Tag Archives: Oblivion

not quite finished

After finishing Oblivion, Good Old Neon, Mr. Squishy, Incarnations of Burned Children, I felt a little frustrated with Wallace.   Not that the stories don’t live up to his normal standard of writing.   To the contrary, some of these, including Good Old Neon and Incarnations of Burned Children, might be his best short works.   But it seems that in this collection Wallace really doesn’t want to placate the reader.   Each time, we are left before the moment of completion.   We’re close to being resolved, but not quite close enough to be satisfied.    And it’s not just that the endings are difficult to interpret.   We’re left (it seems to me) with a hollowness that lacks the unfamiliar twinge of hope or at least humor that we usually find by the end of Wallace’s pieces.  

My interpretation of this is a bit like my mom’s favorite life lesson- instant gratification.   As readers, we are always seeking a gratification of our needs right away: our need to be calmed, resolved, entertained, fulfilled, completed… Throughout the DFW stuff we have read, it’s always been a challenge for us, as readers, to trust and hold on rather than give up.   Wallace likes to make us wait a bit with the promise of understanding later.   But these stories seem a little mean at times.   He keeps dumping stuff on us at the last minute: what is with the last dialogue in Oblivion?   The whole story I was dying to see Hope embarrassed to find that, in fact, Randall was truly awake and not snoring each time she yelled at him.   He had me right on a leash, following to the end to see exactly who is at fault.   And the end dialogue, from what I got out of it, was trying to point toward something completely different, with no winner or loser(reality vs. dream?   relationship? whaaaat?).   Not to mention the lack of resolution of this creepy sexual step-father complex everyone has that is fairly disturbing and unsettling.   I couldn’t even quite decide whether I liked the narrator, because the whole Audrey obsession thing seemed fairly normal to him by the end.   Similarly, in Mr. Squishy we seem to be waiting for something the entire time.   Descriptions and exposition seem like build-up and preparation for the main action that is to come… but somehow the main action never comes.   Is the main action actually the build-up?   Did we completely miss the point waiting for the real exciting part to come?   We are so accustomed to getting to the climax that we miss what comes before.

Even in Good Old Neon I felt frustrated by the end.   Yes, the narrator does the deed that he’s been readying us for all along.   He’s promised to do so, and follows through in describing what it feels like to die.   But the end threw this “David Wallace” spin at us too quickly to resolve.   We’re left sort of in the lurch, uneasy.   I was hoping for at least another page of some kind of slow unravel.   Rather, David Wallace is introduced to us on the second-to-last page and sort of blows through an entire emotional battle/ inner turmoil before we quite get what is going on.

Not to complain.   Surely Wallace has reasons for making these endings more difficult for the reader than usual.   And I think it’s more than just making us work harder.   I can’t help but lean toward some cliché “carpe diem” thing, you know, enjoy the moment before you get dumped off to soon at the end.   That somehow our lives become these waiting games, pushing towards that thing that we think we’ll maybe achieve tomorrow or next year.   Or perhaps the joke is on us, because we have allowed Wallace to string us along waiting for the main action to take place (Mr. Squishy), or for our expectations to be proven true or false (Oblivion).   Maybe we, particularly as American readers, have come to expect some sort of trauma to come (Mr. Squishy).   From what I know of Wallace, there’s got to be something philosophical going on in these dissolved endings.   Thoughts??

Self Without Awareness (Finally)

In the short piece, “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” Wallace introduces a new kind of character, a type that we have not seen from him yet.   The narrator/protagonist of the story is purely rational, distant, and trusting.   A far cry from Wallace’s more common neurotic, emotional, and troubled characters.   The interesting part is, this new character provides fresh perspective on several of life’s troubles.  

Our oafish narrator seems to categorize and catalog his world, to relate to it through a system of terms and definitions.   Wallace at times uses italics for this, as whenever he alludes to broad social concepts, be it, “special effects,” “ignorantia facti excusat,” or “old-fashioned way,” italics come into play (Wallace 186, 185).   There are other uses for italics, but I have trouble dissecting them all.   Anyway, this method for viewing the world creates a distance, mentally and emotionally, between the narrator and the rest of the world, including his unfortunately deformed mother.

