Monday, October 11, 2004


By David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace must be one of the smartest writers around. Infinite Jest, which runs to over 1000 pages, (in a large sized paperback with small print (and not counting the 200 or so pages of footnotes)), is one of the best books I've ever read. Even though it's a mammoth effort to get through the whole thing, I've read it twice.

So he's got a new short story collection out, Oblivion, and it's a lot darker and even more difficult to read than his last one (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men). I'll write about each story individually.

Mister Squishy: I'd just finished American Gods, had an hour to kill in Auckland airport, was feeling extremely sick and tired, and needed something light to read. Unfortunately, all I had was this. This first story is the hardest to read out of all of them. It's about a market research company, and it's written in an incredibly dense style, full of incomprehensable jargon and extraordinarily long sentences. It's a fairly depressing read and, like certain other of his stories, ends without any resolution, although the outcome is hinted at by the last few paragraphs. I didn't enjoy it that much, but mostly because I was in the entirely wrong frame of mind for it.

The Soul Is Not a Smithy: This one's just weird, but very cool. Wallace describes an exciting dramatic situation from the point of view of a semi-autistic kid who is more interested in his own private fantasies than in what's going on in front of him. This one's more grotesque than depressing, but continues the dark theme of the collection.

Incarnations of Burned Children: Yes there is actually a burned child in this story, and I found it much more affecting than I thought I would. This one's not only depressing, but chilling in a weird way.

Another Pioneer: Probably my favorite story, and not coincidentally the least disturbing out of the collection. Bizarre framing device aside, it's about a supernaturally brilliant child born to a group of primitive jungle tribespeople. There's more humour in this one than in the other stories, but of course it does have it's twisted undercurrent too.

Good Old Neon: Written from the point of view of someone who's commited suicide, this story is actually one of the more straightforward, until you get to the bizarre twist at the end. In fact, the twist makes this story more like the stories out of 'Brief Interviews', several of which involved quirky, confrontational post-modern twists.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: Another short weird one. I couldn't tell you why, but for some reason I found this one of the more depressing stories.

Oblivion: Up until the twist at the end I really liked this one. Normally when reading Wallace's stories I get the feeling that I'm completely missing all the subtext and a lot of the plot, but I felt like I was keeping up with this one. However the end completely lost me, so there you go.

The Suffering Channel: Constant allusions to 9/11, themes linking childhood abuse, unconscious physical mannerisms and the way we view our bodily functions, a very David Lynch like style to some of the latter parts of the story. Between all these things I have no idea at all what this one was really about. But it was pretty cool all the same. I especially found the ending quite memorable and profound (despite it's somewhat gross nature).

Well, all these stories are typical of old DFW, dense prose, weird framing devices and overly ambiguous endings, if it even has an ending. Worth every penny, if you like that sort of thing.

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