Random Reviews of Culture Stuff Part 1: Welcome to Oblivion

In 2009, my favorite living author was Doris Lessing. Margaret Atwood, Gabriel García Márquez, and Toni Morrison were also on the list in no particular order after Lessing. Now Lessing and Garcia Marquez are gone. Morrison and Atwood are still going strong, especially with the Hulu TV adaptation of Atwood’s chilling 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale busting up the charts. And deservedly so. A review of this series is in the works. But at the time, I was thrilled to discover another one for the short list (which is an oh-so-clever reference to a Lessing short story title), but it turned out I was wrong. Very disappointing.

I read a collection of stories by David Foster Wallace (DFW) called Oblivion, and I was seriously blown away. I went to post something about him on Facebook, and in seeking a link, I found, not surprisingly, what appeared to be his website, http://www.davidfosterwallace.com, although just beneath the website title it said, “this [sic] website is unofficial, as are you.” Hard to argue with that.

I am hardly the first person to discover DFW. He is a well known author of some critically acclaimed short stories, a massive novel called Infinite Jest, and some other books you can look up for yourself (I don’t mean that to be snarky, just lazy). He’d been on the scene for decades; I just had never read him. I’m kind of out of touch since I stopped reading newspapers some years ago and don’t get the Sunday literary supplements anymore. But this way I “discover” writers all my own, without bias.

I came across his work while browsing in the historic and brilliant City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. I have spent hours in this wonderful store, and there is almost nothing in it I do not lust to read. However, budgets and storage being what they were (paltry), I limited myself to purchasing one book, two if I was feeling flush and the second book was really, really cool. However, to assuage my lust, I would jot down book titles and authors so I could check them out of the library, for free, without committing myself to any home shelf space.

Which is how I came across DFW, browsing in City Lights. I liked the name Infinite Jest, derived as it is from one of everyone’s favorite literary interludes, Hamlet’s famous graveside musings about poor Yorick, a fellow of infinite jest. Because when he was alive, Yorick was a jester. So, you know, that’s good. DFW must seriously dig Hamlet, since not only is his novel title from Hamlet, one of the stories in the collection is also Hamlet-based, ‘Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,’ an extremely strange tale about an arachnophiliac and his plastic-surgery-monster mother riding the bus. But then, what writer doesn’t dig Hamlet. And the story is, I think, really about the nature of fear and how we deal with it, culturally and individually.

Anyway, I jotted down DFW’s name and the title Infinite Jest. On my next trip to the library, I found that my local branch didn’t have Infinite Jest, but it did have a collection of DFW’s stories called Oblivion. So I checked it out. And boy oh boy, were they good. Not easy reading, but definitely compelling and absorbing reading. This guy was the real deal. He got a place on my bookshelf for sure. I spent most of the following days reading him or writing about him.

The stories are so recent and the tone so contemporary that I assumed he was fairly young (a term that grows more inclusive as I get older) and that he was still writing. Well, yes and no. If you clicked the link above you’ll already know this, but I didn’t until I found the link.

He was indeed young, younger than I was, but he was not still writing, because he was dead. Fairly recently dead. By his own hand. Which is a damned shame and kind of pisses me off because now there will be no new DFW works to read. (I dreaded Lessing’s passing for the same reason.) Fortunately for me, I had just started reading him and so I had quite a few books to go. I still do.

What’s weird is that I felt compelled to write about DFW just after finishing the fifth story in the book, about a guy who kills himself because he knows himself to be a complete fraud, although the knowledge of his fraudulence doesn’t help him overcome it; in fact, his insight into his own fraudulence only seems to enable him to be an ever more skillful fraud, so he sees no escape from perpetual fraudulence in this lifetime. He tries a lot of different ways of finding authenticity and being genuine, to no avail. The narrative voice of the story is, well, it’s sort of transtemporal, as it were.

It was this story that galvanized me into seeking DFW on the web, before I’d even finished the collection. I still had three stories to go, including the title story, but so far all the stories had been so good, so original, full of amazing utterances and insights, the kind that you recognize instantly as true while still being utterly fresh. You think to yourself, “Yes, that’s exactly right, I just hadn’t taken the trouble to think it through that clearly and completely.” Well, DFW did, although I’m not sure that it did him much good.