While this separation is certainly profound, this character does not express any of the symptoms of alienation, anxiety, or isolation that we’ve seen in so many of Wallace’s other work.   In fact, he’s incredibly trusting and even a bit hopeful.   He puts a great deal of faith into the Los Angeles legal system, listening to his lawyers and agreeing with commercials (186).   He even defines sleazeball as the “the ones who say they will really get down in the dirt of the trench and really fight for you” (187).   He also puts a positive spin on his mother’s unlucky facial mishap, jokingly encouraging her to be an extra in film roles, “as an extra in one of the many films nowadays in which crowds of extras are paid to look upwards in terror… Which I sincerely regret, after all I’m all the support she has” (186).   The mother is quite bitter about the whole situation, and yet the narrator manages to find a smile in it.  

He is also trusting of his society in that he believes himself to be of “studious bend.”   He confirms this through standardized testing (184), without any sense of inner confidence or prescience.   He simply relies on cultural standards, as outlined in his system of definitions.   The whole setup creates an odd coupling of isolation and trust, alienation without the anxiousness. There is no real self-awareness here, just Self, which is the precise opposite of the majority of other DFW characters (the author in “Octet” and the protagonist from “Good Old Neon” as quick examples).

The question then becomes what do we learn from this lack of self-awareness in a story that’s apparently about philosophy? The narrator reminds me of Ignatius J. Reilly before he’d remind me of Plato. Is he any better off than the anxious self-aware characters? Could a system of blind trust be better than one of anxiety and loneliness?    

(Not Really) Explaining Oblivion

I’m going to take a stab at interpreting Oblivion–the story–, since surprisingly nobody has yet on the blog.  This may be because our posts are supposed to pertain to information from last class’s readings, but if that’s the case then those post-ers of Good Old Neon are just as much sinners as I am.  I’m also going to try this without having read any criticism on the piece, which I’m sure would help this interpretation a tremendous amount. 

There are a few things that stood out to me about Oblivion (which are probably the same things that stood out to everyone else), in order of occurrence to me those were: the maximalist inner-monologue of Randall Napier, in a way reminiscent of one of the stories in Brief Interviews in which the main character constantly set off his words with quotations; the latent sexual attraction Randall felt towards his son, revealed in the last scene of the dream sequence that constitutes almost the entire story; and the final scene in the story, which was utterly confusing and therefore unnerving in the goosebumpy sense. 

So, now I will speculate in order of these things appearance in my reading.  The maximalist inner-monologue was generally in extraordinarily lengthy explanations, which is not a new trick of DFW’s, but what was new about the style was the constant offering of multiple definitions for most descriptive nouns Randall used.  These nouns tended to have a colloquial and/or idiomatic bent to them: “the telephone rings at night, its signal or ‘ring'” [201]; “be resolved or ‘worked-through'” [207].  Many, many examples of this all around.  Not only did the incredible verbosity annoy, it made establishing any “flow” through the piece a near impossibility.  It also, like the narrator of Girl with Curious Hair, the story, gives the story an almost ESL quality to it.  Unlike Girl, it was not an ESL feeling in the sense that Randall didn’t have the vocabulary to use interesting language, but that he had too much language too handle, that he either didn’t know with which words his audience would be most familiar, or that he was incapable of finding the words that best fit his own inner-monologue.  This somewhat aides the ethereal nature of the story, of which the reader is only made aware at the very end.  The inability to pinpoint language could be understood as representative of the lack of precision conversation in dreams (at least my dreams) tends to have.  So much more could be said about this, especially the fact that Randall always puts brackets around the elements of words that are not directly quoted.  If only I knew what to make of it. 

Randall’s sexual attraction to his daughter is hinted at when  he reveals that he has “masturbat[ed] with a saffron scented undergarment” [236], which reminds the reaer of the “saffron joss” smell that fills his daughter’s former room [202].   Even without this somewhat stretched correlation there is evidence that Randall is sexually attracted to his daughter, namely his inability to look at Audrey and her friends when they first begin to protrude.  I’d like to say that this latent sexual attaction doesn’t really constitute a major theme in the story, rather it just states in somewhat open terms what most fathers would rather die than admit to.  And that is what I’m going to say, since I’ve got no brilliant explanations floating around up there.

