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Flirting with cessation

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the Oblivion collection

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The densely packed fictions of David Foster Wallace read more like excruciating vignettes than short stories, although his occasional flights of lyricism in Oblivion reminds those who enjoy grinding through highbrow challenges that we are indeed embarked on a literary exercise.

Published in 2004, four years before the author’s suicide generated scrounging online investigations, memoirs, tributes, and in some cases, anger, Oblivion consists of eight tales, varying in degrees of linguistic intricacy.

The most pleasurable in its humor is “Mr. Squishy,” a story about a focus group, a junk food retailer perhaps deliberately reminiscent of Tastykake, and the less than comfortable romantic inclinations of statisticians. Wallace’s hilarious attack on media sensationalism embedded in the story is a motif which loosely links the entire collection together.

“The Soul is Not a Smithy,” a small masterpiece of its kind, is nearly indescribable, but was written for those of Wallace’s generation, slightly too young to protest or defend the Vietnam War, but old enough to carry the guilt right up through the aging and death of baby boomer counterculture. Wallace displays a mastery of time shift and emphasis which almost incites the envy of lesser writers.

Almost, however, is the operative word. The post modern juxtapositions Wallace utilizes doesn’t always work, and come off as maudlin, perhaps self-pitying. In “Good Old Neon,” Wallace tackles the narcissism of suicidal suffering directly, and his self-references are nearly indistinguishable from a real cry for help when he writes “David Wallace had back then imagined as happy and unreflective.” It is almost too laden with a sense of suffocation. The protagonist here commits suicide in a head on collision, rather than Wallace’s real life hanging, which was indubitably cruel to his spouse.

The only thing left to do with Wallace’s legacy is canonize it or eschew it. When the literary life becomes an elective religion for those of us in the end who find we have no choice, this is an ambivalent balance beam from which to leap.

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