He was only in his mid-40s when he died. Here’s what the unofficial website had to say about him:

“David Foster Wallace is the award winning author of several novels, more than a few short stories, and numerous articles, as well as being a college professor. [While] still in his 30’s, David has been called one of America’s most important young authors and is often compared to Thomas Pynchon, though he tends to shrug off that association. He is most widely known for his epic (1000+ page) novel, Infinite Jest, published in 1996 and critically acclaimed by critics and readers alike. Topics covered in Wallace’s work are wide ranging, but he seems to have a special interest in American culture, addictions, and excess. Ironically, because of his edgy body of work and his public persona, DFW has gained a cult following and become somewhat of a celebrity himself.”

I personally find him much more readable than Pynchon, whom I never liked all that much, not because he’s not good, but simply as a matter of personal taste. And readability. I mean, really, has anyone ever actually read Gravity’s Rainbow all the way through and lived to tell the tale? I know there are a few daring souls out there who have, but I am not among them. I never finished Ulysses either. Bad English major, bad! They used to have a read-a-thon of Gravity’s Rainbow, Ulysses, and Finnegan’s Wake at my university when I was there, but I never attended. This is how English majors had fun in my day. Well, not me, but some of them.

All the DFW stories I’ve read so far are excellent, even brilliant. They all have to do with the inner workings of people and how they operate in their cultural settings; the contrast between what the outside world sees, expects, and demands, and what is really going on inside; the vast malleability and manipulability of people and the simultaneous difficulty of accessing (by others or by themselves) their real core self, all told with exquisitely honed acumen and craft.

One of the stories was too heartbreaking and horrible for me to finish, and it’s only three or four pages long. It’s called ‘Incarnations of Burned Children,’ and while it is superbly crafted and emotionally riveting, it is about what the title indicates, and I could not finish it. Especially not recommended for parents.

He had me hooked by the middle of the first story, which bears the wonderful title of ‘Mr. Squishy.’ It is about market research and corporate/sexual/power politics as sort of metaphors for how we live and as means of alienating us from our own lives and selves. Since I used to do market research for a living, it definitely piqued my interest, although my involvement in the trade was pretty fringe and niche, while this is very hardcore, almost pornographic in its dissection of people’s desires and maneuverings and the perpetual quest to reduce people to formulas by people who paradoxically fondly believe themselves to be unfathomable and indefinable. There’s a fascinating element to this story that I still have not figured out involving a human fly climbing the building in which the action is taking place. If anyone has read this and has some ideas, please let me know.

The other story that really grabbed me was ‘Another Pioneer,’ which got to me because of my religious identification ( as opposed to my former occupational identity). It is essentially a parable about religion, which in itself is sort of abstract, since religion itself uses parables as a way of explaining its themes. It takes place in a quote-unquote primitive village in a recognizable but undefined location, possibly remote Africa, and uses that self-contained setting as a way of putting the vast and cosmic into a human-scale setting. The meta-setting, as it were — the place in which the story is actually narrated — is a vivid contrast to the quote-unquote primitive locale of the story being told in the story. As it were. In a way, it’s a very Bahá’í perspective. But then, I would see it that way, wouldn’t I.

I never finished reviewing all the stories, since it was a library book and I had to give it back, and then life got weird and I ended up in Honduras (long story). But they have since made a movie about DFW called The End of the Tour, starring Jason Segel as DFW. It was pretty good, but I am really impressed with the fact that it got made at all. I saw it in an airplane, which was sort of fitting, since it relates perfectly to the meta-setting of ‘Another Pioneer.’ I was the only person on the plane watching this particular movie (I checked). Everyone else was watching movies with lots of explosions or superhero sagas, which is all anyone seems to watch these days (don’t get me started on Logan, maybe some other time), and I’m watching a movie about a series of interviews with a dead author. It was, in fact, on the way to Honduras, now that I think of it. This is somehow emblematic of something, very meta. Too bad DFW isn’t around anymore, I think he could make something of it.