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Collision, Illinois:
David Foster Wallace and the Value of Insurance

This article argues that David Foster Wallace, across his career, was subtly invested in the possibilities for defining community value in varied structures of insurance, from the New Deal’s transformation of the welfare state to the neoliberal economics of for-profit health insurance. Historicizing Wallace and deciphering the overlooked ways in which he deploys economics, the article focuses on readings of “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” (1989), “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” (2004), and “Oblivion” (2004), while also linking the latter two to the development of The Pale King (2011).

David Foster Wallace lived the longest continuous stretch of his fiction-writing career in Normal, Illinois, twin municipality to the larger Bloomington. From 1993 until 2002 he taught at Normal’s Illinois State University, an hour’s drive from his boyhood home in Urbana. Bloomington-Normal’s largest employer is State Farm Insurance, specialists in home, auto, fire, and health and founded in Bloomington in 1922. In his essay about huddling with neighbors on 9/11, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” Wallace writes of Bloomington as a place malignly transformed by changes of scale in the insurance industry: it is ”the national HQ for State Farm, which is the great dark god of US consumer insurance and for all practical purposes owns the town” (Consider 133). The corporation’s influence on the area mirrors what the essay as a whole registers in the local response to 9/11, the community-building effects but also, sooner than Wallace’s persona imagines it will occur, a sense of alienation and division—with himself as an alien, unable to find an American flag to buy and separated from his “innocent” neighbors by his politics and knowledge of New York (139). State Farm has over many years already written versions of such schisms onto Bloomington, in the “smoked-glass complexes and Build to Suit developments” its money has brought, the “beltway of malls and franchises that’s killing off the old downtown,” “plus an ever-wider split between the town’s two basic classes and cultures,” emblematized by SUVs and pickup [End Page 136] trucks (133). State Farm’s corporatized insurance has the opposite of the local bonding effects its history as an alliance of Illinois farmers seeking better car insurance prices would suggest, and Wallace seems to have been taking notes on such trends for his fiction. While it is a sidelight in the essay, calling State Farm a “great dark god” that “owns” this small town (while possessed of profits gained from consumers in thousands of other locales) suggests there is deep irony for Wallace in a corporation with a public mission of sorts failing to integrate itself into the community from which it grew eighty years earlier. These tensions seem especially important, Wallace’s inclusion of this background implies, as the nation enters a postdisaster period of repair and self-redefinition.

In this essay I interpret Wallace as a writer invested in depicting varied structures of insurance—in unofficial, government-operated, and corporatized forms—and their troubled relationships with communities of customers and constituents, spanning from the era of the New Deal to the complications of for-profit US health insurance and risk management in a neoliberal twenty-first century. In stories from either end of his career—“Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” from Girl with Curious Hair and “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” and the title story from Oblivion—Wallace builds into the backgrounds of his narratives structures that offer payment in the aftermath of disaster or, in the case of health care, the ongoing, often futile quest to tame mental and other illness. Sometimes these insurance structures are improvisatory and even infused with charisma and religiosity, but increasingly in his work they are systematically and even sinisterly posthuman. Insurance forms part of Wallace’s career-long investigation of Americans’ means of sharing and exchanging value within and outside market imperatives, and he seems particularly drawn to the way insurance both infuses compensation into situations of accident and trauma (which are constant and even inevitable in his work) and requires mature resignation to planning for such events. Moreover, insurance has been overlooked as one of the several boring and antidramatic institutional structures through which Wallace marks out his distinct path within postmodernism. His insurance narratives—focused on intimate and melancholy effects and often expressing a nostalgia for older social orders—provide an alternative to the views of risk in writers such as Don DeLillo and Richard Powers, whose novels of environmental anxiety and global corporatism, White Noise and Gain, are the prime examples of US postmodern literature in Ursula K. Heise’s influential discussion of risk perception and narrative form.

Federal taxes and the infrastructure they support appealed to Wallace late in his career as a fictional avenue into themes of civic [End Page 137] values and social sharing he began treating explicitly in his 2000 essay on John McCain; The Pale King signals such concerns on its first page with the sudden, oracular mention, “We are all of us brothers” 3). The Pale King uses issues of taxation to define and potentially restore images of American civic identity, from the responsibilities of citizenship (Boswell, “Trickle” 471–72) to narratological models of community organization (Warren 399–402). But insurance appears in the earlier, shorter fictions that I interpret here as an intermediate, often more realistic model for the kinds of community-minded values Wallace saw as under effacement in his post-1960s lifetime. Importantly, too, the frequent mixing of market forces and public service in insurance gave Wallace a sinuous social structure to examine, often through idiosyncratic inventions indirectly evoking organizations like State Farm or the government. While I focus on an overlooked continuity in the career-long span of Wallace’s short fiction, in the essay’s final third I also point to the ways in which his insurance interests were intertwined with the development of The Pale King, especially in the case of the shady corporate insurance background of “Oblivion.” Along the way I also interpret some insurance references in Infinite Jest.

