Oblivion: Stories

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Oblivion: Stories
Oblivion Stories book cover.jpg
First edition hardcover
Author David Foster Wallace
Cover artist Mario J. Pulice
Country United States
Language English
Genre Literary fiction, postmodern literature
Publisher Little, Brown and Company
Publication date
June 8, 2004 (U.S.)
Media type Print (hardback, paperback)
Pages 329
Preceded by Everything and More
Followed by Consider the Lobster

Oblivion: Stories (2004) is a collection of short fiction by American author David Foster Wallace. Oblivion is Wallace's third and last short story collection and was listed as a 2004 New York Times Notable Book of the Year.[1] Throughout the stories, Wallace explores the nature of reality, dreams, trauma, and the "dynamics of consciousness."[2] The story "Good Old Neon" was included in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2002.

Composition and publication[edit]

The collection's writing overlapped with Wallace's last novel, The Pale King,[3] and many of the stories came from notebooks that he used to write the book and may have begun as sections of it.[4]

Wallace first suggested a new collection of stories to his editor Michael Pietsch in October 2001. Much of the editing appears to have been completed by October 2003.[5] Published in June 2004, the book sold eighteen thousand hardcover copies in its first year.[6]

List of stories[edit]

  • "Mister Squishy" was originally published as "Mr. Squishy" in McSweeney's #5 (2000), under the pseudonym Elizabeth Klemm. The story takes place in November 1995 and follows a focus group in a marketer's conference room as well as the facilitator of the focus group, Terry Schmidt. Schmidt leads the focus group that is taste-testing a new chocolate snack, named "Felonies!", while a person free climbs up the building's north face.
  • "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" was originally published in AGNI #57 (2003).[7] Scott M. Morris, in his review of the collection, suggested that this story "may well be a masterpiece."[8] The title apparently refers to the penultimate paragraph of James Joyce's novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which Stephen Dedalus writes: "Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."[9] In this narrative, an unnamed narrator recounts his experience as a boy in his fourth grade civics class in Columbus, Ohio. The substitute teacher Mr. Johnson suffers a psychotic breakdown, which results in a hostage crisis, but the narrator spends his time daydreaming and looking out of the classroom window.
  • "Incarnations of Burned Children" was originally published in Esquire (November 2000). A young baby is burned with boiling water.
  • "Another Pioneer" was originally published in Colorado Review (Summer 2001). This story is a fable about the effect of a wise child, who can answer any question posed to him, on a Stone Age village.
  • "Good Old Neon" was originally published in Conjunctions #37 (November 2001). Chad Harbach, in his review of the collection, referred to this story as an "indisputable masterpiece,"[10] and Marshall Boswell wrote that it is the collection's "best and most celebrated stand-alone story."[11] It was also included in O. Henry Prize Stories 2002. This story consists of the monologue of a lonely advertising executive named Neal who commits suicide by crashing his car. Throughout the story, Neal provides his psychiatrist with stories regarding his fraudulence, deceptions, failures, and manipulations.[12]
  • "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" was originally published, in slightly edited form, as "Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (VIII)" in McSweeney's #1 (1998). According to Paul Giles, the title "directly echoes" Richard Rorty's celebrated book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.[13] In the story, an unnamed narrator recounts the story of his mother's botched facial plastic surgery, which left her with a look of constant terror on her face, and the litigation surrounding that surgery. The narrator also mentions throughout the story his own entanglement in litigation related to his black-widow spider farm.
  • "Oblivion" was originally published in Black Clock No. 1 (Spring 2004/Summer 2004).[14] In this story, the narrator, Randall Napier, recounts his exhausting fight with his wife Hope over his alleged snoring, which she claims has been so loud that it keeps her awake at night. Randall protests, maintaining that he was awake and consequently unable to snore, while his wife was actually asleep. Eventually they travel to a Sleep Clinic in order to monitor their behaviors and determine for certain who is right.
  • In "The Suffering Channel", Skip Atwater, a writer for Style, attempts to write an article about an extremely shy and private man from Indiana (Brint Moltke), whose excrement reportedly resembles famous cultural objects.

