“What teachers and the administration in that era never seemed to see was that the mental work of what they called daydreaming often required more effort and concentration than it would have taken simply to listen in class. … I wish that I could say that each panel of the story that the window generated … remained animated, so that by the end of the class the window’s wire mesh squares were all filled with narrative panels like the pictorial stained windows at Riverside Methodist Church, where my brother, mother, and I attended Sunday service each week, along with my father when he felt up to getting up early enough. He often had to work at the office six days a week.”
Ostensibly this is a man recalling his childhood habit of daydreaming during school. But the bureaucratic fussiness, the showboating polysyllables, the wistful indirection (that telltale “He often had to work at the office six days a week,” demonstrating that the object of the passage, and the story, is really the narrator’s father), all mark this passage as the voice of David Foster Wallace.
The Infinite Jest author has always had a prose style that threads back and forth on the mutually reinforcing line between clinical and clinically depressed, like a weird blend of Pynchon, Kafka, DeLillo, David Byrne and Mr. Spock. In Oblivion, his first story collection since 1999, Wallace channels Stephen King and Holden Caulfield as well. Sinister suggestion permeates the stories: In “Mr. Squishy” a man considers injecting candy with botulism; “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” features a psychotic substitute teacher; “The Suffering Channel” offers premonitions of 9/11. As in Wallace’s other fiction, depression—with its wearying, bottomless solipsism—combines with consumerist depersonalization as the twin horrors of modern life. But he unites this with sharp satirical vision and—in “Good Old Neon,” the collection’s most impressive story—a Salinger-esque bittersweetness.
In Oblivion—artfully structured, deeply wounded—intelligence governs Wallace’s use of his smarty-pants style as much as the style itself.