To the obviously important ending, which I’m sure has something to do with the title.  Some hopefully less-disputable points are 1) Hope is awoken from a deep, deep sleep by someone, who claims to be her husband 2) Upon regaining consciousness, Hope is experiencing definite memory loss and possible loss of…maybe sanity: “None of this is real” [237].  That comment reminds me of a schizophrenic coming out of a wicked hallucination.  3) Hope makes mention of marriage and Audrey, which indicates at least some correlation to the story just told 4) Hope uses a title that was very obviously avoided throughout the rest of Oblivion: “Daddy”, to refer to someone who she chooses not to name 5) there is a scene in which two members of the sleep team in the room with Randall and Hope, still during the “dream sequence,” begin to peel off their faces.  These are some definitions of “oblivion,” courtesy OED, which I’m glad I looked up because I would’ve presumed something less somethingesque:

“The state or fact of forgetting or having forgotten; forgetfulness; (also) freedom from care or worry.

Forgetfulness resulting from inattention or carelessness;”

So is the reader to understand that the entire “dream sequence” is not at all a dream, but a reality to which Hope has become oblivious?  To this point I have been referring to almost the entirety of the story as the “dream sequence,” however the title suggests that the story is not a dream sequence but a forgotten reality.  That Hope is describing parts of the story when awoken from her dream bolsters this possibility.  But when it comes to the men peeling off their faces–I’m lost. 

Corrupted Domesticity

The Oblivion presented some problems for me personally. The “it’s all a dream” ending is so annoying, and sort of cheap. I’m wondering: what’s the point?  I see the statement: “none of this is real” as a key thesis of the story.    This statement causes the reader to go back and reexamine the previous text. But does it matter? Well I hope so, because I spent the majority of my day reading it. (Although I don’t have much to show for myself).

 

Key strangeness in this narrative: the Woody Allen/adoptive daughter affair thing that’s happening. For example: “for, as with most husbands, I had, of course, only seen my face when…masturbating with saffron scented under-garment.” The saffron scent, if we remember, is one connected to “our Audrey.” The daughters emergent sexuality foils the mothers’ aging (another key of the story is the sadness/inevitability of aging): “all the willful clinging to the…vivacity which their own daughters unknowingly serve to mock as they latterly blossom.” These same daughters, “all dispatched to ‘out-of-State’ colleges” (218). Being dispatched myself, this hit home and I think that’s the point. However, DFW’s depiction of a familial nightmare is a bit too strange to identify with fully.

According to my mother, snoring is a common problem in marriages. One of her friends reportedly said ‘earplugs saved my marriage.’ In this story, the couple’s conflict has escalated scarily, because of the different realities each party is functioning under. He finds himself thinking violent thoughts in the breakfast nook (the place emphasizes the strange/corrupted domesticity of the snoring problem). They essentially argue about who is insane, and the insanity of their disagreement justifies the confusion.   The idea of a dream emphasizes the precariousness of reality/perception. Still, their conflict seems to be about many things: “the fact is that Hope is even now returning home from Exercise or the cosmetician…” The traditional gender roles they enact appear as a source of stress. Also, there’s the issue of aging and thus mortality (dream and death kind of thing). I can’t escape from perception as a key theme in DFW’s work (thinking of the fraud thing in “Good Old Neon” most recently).

