Oblivion is seemingly the story of a man's relationship with his family, centered on a marriage crisis brought about by his wife's insistence that he snores before he has even fallen asleep. Much of the story takes place in a country club cafe called the 19th Hole Room. The story is told from the husband's point of view as he and his wife attempt to solve the problems in their marriage shortly after their daughter/stepdaughter (Randall, the husband, is not the biological father) departs for college. As Hope and Randall (the husband and wife) attempt to resolve their snoring-related troubles by first trying therapy and then eventually undergoing observation by Sleep specialists, they discover that Randall is, in fact, asleep when he believes he is awake and shifts unconsciously between the two states. Randall is asleep and snoring without realizing it. The story takes a twist on its last page when the narrative is broken off mid-word and abruptly becomes untagged dialogue. The half-page-long dialogue seems to indicate that the entire preceding narrative is in fact the dream (or nightmare) of someone named Hope, whose unnamed husband has been trying for some time to shake her awake. The woken woman is disoriented and confused, and the story ends ambiguously, without confirming anything about the narrative's real nature or the characters' real circumstance.
Randall/Randy - the husband and apparent narrator of the story
Hope - Randall's wife/likely dreamer of the entire narrative
Audrey - Hope's daughter and Randall's stepdaughter
Dr. Sipe - Hope's stepfather
Jack Vivien - Randall's colleague and friend
Dr. Paphian - Hope and Randall's somnologist
As mentioned above, the story is centered around a marital crisis of sorts arising from Hope's bizarre insistence that Randall is asleep and snoring when he believes himself awake. Important to the story and explored in depth are the relationships between stepfather-in-law/stepfather/father, wife, daughter/stepdaughter, friends/colleagues/confidants, therapist, sleep specialist, and others. The story deals with the nature of dreams and sleep, familial tensions, married life, and (self-) awareness, among other things.
One of the major themes is the relationship between perception and reality. This is a theme that Wallace has explored in many ways throughout his career. The sudden shift from real-world into dream-state and vice versa seem indicative of Wallace's endless attempts to get out of his own head. The Broom of the System was characterized by a similar concern about the impossibility of connecting [[self and other, and nearly all of Wallace's work has contained similar anxieties. "Oblivion" is a neat and original take on the problems of postmodern solipsism: a person literally cannot tell the difference between the products of his imagination and real life, even when he shifts between them. The problem is exaggerated by having the entire narrative involving Randall and Hope, maintained as real, be the dream of someone named Hope (though the story is from Randall's perspective). It is also important to consider that the story is itself a work of fiction, the product of Wallace's brain. Broom's defining question is brought up again here: what is the difference between life and a story? Is it ever actually possible to get out of our respective heads? These questions as some of the most central to Wallace's work overall and can be seen in nearly everything he wrote, particularly the Kenyon 2005 Commencement speech (This Is Water).
The relationship between dreams and real life is a new avenue/topic for Wallace's explorations and is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges's often dream-oriented fiction.
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 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.
The daughter's emergent sexuality foils the mothers’ aging (another key theme 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” (218). These same daughters all get shipped away to colleges out of state, presumably so they don’t pain their mothers.
There seems to be something strange happening with Audrey’s sexuality in connection to her step father. 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 is one connected to “our Audrey.”
The story is told from Randall's perspective. He comes off as a sophisticated, thoughtful, and trustworthy character, but with a degree of apparent skepticism about the applicability of common phrases and language to real life. This is evident in Randall's constant use of quotation marks around certain words and terms, i.e.: "different types and levels of 'E.E.G' (or, 'brain') waves corresponded to several uniques and distinct levels of 'stages'[...]" (Oblivion: Stories 220). In many ways, "Oblivion"'s style is a version of Wallace's usual hyperself-conscious and observant maximalism, but the strength of Randall's character and the first-person perspective give it a different sense than, for example, the narrative style of Infinite Jest. An extra layer of complexity is introduced when we discover that the narrative is actually Hope's dream, and so is actually Wallace's imagining of one fictional consciousness's projection of another fictional consciousness.
