The Digressionist

by The New Republic | August 9, 2004

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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