Language Loss

As we’ve witnessed in several of Wallace’s works, language is a frequently visited topic. Although, after finishing Oblivion I got the sense that Wallace altered his discussion of language. One of the issues that Wallace focuses a great deal on in Broom of The System is language as a source of definition and identity. He also emphasizes that language involves inevitable loss. With all that we’ve read by the author, I wasn’t surprised by Wallace’s return to this topic; however, I will admit I really enjoyed Wallace’s consistent use of withholding information because it provoked in me an awareness of the loss of linguistics. Literally, the word oblivion comes from the Latin for to forget, and this loss is experienced all over Oblivion, especially in a short paragraph from “Good Old Neon”:

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are the ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc.-and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. (150)

While Wallace’s metaphor of language as a charade is frustrating, the loss that he attributes to language recognizes that the human experience is just too “fast and huge and all interconnected” to be adequately described. Oblivion‘s structure and plot organization seem to identify this failure of language in a way that confused me greatly at first. This technique is used all over Oblivion, witnessed in the way that “Mister Squishy” withholds conclusions, in the way that “The Suffering Channel” uses the tragedy of 9/11 as a looming cloud, and in the way “Good Old Neon” literally communicates language’s inadequacy, knowledge only fully realized by someone who’s transcended language’s hegemony by entering the afterlife.

To go back to Wallace’s notion of language as a process of ‘going through the motions’, his writing style seems to gain a new self-consciousness in Oblivion. I got the sense after reading the collection that Wallace reached a point of exasperation, a final acceptance that the words he uses can never adequately communicate his experience, or provide true escape- this was a conclusion that really seemed true after finishing “Good Old Neon”. This sort of acceptance shows through in Wallace’s choice to withhold certain information, an act that to me says, ” If I’m writing these words just for something, some part of me, to be lost, why not save myself some of the effort?” Though this technique ultimately annoyed me and left me unsatisfied I felt myself beginning to identify on a smaller scale with the frustration and blinding awareness that Wallace must have struggled with for a significant portion of his life. My confusion and moments of dissatisfaction were a product of language’s loss, but it was something that I only really experienced after stumbling on the disconnects in Oblivion, and so I owe thanks to this work for opening my eyes.

A Universal Problem?

What is Steeply describing when he says, “‘Stuck. Fixed. Held. Trapped. As in trapped in some sort of middle. Between two things. Pulled apart in different directions'” (IJ 647)? In context, Steeply is describing the expression of his old man’s eyes, glued to the television screen. His words, however, also seem to describe precisely the existential traps that multiple characters in Wallace’s writing find themselves stuck in.

In the pre-fight scene, as Lenz dashes behind Gately to use Gately as a shield, Gately literally stands between Lenz and the Nucks, “as in trapped in some sort of middle. Between two things” (IJ 647). But more than being physically positioned between two forces or groups, Wallace reveals Gately’s psychological positioning as being similarly stuck between two seemingly conflicting forces. Wallace writes, “Late in Gately’s Substance and burglary careers, when he’d felt so low about himself, he’d had sick little fantasies of saving somebody from harm, some innocent party, and getting killed in the process and getting eulogized at great length in bold-faced Globe print” (IJ 611). The text portrays Gately as a character who is “stuck, fixed, held, trapped” in a state of contradiction. Gately wants to perform an act that simultaneously captures both selflessness and selfishness.

The writing highlights the two opposing forces combating inside his head. On the one hand, by sacrificing his own life, his act would ultimately save somebody from harm (this half of the fantasy seems to be at least partially performed within the next few pages, even though we do not know if Gately actually gets killed). On the other side of the hand (as Lenz often says), the text reveals his effectively selfless act as ultimately stemming from selfishness, from the desire of “getting eulogized at great length in bold-faced Globe print” (IJ 611). Apropos, after being shot, Gately imagines:   “SHOT IN SOBRIETY in bold headline caps goes across his mind’s eye like a slow train” (IJ 613), which reiterates the voice of self-interest chugging through his head. Moreover, the text flops back and forth in the characterization of this act. First, the text labels this act with negativity-“sick little fantasies” (IJ 611)-but later, in portraying Gately as “a big animal that’s hurt” (IJ 615), the text wipes away all stains of negativity and instills a blanket of sympathy, for Gately and his selfless act. Thus, Gately, much like the expression of the eyes on Steeply’s old man’s face, exists or lives in the trap of being “pulled apart in different directions” (IJ 647)-these directions seem diametrically opposite and incompatible, yet coexisting for Gately.

