The main idea I find Wallace to be grappling with in Oblivion, as several other people might have already pointed out, is the ways in which one deals with horror or pain. And it seems that the primary modes of attending to horror when faced with it, is in fact, no such attendance, but instead a detachment. But more importantly, Wallace explores the inability to describe such experiences with words, instead relying upon non-linguistic forms of communication.
In “Incarnations of Burned Children,” I was most taken by the description of the screams in the kitchen, which I think represent the need for non-linguistic expression in the face of pain. The baby’s “mouth [was] open very wide and [seemed] somehow separate from the sounds that issues” while the Mommy was “matching the screams with cries of her own” (114). The baby’s screams were also “regular as breath and went on so long they’d become already a thing in the kitchen, something else to move quickly around” (115). The screams are not just the baby or the mother’s expression of pain, they instead become a whole other entity in and of themselves. They are the baby’s mode of communication–a way of signaling for help. They become another character in the room, and as the Daddy sees it, another thing to push to the side in order to attend to the wounds of the child. But, the irony is that the screams are not what should be pushed to the side, for it is the screams that are trying to lead Mommy and Daddy to the real source of the pain. Yet, the problem with pain, as Wallace illustrates, is that when faced with it, it is usually impossible to communicate to others. And therefore, we are unable to unburden ourselves from our pain, leading to the detachment that arises at the end of the story. And even though in this story, the child has no other modes of communication, for he is baby, we’ve seen this same chain of events before: as in with Kate Gompert and her inability to explain the pain of her depression.
And we also see it in “The Soul is Not a Smithy.” In this story, a man recollects the time he was held hostage by a substitute teacher gone crazy. But, the most interesting thing is that at the beginning of the story, he claims that “this is the story of how Frank Caldwell, Chris DeMatteis, Mandy Blemm, and I became, in the city newspaper’s words, the 4 Unwitting Hostages” (67). Yet, the majority of the story he tells is not, in fact, that of the incident with the teacher, but instead is the daydream he has created for himself in the window panes of his classroom that day. The fact that this man’s recollection of the events of that day center not on the actual traumatic events, but instead center on Ruth Simmons and her dog and her father and mother, is yet another indication of the detachment and the inability to communicate in words that accompany pain and terror. The man thinks of that day in comic book style pictures because that is the only way he can relay the experience. That is the mode in which the terror of that day is stored in his mind: in pictures and images.
Wallace’s exploration of the inefficacy of language and words in the face of terror seems to me to ring pretty true to life. Though I’m not sure how uplifting his notion of detachment from pain is. If Wallace truly believes that detachment from pain and terror are the only ways to live one’s life, then he must condone the excessive use of drugs and alcohol that we see in Infinite Jest (which offer modes of detachment from the pain of life), yet I don’t think that that’s the case. shhunter89 already brought this up a little and I wholeheartedly agree: in what instances is it ok to detach and lack communication, and when are we supposed to just face our pain and the others around us?