Critical reception[edit]

The book was met with a "familiar duality" in its reviews, receiving a mixture of both extremely positive and negative reviews.[15] According to the review aggregator Metacritic, it received generally positive reviews from critics. Metacritic reported that the book had an average score of 68 out of 100, based on 22 reviews.[16] Joel Stein, for Time wrote that the "breathtakingly smart" stories are "epic modernism," with "big plots, absurd Beckettian humor and science-fiction-height ideas portrayed vis-a-vis slow, realistic stream of consciousness."[17] Jan Wildt for The San Diego Union-Tribune wrote that Oblivion argues convincingly "that the short story is the 42-year-old author's true fictional metier." He additionally states that Oblivion "puts [Wallace's] stylistic idiosyncrasy to better use than any of its predecessors."[18] Laura Miller, for Salon, wrote that Wallace had "perfected a particularly subtle form of horror story," and that his "long arcs of prose and the narrative sidetracks are exposed not as tortuous strivings toward some hard-won truth but as an insulation that people spin between themselves and the sharp edges of their condition."[19] Scott M. Morris for the Los Angeles Times wrote that with Oblivion, Wallace "has earned a place as one of America's most daring and talented young writers." Morris claimed that although some of the stories left the reader "more impressed with [Wallace's] intelligence than with the stories," with "'The Suffering Channel,' 'Mister Squishy' and 'The Soul Is Not a Smithy,' Wallace transcends mere dazzling displays and explores human emotions with sensitivity." Morris wrote additionally that in this collection "the high stakes of life have supplanted postmodern playfulness," and that "Wallace has laid down a marker that will be coveted by readers."[20]

Other critics gave the collection either mixed or negative reviews.[21] For n+1, Chad Harbach wrote that "apart from 'The Suffering Channel' and 'Good Old Neon', Oblivion has a casual feel." Harbach argued that "compared to the premeditated formal performances of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, his previous collection, much of Oblivion has a loose, tossed-off feel."[22] For the London Review of Books, Wyatt Mason wrote that although the stories were "a bright array of sad and moving and funny and fascinating human objects of undeniable, unusual value," they still might exhibit a "fundamental rhetorical failure" due to their difficulty. Nonetheless, Mason claimed Wallace's collection to be "the most interesting and serious and accomplished shorter fiction published in the past decade."[23] For The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani suggested that the collection was dominated by "tiresome, whiny passages." She wrote that even though Wallace is a "prose magician," in Oblivion he "gives us only the tiniest tasting of his smorgasbord of talents. Instead, he all too often settles for the sort of self-indulgent prattling that bogged down his 1999 collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and the cheap brand of irony and ridicule that he once denounced in an essay as 'agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture.'"[24] James Wood also disliked the collection in his review for the The New Republic. He claimed that the story "Mister Squishy" was "fundamentally unreadable" because Wallace too often "bloats his sentences with mimesis." "Above all," wrote Wood, "his immersionist's willingness to saturate his fictions in the germs that he is documenting makes them sick themselves." The collection as a whole, according to Wood, was "talented, frustrating, and finally intolerable"; each of the stories failed to "move the reader" because they "strangely reproduce the extreme coldness that they abhor."[25]

Analysis[edit]

Criticism of this collection has involved attempts to discuss the collection as a whole, in relation to other work by Wallace, and as individual stories. In general, Marshall Boswell claimed that this was Wallace's "bleakest" work of fiction. In Oblivion, he "uncharacteristically" provides "no way out" of solipsism and loneliness. Boswell further suggested that the collection "repeatedly undermines many of the techniques for alleviation" from loneliness, like communicating through language, that Wallace presented in Infinite Jest. "Oblivion," he writes, "remains unique in Wallace's oeuvre in its unrelenting pessimism."[26] Additionally, D.T. Max wrote that the stories in the Oblivion "seem afraid of compression, as if the title were a threat that could only be defended against by the relentlessly engaged consciousness."[27]