Orin Incandenza faces an analogous trap. Wallace writes, “Orin can only give, not receive, pleasure” (IJ 596). In this line, Wallace depicts Orin as not only compassionate, but also tragically compassionate-to the point that he can “only give,” but not receive any pleasure. The following sentences, however, unveils the other side of the view:   “But he cannot show the contempt, since this would pretty clearly detract from the Subject’s pleasure. / Because the Subject’s pleasure in him has become his food….It gave him real pleasure to give the impression of care and intimacy” (IJ 596). Thus, like Gately, Orin also seems trapped in the loop of simultaneously giving selflessly and taking selfishly, unable to do one without the other. On the one hand, Orin does give others pleasure, making women believe “he is a wonderful lover, almost a dream-type lover” (IJ 596), but on the other hand, Orin feeds off of and consumes the pleasure he gives to others, a description that renders he himself contemptible.

A similar symptom manifests in the speaker of “Good Old Neon,” but there, with a heightened sense of self-awareness created by the first person narration, that symptom becomes paralyzing. From the age of four, Neal begins to experience the “Stuck. Fixed. Held. Trapped” (IJ 647) feeling of “trying to create a certain impression of me in other people…to be liked or admired” (Oblivion 141) and actually making others feel good-for instance, by pretending to tell the truth to his stepparents or playing dumb with Dr. Gustafson so as to “let him feel like he was explaining to me a contradiction I couldn’t understand without his help” (Oblivion 155)-a feeling, or “problem” as he calls it, that he “couldn’t seem to stop” (Oblivion 143) and ultimately takes his life away. I wonder, to what extent is this feeling a problem? Is this feeling universal? Selflessness and selfishness seem mutually exclusive, but are they in fact inescapably intertwined? And to what extent does the selfishness matter, if the impression or effect of the act helps another-even if fraudulent, insincere, or self-interested?

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

It turns out that Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is also the title of a groundbreaking philosophical treatise written by Richard Rorty in 1979.  Rorty’s work was concerned with dissolving “the notion that epistemology is the arbiter of what is rational in Western cultures.”  A very basic encapsulation is that Rorty is trying to argue that philosophy should have a more practical use, opposed just attacking the “pseudo-problems that only exist in the language-game [Wittgenstein!] of Analytic philosophy.”  

I’m struggling in tying this to Wallace’s homonymous fiction piece.  I think that Wallace has slipped in what an aforementioned pseudo-problem might look like: “the first surgery’s bandages came off then one could at first not ascertain whether the face’s expression was a reaction to what she saw in the mirror or if itself was what she saw and this was the stimulus causing the noises” (185).  The way reality is represented (mirrored) the mind has been at the center of philosophical debate since Descartes.  This scene, although somewhat comically, seems to be addressing one aspect of this big question.  In P.A.T.M.O.N    Rorty seems to be arguing that this shouldn’t be the focus of what philosophers argue over.  

This parallels the narrator’s view in the story, which doesn’t seem to be about caring for his mother’s disfiguration, but more about taking care of her.  Ultimately, he seems to care for his spider husbandry more than anything, but regarding his mother the narrator is protecting her against “some young duo of punks or hostile organisms” (189).   This is reminiscent of the AA outlook in Infinite Jest: it doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as the program achieves positive results.  In this case, the positive/pragmatic result seems to be making sure his mother isn’t harassed anymore than she already is.  

Still there are tons of unexplained things.  Why does the narrator grow black widows in his garage?  What’s the deal with the lawsuit over the child who fell through his garage roof and released all the spiders?  How does it relate to Rorty’s philosophy?

Help?  

Wikipedia: Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Speechless

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?

Not oblivious to recurring themes

My first impression of Oblivion was the apparent ease with which I could read these stories. Admittedly, we’ve been reading the monolithic IJ for a while now, and most recently attempted a book about math, but I think the stories here are actually more understandable (at least on the surface) than some of those from either GWCH or Brief Interviews. It first has to do with the fact that these four stories all seem to be told in the classic DFW voice (which I’m certainly getting used to) rather than creating strange narrative styles. But I think, also, that it has to do with the patterns emerging among the stories that makes each new story easier to internalize, because I have already read something that illustrates much the same point.


