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Oblivion: stories by David Foster Wallace


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)


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David Foster Wallace presents eight stories in the collection titled, Oblivion. Fans will enjoy the complexity of Wallace’s writing. I found some of the longest sentences I’ve ever read, constructed with precision. Most of the writing is quirky and idiosyncratic, and it came across to me as heavily self-absorbed. Wallace packs those wordy sentences with a totality of exposition that at many times becomes tiring and overwhelming to a reader. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the story, titled, “Another Pioneer,” which is written as a single paragraph, pp. 117-121:


Nevertheless gentlemen I fear the lone instance I can recall having heard aloud derived from an acquaintance of a close friend who said that he had himself overheard this exemplum aboard a high-altitude commercial flight while on some type of business trip, the fellow evidently holding a commercial position that called for frequent air travel. Certain key contextual details remained obscure. Nor, one has­tens to admit, did the variant or exemplum contain any formal Annunciation ­as such, nor any comme on dit Period of Trial or Supernatural Aid, Trickster Figures, archetypal Resurrection, nor any of certain other recognized elements of the cycle; nevertheless gentlemen I leave it to you to judge for yourselves as of course you each in turn have left it to us as well. As I understood it the man in question was diverted by weather onto the continuation of a United Airlines flight and overheard its narration as part of a lengthier discourse between two passengers seated in the row just ahead of his own. He was, in other words, forced to sit in steerage. It was a continuation of some much longer flight, perhaps even Transatlantic, and the two passengers had evidently been seated together on the flight’s first leg, and were already deep in con­versation when he boarded; and the crux here is that the fellow said he missed the first part of whatever larger conversation it was part of. Meaning that there was no enframing context or deictic antecedent as such surrounding the archetypal narrative as of course there is with all of us together here this afternoon. That it appeared to come, as the fellow described it, out of nowhere. Also that he had evidently been seated in the particular medial exit row that is always nearest the wing’s large jet engine, the overwing exit often in I believe on this type of aircraft Row 19 or 20, whereat in an evacuation you are required to turn two handles in two separate and opposed directions and supposedly then to some­how pull the entire window apparatus out of the jetliner’s fuselage and stow it in some very complicated way all detailed in glyphs on the instructional safety card that on so many commercial airlines is very nearly impossible to interpret with any confidence. With his point being that because of the location’s terrific ambient engine noise throughout the flight he was able to overhear the narrative fragment only because one of the prenominate passengers before him seemed to be either hard of hearing or cognitively challenged in some way, for the some­what younger passenger the one who appeared to be relating and interpreting the cycle’s variant or parable or whatever you may adjudge it to be seemed to articulate his sentences very slowly and with un­usual clarity and distinctness. Which he said come to think of it is also the way people who are not particularly bright or sensitive speak to foreigners, so that perhaps the older passenger was a non-native speaker of English and the narrator was himself not bright. The two never turned round or turned their two heads sufficiently for him to get a real look at them; all there ever was to look at as the narrative unfolded were the rear portions of their heads and necks, which he said appeared average and unremarkable and difficult to extrapolate anything from, which is the way the backs of strangers’ heads on airliners nearly always look. Though of course there are exceptions. From the outset, certain parallels were striking. For it concerned a certain child born in a very primitive paleolithic village somewhere. Just where he did not know; this was undoubtedly a part of the narrative’s protasis or expo­sition which he had missed by finding himself forced to fly standby and entering in as it were medias res. On the United leg. The sense he got was of a certain extraordinarily primitive, Third World, jungle or rain-forest region of the world, perhaps Asia or South America, and so terrifically long ago as to be literally paleolithic or perhaps mesolithic, as of course the anthropological origins of genres like this nearly always are. The context in which my friend then subsequently had it related him by his acquaintance was if possible, he said, even more banal 1 unexpected than a commercial airline flight, as if somehow the quotidian and as it were modern everydayness of the narrative circum­stances made its archetypal parallels even more remarkable. But he  also emphasized