Reading insurance economics in Wallace’s work adds a necessary third dimension to understandings of Wallace the philosopher-novelist. At Amherst College, Wallace was famously a bifurcated student who produced senior theses in both creative writing (the first draft of The Broom of the System) and analytical philosophy (a long essay on Richard Taylor’s fatalism, published in book form after Wallace’s death). But we should add to this academic background another major field, economics, particularly the policies behind the New Deal and the formation of the US welfare state in the 1930s. As D. T. Max reveals, at Amherst Wallace participated in college debate, considered law school, and worked very hard in his economics classes, winning a student prize in the discipline and excelling at theory (he struggled with calculations) (28). He even had, Max says, “inchoate” dreams of a life in politics (25), a fate Wallace would romance in “Lyndon,” the story of a feckless young man named David Boyd (Wallace’s boyhood self?) who rises from mail duty to become a speechwriter and confidante to President Lyndon Johnson, noteworthy for his expansion of public insurance in the name of a Great Society—important background in a story of a historically early case of AIDS for a Haitian immigrant. Outside class, Wallace and his friends were particularly interested in Roosevelt’s management of the Depression through the New Deal, from the 1935 Social Security Act to federal deposit insurance for banks (Max 27).1 Wallace thus began his career with an interest in the role of the actuarial and of state welfare in US history. [End Page 138] With an encyclopedic mind ranging from math and finance to fatalism and existentialist themes of radical contingency, Wallace also wrote fictions that formally and thematically incorporated the effects of chance and the science of probability, from sports bets and nuclear war scenarios in Infinite Jest to the stochastic mathematics (crucial to both modern financial markets and actuarial science) probed in “Adult World.”

In a career stretching from the Reagan administration to the eve of Obama’s election, Wallace writes from within and in criticism of a neoliberal economic order in which corporatization and State Farm’s ownership of Bloomington and larger swaths of the nation have been increasingly normative practices, readily aligned with the general dismantling of the US welfare state in favor of free-market principles in many areas of social services.2 As David Harvey observes in his history of neoliberalism, this philosophy’s touting of personal responsibility and choice and its denigration of collectivity become, in the case of health insurance, an “[a]uthoritarianism in market enforcement” (79), particularly when “the only way I can satisfy my needs in the market is through paying exorbitant premiums to inefficient, gargantuan . . . but also highly profitable insurance companies” (79–80), some with “the power to define new categories of illness to match new drugs coming on the market” (80). Critiquing neoliberal practices, Philip Mirowski describes a life insurance industry that “has become ‘securitized’ in much the same way as most other personal income streams have been financialized” (125). Wallace often contends with such contemporary realities, I demonstrate below, by expressing nostalgia for earlier social formations. Our understanding of Wallace—not a postmodernist or post-postmodernist but, as Marshall Boswell argues, the “nervous leader of some still-unnamed (and perhaps unnameable) third wave of modernism” (Understanding 1)—thus benefits from situating his work specifically within the history of the US welfare state and, in Jason Puskar’s words, the “grand narrative[s] of chance collectivity” (14) and “social and material interdependence” (3) that critics including Puskar and Michael Szalay have recently used to renovate political readings of US modernism and naturalism.3 These critics demonstrate the intertwining of literary imagining and welfare state achievements like the Social Security Administration—developments that, in Szalay’s formulation, “changed profoundly the political valence and cultural instrumentality of existing literary conventions” (3). It is precisely these state formations that are under steady attack during Wallace’s career by neoliberalism, the socially atomizing market orientation of which is anathema to his antisolipsistic, advertising-averse vision. [End Page 139]

In other words, Wallace gives us a view of communal values from the 1980s to the 2000s very much framed by the 1930s. Given Wallace’s much discussed quest to break with the tradition granted to him by the ironic metafictionists of 1960s high postmodernism in “E Unibus Pluram” and elsewhere, what happens if we take as the origin of Wallace’s fictional ethos not the traditional twentieth-century breakpoint of 1945, not the 1960s and 1970s in which so many of his key intertexts emerged, and not the Reaganite 1980s in which he came of age and began publishing, but, instead, 1929? This was the date that, beginning with Girl with Curious Hair, provided him with a metaphorics of economic Depression and crashes of value—all evidence of radical contingency—that he could juxtapose with crashes of self-worth and interior states of depression. Such is the general context in which I read the multivalent economic allegory in “Westward” below. But as later works engage with problems of insurance from later eras including neoliberalism, Wallace’s study of the 1930s also leaves him with a nostalgia for FDR and those moments in which the nation proved adult in its handling of traumatic accident. Wallace has an abiding sense that insuring against disaster marks a site at which his investigations of US politics and intimate subjectivities (both ceded in their own way to corporate interests) can coincide.

