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Oblivion: Stories

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Oblivion: Stories (2004) is a collection of short stories by David Foster Wallace. The stories, in the order they appear in the book, are:


Overarching Themes

In many of the stories, the reader is left feeling incomplete. The endings do not suffice to create a resolution or sense of closure. This is particularly apparent in "Mister Squishy" and "Incarnations of Burned Children". We, as readers, are often suspended throughout the stories, awaiting a particular event that never actually occurs. This dissatisfaction one might feel is not a mistake. Wallace himself explained his desire for his writing to "disturb the comfortable". The unsatisfying climaxes of many of the pieces leave us uncomfortable and unfinished, just as Wallace might have intended.

The collection plays with the idea of the nightmare. All the stories can be called, in some sense, horror stories, playing upon our deepest fears.

Questions to think about:

  • What is a nightmare, and how do we even know that we're awake?
  • How do we detach ourselves from the horror in our own lives?
  • Where is the horror in our ordinary daily lives?


Brian Phillips' article, "The Negative Style of David Foster Wallace", characterizes Oblivion's use of style as wholly negative. Negativity is used by Phillips to describe the way in which Wallace stylistically chooses to withhold information. He contends, “Wallace wants to put postmodern literary technique to an unusually serious end, applying its self-undoings to an old existential crisis” (Phillips 676).Phillips goes on to claim that in Oblivion, “Wallace has written a desperately sad book about the limits of human knowledge, but because the method is essentially negative, essentially concerned with what lies outside it, its felt impact is entirely projective and intellectual”(Phillips 676). He further argues that “in Wallace’s stories, the ideas evoked by style never penetrate beyond the shell of form, and indeed Wallace uses form, rather than any human test, as the means of confirming the idea” (Phillips 676). The form is believed by Phillips to convey “the horror of being isolated in a personality”, but a problem arises because “this is not something form can articulate”. He argues that Oblivion with all its verbosity and use of form succeeds in “mutely gestur[ing]” (Phillips 676).

In an article from Salon.com, Laura Miller writes,

In "Oblivion," Wallace's 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. Those readers who dislike Wallace's fiction (and unfortunately, quite a few of those who like it) see him as swanning around in the finery of his intelligence. Here, at least, he is wrestling it to the ground. What the eddying subplots and the satires of glossy magazine editors and the recipes for biotoxins and the mini-exegeses on statistical sampling and the meticulous portraits of Midwestern budget hotel chains do for the characters in these stories is provide a padding around the traumas at the stories' centers, which are always some form of mortification, in both old and recent senses of the word. Mortification -- of the body, the ego or the conscience -- is oblivion's opposite, a kind of tormented knowing that destroys all peace.


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