"Oblivion" deals with version of the same themes and questions brought up in the rest of the collection's stories, as well as issues that have permeated Wallace's work since Broom of the System. It is unclear why "Oblivion" was chosen to be the story collection's title piece.
James Wood, in a review of Oblivion: Stories in the New Republic, criticizes the story for its inability to draw the reader's sympathy:
The pomposity of [‘Oblivion’s’] narrator has disastrous results for the story. What might have been an affecting and genuinely ironic domestic tale, about a man’s comic-pathetic inability to read correctly the warning signs in his marriage, becomes instead a fantastic and repellent exercise through which the reader can barely drag himself. Moreover, the hideousness of the husband’s voice stacks the cards against him, precluding any possibility of sympathetic identification. ‘Look at this pedantic little idiot,’ Wallace seems to be saying, ‘which we can tell by looking at his absurd manner of speaking.’ So irony is starved to sarcasm, and sympathy to voyeurism. It is literally impossible for the reader to enter the story; Wallace has sealed all the gates.
Wyatt Mason, in his review ("Don’t like it? You don’t have to play") in the London Review of Books, accuses Wood of misreading the story:
Wallace has sealed his gates, but, as I hope to have made clear, he’s left the keys for us to find, should we be willing to stoop to look for them. Wood’s assertion, that sympathy has been reduced to voyeurism, that it is ‘literally impossible for the reader to enter the story’, is true only as far as it applies to Wood’s having misread this story: ‘There is also a suggestion,’ he writes, ‘that the husband may in fact have been dreaming the entire narrative while in bed.’ If you don’t understand that the wife is the narrator, the husband becomes unsympathetic indeed.
However, having defended Wallace from Wood's misreading, he procedes to question "But who is more to blame for this misunderstanding? The writer who has hidden his meaning or the reader who cannot find it?" He expresses ambivalence about the difficulty of Wallace's fiction, eventually identifying the source of his misgivings:
The trouble one faces, the trouble I face – having read the eight stories in Oblivion; having found some hard to read and, because they were hard and the hardness made me miss things, reread them; having reread them and seen how they work, how well they work, how tightly they withhold their working, hiding on high shelves the keys that unlock their treasures; having, in some measure, found those keys; and having, in the solitary place where one reads, found a bright array of sad and moving and funny and fascinating human objects of undeniable, unusual value – is the concern that these stories, the most interesting and serious and accomplished shorter fiction published in the past decade, exhibit a fundamental rhetorical failure.
He ties this this failure of Wallace’s storytelling method, "favouring obliquity and puzzle packed in puzzle," to that of the "gross rhetorical naivety" Wallace self-identifies as committing in Authority and American Usage:
Imagine a reader being schooled by Wallace. See the reader sit there, Oblivion in hand, already crafting an official complaint in his head, unconvinced before an apparently pompous narrator. Let’s acknowledge and appreciate this reader’s inability to see such a narrator otherwise. For why should the reader be swayed? Why should he grant Wallace any of his demands for surfeit goodwill, when the reader feels, not unreasonably, that Wallace is making unreasonable demands? Wallace, after all, whether or not he coats it in aesthetic caramel, is demanding that readers play his game: my house, my rules. Don’t like it? You don’t have to play.
This culminates in a call for Wallace to try harder to find an archimedean point from which readers might be more readily inclined to identify with what Wallace painstakingly attempts to convey in his fiction:
Wallace has the right to write a great book that no one can read except people like him. I flatter myself to think that I am one of them, but I haven’t any idea how to convince you that you should be, too; nor, clearly, does Wallace. And it might not be the worst thing in the world, next time out, when big novel number three thumps into the world, were he to dig deeper, search longer, and find a more generous way to make his feelings known.