While he looks backward in history for responses of social insurance to crisis, Wallace also operates, especially in Oblivion, with awareness of how the risk management models of contemporary insurers come freighted with ideology and resist valorization as embodiments of communal interest. Building on Ulrich Beck’s concepts of risk communities and a reflexive modernity, Heise writes of risk perception as culturally determined, not objective; risk perceptions are “forms of ideology” that can become intertwined with the “self-perpetuation of certain social structures” (127). Risk, according to Heise, is ultimately “a concept that encompasses far more than its technical or actuarial definitions to include complex cognitive, affective, social, and cultural processes” (131).4 Between the 1989 novella with which I begin and the 2004 story with which I close, these tensions in insurance and risk perception manifest for Wallace in increasingly grotesque characters, frenzied forms, and attention to abstracted demographic systems designed to turn a profit at the expense of communities.

Regarding insurance conceived in association with more improvisatory and personal forms closer to charity than to pooled risk, one other Wallace biographical note is important. Max reveals that by his “church group” in “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” Wallace actually meant fellow members of Alcoholics Anonymous, the group that plays so salutary a role in the novel Wallace finished after moving to [End Page 140] Normal, Infinite Jest (Max 263). More than a recovery group, Wallace’s AA friends formed a network of unaccounted favors not seen as reciprocal; for instance, fellow AAers with skills did repair work on Wallace’s new house (Max 201) while he paid the college tuition of children of other members out of his 1997 MacArthur grant (239). Such coding is important to reading the types of communal assurance and insurance juxtaposed with State Farm in “Mrs. Thompson’s” and Wallace’s larger corpus. Infinite Jest characterizes AA as a localized network of gift circulation much like ones Wallace read about in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, a book he praised in a 2007 blurb for illuminating “money, spirituality . . . politics, morality,” and, in sum, “whatever you call ‘value,’” suggesting that monetary exchange offers far from the only kind (“The Gift”). AA members, beneficiaries of an idealized insurance pool who have received aid in a time of crisis and feel the need to pay back into it, regard their sobriety as “less a gift than a sort of cosmic loan. You can’t pay the loan back, but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works” (Infinite 344).

The story of recovering addict Doony Glynn defines the for-profit insurance economy that Wallace’s valorized AA and Ennet House diverge from, even as these institutions navigate health care bureaucracy themselves. In the one explicit State Farm reference in Wallace’s fiction, claims adjusters from the company trade emailed laughs over a worker’s compensation injury report filed by a bricklayer, Glynn, that is equal parts Sisyphus and Buster Keaton. The “claimant [was] Impaired and the emerg. room rept. lists a blood-alcohol of .3+,” the adjuster writes, “so be pleased to know we’re clear on the 357–5 liability end” (Infinite 138–39). The bottom-line, legal-bureaucratic “basic facts” (139) end here as far as State Farm is concerned, but Wallace’s narrative of the different values insuring against self-imposed falls is just beginning for the attentive reader: Glynn suffers from diverticulitis caused by his drinking, and late in the novel, when he needs hospitalization for it, Ennet House manager Pat Montesian cuts through “the red tape at Health to get them to OK admission to [the hospital] even though he’s got insurance fraud on his yellow sheet” (824).

Assessing the possibility of true sincerity in Wallace, Adam Kelly offers the useful caveat that, while attracted to an ethic of generosity, Wallace ultimately views the gift skeptically, as a double bind or, in Derrida’s term, an aporia (139–40). Yet when we add insurance, its greater realism about the possibility of charity and communal value in the US context, and a scrutiny of the insurance system’s successes and failures to the panoply of Wallace’s images, we begin to see a writer doggedly pursuing portraits of communities attempting (and [End Page 141] failing) to share and transfer value and translate it effectively into care of the body and soul, whatever the philosophical nuances are that go beyond the pragmatically supportive. Wallace tends to read an ethic of charity as something whose tremendous potential continues to exist within and alongside the formalized schemes of governmental and private insurance—likely because almost all his fictions of society eventually become allegories for the intimate, antisolipsistic acts of connection he hopes are made possible by literature. These are terms he first begins to map out in fiction in “Westward,” my first exhibit.