Many critics have linked Oblivion to other works by Wallace, both fiction and nonfiction. D.T. Max asserted that many of the stories are "successors" to Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in that they "concerned themselves mostly with middle-aged, middle-class white men in middle America."[28] Others claim that Oblivion and The Pale King are companion texts. Max wrote that while this collection was "descriptive" of a lonely American society, The Pale King would be "prescriptive," suggesting a "way out of the bind."[29] Marshall Boswell also claimed that The Pale King is the "compositional companion" to Oblivion. Both works concern themselves with similar themes like the management of "entropy" and "shit, art, death." But The Pale King can ultimately be seen as a "corrective, or at least dialectical partner, to Oblivion's haunted insularity." Additionally, Boswell linked Oblivion to This Is Water, in that it depicts adults "hypnotized by the constant monologues" inside their heads, as well as "Deciderization 2007," an essay that appears in Both Flesh and Not, in its occupation with entropy and sorting data and a "surfeit of information."[30] Tom Tracey observed that "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" particularly both resembles The Pale King and recalls the philosophy of This Is Water in its discussion of attention and boredom.[31]

Other critics have examined more individual stories more closely. Thomas Tracey asserts that, in "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" as well as many of the other stories in Oblivion, Wallace seeks to "place the crucial events of each tale beyond the frame of the main exposition." Indeed, "the important actions of the narrative are seen to occur only on the extreme periphery of the narrator's awareness." Tracy suggests that the meaning and goal of this is to "call for greater attentiveness to our peripheral surroundings" and to show that "the most important events of our lives often take place on the margins of our quotidian experience." Tracey also maintains that the narrator's inattentiveness in class also depicts how "imagination can provide a psychological outlet, or refuge, from suffering." [32]

In the same essay, Tracey further develops his thoughts on the title story, "Oblivion," which raises questions about what reality is, and what is real. The story, Tracy asserts, gives an ambiguous answer, which suggests that what is real and true comes from our own decisions about what to believe. He also argued that the story is an "imaginative response" to Decartes's Meditations on First Philosophy.[33]

Walter Kirn, in a review for The New York Times, claims that "Good Old Neon" focuses on "a philosophical conundrum: the question of whether human beings can be said to possess authentic selves or whether, like 'David Wallace,' the story's narrator, we are really just a bunch of shabby fakes cut off from our own and others' essential beings by the inadequacy of language."[34]

Translation[edit]

Oblivion was published in German as two separate books, both of which were translated in part by Marcus Igendaay and Ulrich Blumenbach. The first book, In alter Vertrauheit, was published in 2006 and contains the stories "Mister Squishy," "Die Seele ist kein Hammerwerk" (The Soul Is Not a Smithy), "Inkarnationen gebrannter Kinder" (Incarnations of Burned Children), "Noch ein Pionier" (Another Pioneer), and "Neon in alter Vertrauheit" (Good Old Neon). The second book, Vergessenheit, was published in 2008 and contains "Der Spiegel der Natur – Eine Kritik der Philosophie" (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature), "Vergessenheit" (Oblivion), and "TV der Leiden – The Suffering Channel."

References[edit]

