
on Wallace's part? At the scene on which the story might pivot, we
have a pile of shit, and a journalist--and a writer, Wallace
himself--who is busy admiring the way the shit produces a spotless
"E's serif"! But Wallace cannot have it both ways. Either this is a
cry for help, with some meaning and implication for the story at
hand, or it is just a great big joke. It seems to be a great big
joke: first, because it seems incredible that if the man really
wanted to communicate with Skip, he would not choose a more direct
route, such as picking up the phone or using a pen; and second,
because Wallace will not deal with the message as if it matters, as
if it has human weight. I see no way to read the passage except as
a catastrophic abrogation of authorial responsibility. In a stroke,
Wallace's story itself becomes a piece of shit, an unmiraculous
poo, a piece of jokey installation art that is ostensibly about
grave matters--9/11, the long, dirty colon that is celebrity
journalism--but is actually incapable of making good on its claim
to gravity.

Here, at the end of Oblivion, we reach the culmination of Wallace's
long exercises in immersion: we have had our faces rubbed in shit
only at the cost of the story itself becoming a piece of shit.
Might it not be that in his heart Wallace knows this? For what does
this little passage dramatize but that writing is shit, and that
for some writing "the content of the message [is] obliterated by
the overwhelming fact of its medium"? The content of the message
obliterated by the fact of its own medium: is there a better or more
sadly accurate description of Wallace's own talented
obliterations?

By James Wood

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