What I’m Reading on the Bus: Oblivion

Now, I like David Foster Wallace. I really do. A friend recommended Infinite Jest to me a few years ago. Despite her fervent admonitions that I would enjoy it, I told her that I didn’t have time to begin such a gargantuan tome, much less the strength to cart it around with me. She was a persistent friend, and she went so far as to ply me with with whiskey and forcibly read me passages. But to no avail. I resisted, for no real reason. It wasn’t until a few years later that I picked up A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and was instantly hooked. I waded through his back catalogue one by one, except for the book about math.

But it wasn’t easy. DFW is about as far from easy as you can get. The brother’s prose is dense. It requires a close reading of even the most frivolous and tangential passages. Sometimes his nested and clause-ridden sentences will take several pages before they achieve any sort of punctuational closure. Narrative point of view can change mid-paragraph, mid-sentence. And DFW revels in ambiguity. Events occur in a hazy fog. The actors and their motivations are obscured and vague. Extended internal dialogues are usually the only clue the reader can find as to who the central characters are. Its also digressive, frequently veering into scholarly dissertations of abstract science and jargon heavy, acronymic asides. Don’t even get me started on the footnotes.

That being said, I keep coming back. His work is frequently hilarious and rewards the (considerable) effort he requires of the reader. While I remain partial to his nonfiction work, he does seem to really come alive with his fiction. Despite all the distancing devices he pulls from his bag of postmodern tricks, many of his stories are surprisingly light in irony. His characters have authentic feelings and the author approaches their problems with a refreshing sincerity. So far I have only read the first two stories in this collection, and it has taken me the better part of three weeks. But they were worth the effort. The first story especially. Mr. Squishy has two separate narrative threads. In the first Terry Schmidt, a research scientist leads a focus group as they discuss their reactions to the titular snack cake. As Schmidt leads the group discussion he reflects on his increasing sense of ennui. His story is filled with mathematical terms and an explanations of scientific research techniques. He may also have poisoned a batch of the Felony snack cakes that he is leading the focus group on. In the second an unidentified figure slowly climbs a Chicago skyscraper. He is possibly armed, but positively wearing some sort of inflatable outfit.

It wouldn’t be a DFW story if I could offer a clear and concise plot synopsis. I cannot. Did Schmidt poison the snack cakes? If so, why? Who was researching whom on team Delta Y? Are the two scenes linked? Did the climber have a purpose? What did he do when he reached the zenith of his ascent? Did he have a rifle attached to his climbing harness, and if so what did he use it for? Wallace seems uninterested in anwering these questions. Certain key plot points become conspicuous by their absense, and I truly believe the author gets a kick out of confounding his readers. I’m still trying to figure out how Infinite Jest ended.

But the man knows his language. His prose is evocative, even as it is off-putting. His vocabulary alone is enough to reduce lesser men to tears, much less his syntactical gymnastics. I always feel smarter when I’m reading a David Foster Wallace book. And what’s the point of reading literary fiction if not to make yourself feel smarter than the people around you. As far as reading on the bus, DFW might be a little too heavy. I frequently lose track and have to start a few pages behind where I left off. But I’ll finish it, and eagerly await the next.

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