Take, for instance, our first story in
Oblivion, “Mister Squishy.” The first obvious theme here is consumption/consumerism, something DFW has pointed out to us many times before. And yet he still managed to get a smile out of me when I read, “By industry-wide convention, Focus Group members received a per diem equal to exactly 300% of what they would receive for jury duty in the state where they resided. . . . It was, for senior test marketers, both an in-joke and a plausible extension of verified attitudes about civic duty and elective consumption, respectively” (11). I found this statement both sad and amusing in that sort of way you often find comedians’ jokes sad and amusing: it’s a silly situation, but you believe it’s true and the truth of it makes it funnier yet sad because the silly situation ought not to be true. Of course I don’t know how marketing agencies work, so I would have no way of knowing whether or not people get paid like that to participate in the real-world equivalent of the “Focus Groups.” But I do know that the average person, myself included, spends more time thinking about things, like food and clothes and my warm comfy bed, than about politics and my civic duty. In fact, I almost never think about civic duty; and having only been a legal adult for two years, voting every once in a while just about comprises my idea of what the term “civic duty” means. I have never been asked to serve on a jury, and until I read the sentence quoted above, I thought that like voting, jury duty was unpaid. (Turns out that California actually pays you $15 a day as a juror–which is nearly unpaid, considering that it takes most people away from their jobs.) What is both funny and sad is that I can easily see how people would rather go try out a new product for a day than serve on a jury, and that by getting paid more to do so, it seems like testing out new products is more important/valuable than a person’s civic duty. The pay, in other words, reinforces everyone’s idea that things we can buy and touch and use are much more important than political ideals.


In addition to politics, philosophical ideals also get warped in the world of “Mister Squishy.” Among the various marketing pitches and slogans used in “Shadow” advertising are, “freedom of individual choice” and “the unenjoyed life was not worth living” (37). The former hearkens back to the discussions of Marathe and Steeply in
IJ, a central argument being that Americans don’t actually know how to choose except to always pick those things which satisfy infantile desires. The latter is even more poignant because it is a recognizable but misquoted phrase. It is a perfect phrase for advertising because of its familiarity, yet it a rather malicious thing. The original wording is, “The unexamined life is not worth living”–something Socrates once said. This ties back to another theme of DFW’s, relating to the joke about the fish in the water: we often don’t see what is right before our eyes, and according to Socrates, if we don’t try our best to find out what this “water” is, we have not really lived. The warped phrase used for advertising means practically the opposite: if we don’t indulge ourselves with utter abandon and instead worry about things we cannot solve, we have not really lived. It is worrisome that so grand a statement (if impossible for most people to accomplish) can be so easily manipulated into something that fits the base consumerist desires of a nation that was built on similar grand statements.


One gets the sense, after reading so much of Wallace’s work, that he was quite stuck on a few issues. These issues he either couldn’t seem to work out no matter how much he wrote, or he felt that no other issues were worth writing about because these so pervade the lives of Americans (humanity?) today.

The Problem of Pain

David Foster Wallace has made it clear that the purpose of his fiction is to capture what it means to be human.   Since “an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering,”   naturally Wallace deals with this very subject in many of his stories (McCaffery Interview).

As I was reading Oblivion I was beginning to notice a pattern in the way Wallace’s characters deal with pain.   It seems that if one intellectually can separate oneself from pain itself, and examine it from an outside perspective, one may somehow come to terms with the pain in a way that’s not just simply denial or rationalization.

I’m specifically thinking of Brief Interviews, in B.I. #46 (the holocaust one), when the interviewee is talking about “how easy and powerful that was to do that, to think that, even while the violation’s going on, to just split yourself off and like float up to the ceiling and there you are looking down at this thing getting worse and worse things done to it and the thing is you and it doesn’t mean anything” (122).     The interviewee submits that for the rape victim, this de-personalization could have broadened “how she understood herself” (121).

Compare this with how the dying child “had learned to leave himself and watch the whole rest unfold from a point overhead” in Oblivion’s “Incarnations of Burned Children”   (116).   Eerily similar.   Clearly the scalded child won’t understand more about pain, but can the reader learn something from adopting an outside perspective?

Any other examples?   Thoughts?