  1. ^ "100 Notable Books of the Year". The New York Times. 5 December 2004. Retrieved 27 July 2011. 
  2. ^ Tracey, Thomas (2009). "Representations of Trauma in David Foster Wallace's Oblivion". In David Hering. Consider David Foster Wallace. SSMG Press. p. 177. 
  3. ^ Boswell, Marshall. "'The Constant Monologue Inside Your Head': Oblivion and the Nightmare of Consciousness." In A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies. Eds. Stephen J. Burn and Marshall Boswell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print. 156
  4. ^ Max, D.T. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. New York: Viking Penguin, 2012. Print. 276
  5. ^ Max, D.T. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. New York: Viking Penguin, 2012. Print. 276
  6. ^ Max, D.T. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. New York: Viking Penguin, 2012. Print. 279
  7. ^ http://www.bu.edu/agni/toc/57/index.html
  8. ^ Morris, Scott M. "Beyond the Boundaries". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 5 May 2013. 
  9. ^ Thompson, Billy. "Soulbroken". The Quarterly Conversation. Retrieved 12 May 2013. 
  10. ^ Harbach, Chad. "David Foster Wallace!". n+1. Retrieved 5 May 2013. 
  11. ^ Boswell, Marshall. "'The Constant Monologue Inside Your Head': Oblivion and the Nightmare of Consciousness." In A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies. Eds. Stephen J. Burn and Marshall Boswell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print. 155
  12. ^ Max, D.T. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. New York: Viking Penguin, 2012. Print. 278
  13. ^ Giles, Paul. "All Swallowed Up: David Foster Wallace And American Literature." In The Legacy of David Foster Wallace. Eds. Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012. Print.
  14. ^ http://blackclock.org/issues/2004/issue-1/
  15. ^ Max, D.T. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. New York: Viking Penguin, 2012. Print. 279
  16. ^ "Oblivion by David Foster Wallace: Reviews". Metacritic. Archived from the original on 2007-09-16. Retrieved 2008-02-17. 
  17. ^ Stein, Joel (30 May 2004). "The Horror of Sameness". Time Magazine. Retrieved 27 July 2011. 
  18. ^ Wildt, Jan. "Number Cruncher". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved 27 July 2011. 
  19. ^ Miller, Laura. "The horror, the horror". Salon. Retrieved 29 April 2013. 
  20. ^ Morris, Scott M. "Beyond the Boundaries". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 5 May 2013. 
  21. ^ Max, D.T. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. New York: Viking Penguin, 2012. Print. 279
  22. ^ Harbach, Chad. "David Foster Wallace!". n+1. Retrieved 5 May 2013. 
  23. ^ Mason, Wyatt. "Don't like it? You don't have to play". London Review of Books. Retrieved 27 March 2013. 
  24. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (1 June 2004). "Life Distilled From Details, Infinite and Infinitesima". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 July 2011. 
  25. ^ Wood, James. "The Digressionist". New Republic. Retrieved 29 April 2013. 
  26. ^ Boswell, Marshall. "'The Constant Monologue Inside Your Head': Oblivion and the Nightmare of Consciousness." In A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies. Eds. Stephen J. Burn and Marshall Boswell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print. 151-168
  27. ^ Max, D.T. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. New York: Viking Penguin, 2012. Print. 277
  28. ^ Max, D.T. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. New York: Viking Penguin, 2012. Print. 277
  29. ^ Max, D.T. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. New York: Viking Penguin, 2012. Print. 280
  30. ^ Boswell, Marshall. "'The Constant Monologue Inside Your Head': Oblivion and the Nightmare of Consciousness." In A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies. Eds. Stephen J. Burn and Marshall Boswell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print. 163-169
  31. ^ Tracy, Thomas. "Representations of Trauma in David Foster Wallace's Oblivion." In Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays. Ed. David Hering. Los Angeles: Sideshow Media Group Press, 2010. Print. 180
  32. ^ Tracey, Thomas (2009). "Representations of Trauma in David Foster Wallace's Oblivion". In David Hering. Consider David Foster Wallace. SSMG Press. p. 178. 
  33. ^ Tracey, Thomas (2009). "Representations of Trauma in David Foster Wallace's Oblivion". In David Hering. Consider David Foster Wallace. SSMG Press. pp. 185–186. 
  34. ^ Kim, Walter (27 June 2004). "Staring Either Absently or Intently". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 July 2011. 

Works cited[edit]

  • Goerlandt, Iannis. "'Still steaming as its many arms extended': Pain in David Foster Wallace's Incarnations of Burned Children." Sprachkunst 37.2 (2006), 297-308.