An idiosyncratic, insurancelike structure anticipating the economy of AA plays a crucial role in “Westward,” an account of McDonald’s, advertising, and the artist’s predicament in an era defined by these corporate forces. Constantly concerned with the latter-day economic developments that grotesquely expand profit in the face of perceived limits, “Westward” focuses on advertising mogul J. D. Steelritter, who, having built the burger chain into a superbrand, plans a reunion of all the actors who have ever appeared in a McDonald’s commercial, drawing writing-student protagonist Mark Nechtr, his writing-student wife, and their friend to Illinois. Bursting with economic metaphors from the agricultural to the numismatic, “Westward” is fundamentally about juxtaposing varying forms of value, from the monetary to the moral and aesthetic, and it pursues these themes from the hidden narrator’s sinuous opening assertion—“We . . . could love only what we valued” (Girl 234)—to Mark’s late, countering discovery that art’s value, intertwined with the self’s, must have the decentering terms of a gift: art as “this one gift that always returns” (370). Throughout, Wallace characterizes Americans of roughly his parents’ age (the 1960s generation, here embodied by J. D.) as barriers to the 1980s youths’ access to an earlier set of moral values Wallace associates with the 1930s and the Depression. Born in 1962, he was part of “a generation,” Wallace said in 1993, “that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far as meaningful moral values, and it’s our job to make them up, and we’re not doing it” (“Looking for a Garde” 18).

Making up those values involves looking to the 1930s. “Westward” reaches back to and enshrines that grandparental generation—and becomes, not coincidentally, a story of insurance—through the invented downstate Illinois town on which the action converges, Collision, ostensibly named after the founding event of the town, a car crash that kills a local farmer named Kroc. Collision is also, of course, common American shorthand for one form of car insurance, importantly the kind that pays out when one hits (and injures) another. But in Wallace’s contortion of the idea, the grief-stricken, wealthy woman driving the car (who is revealed to be the eventual Mrs. Steelritter, mother of J. D.) instinctively offers Kroc’s family, with “no litigation” [End Page 142] (258), a “settlement way beyond legal” (259) as recompense, the pun on “settlement” and Collision’s name suggesting that the community both arises out of trauma and is inseparable from the social buffering that legal and insurance settlements represent. Insurance is thus, for Wallace, community itself: this community is collision and the shared risk of it, an expansion of Wallace’s idea that “an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering” and that readers of literature, realizing their own pain is shared by others, grow “less alone” (“An Expanded Interview” 22). Out of guilt, Mrs. Steelritter remains fixed to the spot in her car, and in a foreshadowing of the attention to fulfilling promises that Mark will learn in the larger story, “[h]er vow” to remain stationary, “plus strength of character, yielded certain implications,” with “yield” figuring here as a verb of (agricultural) gain (258). The town and its entire economy grow around this woman, who functions as a sort of central marketplace and bank in the story’s rendition of the rebuilding of economy and community within the Depression; stationary, she “wanted things, and would exchange money for the things.” In fact, if State Farm Insurance is a “great dark god” that “owns” Bloomington, Mrs. Steelritter seems to be a countering, Buddhalike god of stillness and the payment of a kind of ongoing karmic debt. Cain, the Bible’s first killer, who comes to be a founder of cities, is another religious allusion. Trumping up the sacred associations, Wallace adds, “The area was substantially transfigured” (258).

Collision is located near “Champaign, Rantoul, and Urbana,” perhaps ruling out Bloomington, which is fifty miles west of those three small towns, as the real-life analogue (Girl 258).5 But while the specific reference does not ultimately matter, the Steelritters’ business of growing rose blooms (a very unlikely cash crop in downstate Illinois), when added to the insurance allusions, could be Wallace’s gesture toward Bloomington, the history of which he might have known about from a young age. As the afflicted farmer’s family takes the money and founds McDonald’s (not State Farm) with it, though, Wallace’s general allegory of American decline seems unmistakable: between the 1930s and the 1980s, shared, reparative American value went from community-founding funds to unnourishing fast-food profits, the further attenuation of a shift into an economy of advertising about fast food now mocking Mrs. Steelritter’s initiating act. The final perversion of her extralegal community-settlement is the attempt of her son—who, a master of contracts, has initials evoking a lawyer’s degree—to assemble (and then kill off, it appears) a group of TV-linked strangers in Collision. This is the culmination of his effort to make McDonald’s, in a slogan that summarizes much in the neoliberal spirit this story is generally sensitive to, “the world’s community restaurant” (246). [End Page 143]

