David Foster Wallace, who has long sought to curb his citation habit, seems to nearly have it licked. Where his last novel, 1996’s gargantuan farce ”Infinite Jest,” featured 97 pages of endnotes, there are a mere 14 footnotes among the eight tales in ”Oblivion”, his third story collection. But the spirit of the bygone appendages lives on: For Wallace, the profusion of notes was not gimmickry but an element of a narrative tone that allows him, at his best, to wring juicy humor and all-but-eye-moistening pathos from the driest of voices.
The people in ”Oblivion” continually run up against the chatter that defines a dreary world: marketing jargon, media cliches, pop-psych boilerplate. Wallace’s project is to twist this anti-language around in a way that surpasses mere mockery. The fun of watching his high-wire act — maintaining a style you’d never guess you’d want to exist — is topped by the pleasure of seeing him make it evocative.
”Oblivion”’s first story, ”Mister Squishy,” is a ride through the mind of Terry Schmidt, a focus group facilitator testing a new snack cake, ”trained by the requirements of what seemed to have turned out to be his profession to behave as though he were interacting in a lively and spontaneous way.” Just as there is no chance he will drop his ”public mask” to reveal himself to his office crush, there’s no question that in the professional rat race he’s likely to get lapped by a young coworker with a talent for laughing it up with the boss over large cigars. Though no real plot motors these proceedings, ”Mister Squishy” emerges as a uniquely vivid portrait, a case study of a sad sack.
At other times, Wallace’s combination of superprecise details and distancing diction lends the pieces a science fiction cast. In the title story, the narrator spends an afternoon at a golf club bar with his stepfather-in-law. While doing a passable job of tolerating the grotesque old man, he’s stewing on a prolonged battle with his wife ”over the issue of my so-called ‘snoring.”’ Enter the throbbing hallucinations of his sleep-deprived state, a visit to a sleep clinic, and the ”Twilight Zone”-ish idea that this marriage is a nightmare. At once cool and intimate, ”Oblivion” reads, to creepy effect, like an X-ray of one of John Updike’s classics of marital strain.
Wallace has dreamt up a new vocabulary for lives of quiet desperation; the one problem with his dispassionate stances is that they sometimes just aren’t sufficiently passionate. ”Good Old Neon,” for example, is a fascinating catalog of an ex-jock’s anxieties that, shying away from an emotional climax, peters out lamely. In an old fun-house trick, it turns out that the speaker’s monologue is imagined by one ”David Wallace,” who, flipping through his Aurora West High School yearbook, starts wondering about an old classmate. This Wallace ”emerged from years of literally indescribable war against himself with quite a bit more firepower than he’d had at Aurora West.” The firepower of the real Wallace is undeniable — his singular talent for terrifically strange prose is Exhibit A. But maybe it’s time for him to take a crack at describing that ”indescribable war” in a less mannered way. He’s uniquely qualified for battlefield reporting.