extremely primitive and paleolithic, in the variant, as in ears and crude lean-tos and pantheistic shamanism and an extremely primitive hunting-and-gathering mode of subsistence; and in a certain isolated village deep in the region’s rain forest apparently a certain child is born who emerges as one of these extraordinarily high-powered, pernaturally advanced human specimens who come along in every culture every once in a great while, as history shows, although he said the younger airline passenger, whom he surmised may have been a cor­porate or academic scientist, did not use ‘supernatural’ or ‘messianic’ or ‘prophetic’ or any of the other terms the cycle usually reserves for specimens like this, instead using terms such as ‘advanced,’ ‘brilliant,’ or ‘ingenious’ and describing the child’s exceptional qualities and career almost exclusively in terms of cognitive ability, raw IQ— because he said apparently at a very young age, an age at which most of the village’s children were just beginning to learn the very basic customs and behaviors that the primitive village expected of its citizens, this two- or perhaps three-year-old child was already evincing an ability to answer absolutely any          question put to it. To answer correctly, accurately, comprehensively. Even very difficult or even paradoxical questions. Of course the full range and depth of the child’s interrogatory intelligence ere not manifested for some time; thus their emergence serves as the comme on dit Threshold Experience and occupies much of the protasis. That at first the ability seems simply a novelty, something for its ents to so to speak dine out on and amuse the other villagers with, something on the order of, ‘Look: our two-year-old knows how many twigs you have if you hold five twigs and then pick up three more twigs’; until of course one of the parents’ amused neighbors happens to say or ask something that prompts the child to disclose that it also knows everything culturally important about each different individual twig the man happens to be holding, such as for example the village’s official and idiomatic names for the trees the twigs derived from, and the various pantheistic deities and religious significance of each species of relevant tree, as well as which ones had edible leaves or bark that eased fever if boiled, and so on, including which species’ grain and tensile flexion were especially good for spear shafts and the small phyto­toxic darts the villages of this region used with crude reed blowguns to defend themselves against the tropical rain forest’s predacious jaguars, which are apparently the scourge of the paleolithic Third World and the leading statistical cause of death after disease, malnutrition, and intertribal warfare. After which, of course, in short order, after reports of the remarkable twig prelection get about and the parents and other primitive villagers begin regarding the child’s intelligence in a wholly different spirit, it emerges that the child is also fully capable of answer­ing all manner of both trivial and also profoundly non-trivial questions, practical questions that bore directly on the village’s subsistence-level quality of life, such as for instance where was the best place to find a certain kind of cassava root, and why were the migrations of a certain species of elk or dik-dik a species which the village depended for its very life on hunting effectively more predictable in the rainy season than in the dry season, and why were certain types of igneous rock better for fashioning sharp edges or striking together to produce fire than other types of igneous rock, and so on. And then, of course, sub­sequently, in a rather predictable trial-and-error heuristic evolution, it emerges in the action of the protasis that the child’s preternatural bril­liance in fact extends even to those questions that are considered by the village supremely important, in other words almost religious-grade questions, questions which substituting my friend’s own terminology for that of the analytical younger man on the United flight involved not just cerebration or raw IQ but actual sagacity or virtue or wisdom or as Coleridge would have had it esemplasy, and soon the child is being called upon to adjudicate very complex and multifaceted conflicts, such as if two gathering-caste villagers both happened on the same bread­fruit tree at precisely the same time and both claimed the breadfruit who should get the breadfruit, or for example if a wife failed to conceive within a certain specified number of lunar or solar cycles did the husband have the right to banish her altogether or did his rights ex­1 tend only to no longer sharing food with her, and so on and so forth evidently the passenger up ahead provided any number of exemplary questions, some of which were very involved and difficult for either my friend or his acquaintance to reconstruct.

If after reading this excerpt, your reaction is to take a breath and say, “Wow,” Oblivion is the book for you. If your reaction is, “Huh?” you’ll want to take a pass.

Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the November 2004 issue of Executive Times

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