In portraying Mrs. Steelritter’s life in a car (the fate of many during the Depression) as the founding of a town, Wallace romanticizes the government’s 1930s role in social insurance and the restoration of currency’s value to match productivity. “Itinerant Depressed poor, but with things, and entrepreneurial drive, flocked to” the crash site to build “shanties” around the woman (Girl 258). Providing money at a time of disaster, Mrs. Steelritter points to many aspects of Roosevelt’s New Deal that allowed community economies to become functional again, including the old-age insurance scheme of Social Security and deposit insurance for banks. By calling this tent city a “nouveaux-bourgeois Rooseveltville” (a twist on Hoovervilles), Wallace suggests that not just emergency measures but the prosperous American middle class grew robustly out of Roosevelt’s New Deal. While the moment of the car crash is said to be “the early Great Depression,” it reads as an allegory of the 1929 stock market crash that undid American economic value (as well as an allegory of general psychological trauma) (257). Other echoes of Depression economics abound: the dead farmer represents the collapse of agriculture elsewhere in the Midwest during the Dust Bowl, while the efflorescence of agricultural “yield” with the farmer’s corpse lying in the fields gestures toward not just T. S. Eliot but the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, created in 1938 to mitigate the effects of farming disasters exacerbated by financial collapse. The Steelritters’ rose farming, begun from J. D.’s father’s journeys by bicycle as (pun intended) an “itinerant peddler” of flowers (258), not only captures the story’s spirit of Ludditism but recalls the reduction of many to flower-selling and movement between towns for work during the Depression. In Wallace’s sometimes heavy-handed allegory, these 1930s forms of communal value lie in sharp contrast to the shakiness of financial capital and loans that dominates the present. Mark may be heir to a detergent fortune, but he and his new wife cannot rent a car at the airport because their names are not on the credit card his father gave them as a wedding gift. And Mark, struggling with value in many senses and coming to a bracing realization about “the self’s coin” (369), shares a name with the German currency that suffered from hyperinflation in the 1920s.

In a move typical of the postmodernists like Pynchon he was apt to imitate early in his career, Wallace spatializes history and has the past survive materially in the present; in the ending breakdown scene, J. D. tells his son to ask for help at three of the old “shanties,” which have inexplicably survived (inhabited?) into the 1980s (Girl 344). Likewise, the dead farmer of Collision’s founding is reincarnated as another patron of the car rental counter, a giant farmer who attempts (in another evocation of Depression transactions) to pay for [End Page 144] his rental with a handful of grain. “What’s happened to the big old farmer who’s unable to trade a whole season’s sweat and effort, in the tradition that made the U.S.A. . . . possible and great, for a lousy three weeks of flashy transport?” Wallace writes in further economic nostalgia (268). The car is “for the farmer’s eldest son’s potential wedding to a loan officer’s daughter,” a sign of the move from farm-based valuation to an economy of money and usury. The farmer in effect wins the westward march of progress, though, appearing in a final scene, carless but driving his tractor past the stalled vehicle of J. D.’s son.

Wallace wrote and rewrote “Westward” at the artist colony at Yaddo, according to Max, in the summer of 1987, but it would not be published until November 1989, after the legal delays of Girl with Curious Hair, which required changes to, among other things, direct mentions in “Westward” of Leo Burnett (J. D.’s real-life inspiration) (97–98).6 The novella’s endorsement of modes of value transfer from the 1930s may thus represent not only a chastening of high finance’s ascendancy during the Reagan era and anxieties over US-Japanese competition (present in the awkward inclusion of stereotyped “Orientals” [Girl 302]) but also a response to the feared return of Depression economics portended by the record drop in stock market value on Black Monday, 19 October 1987. In these anxious economic atmospheres, while he never proves any sort of socialist or utopianist, Wallace finds much that his contemporary world has left behind in insurance and other collective supports grounded in the New Deal, here given various magical renderings.

Once he shifts away from this mode of allegorizing sixty or more years of socio-economic history, Wallace’s portrayals of insurance become less idealized, more attuned to the intricacies of markets and specific, twenty-first-century conditions. My other two exhibits come from Oblivion, the 2004 story collection that, as Stephen J. Burn documents, emerged in symbiosis with The Pale King, the project Wallace often returned to post-Infinite Jest (Burn, “Paradigm” 373). Editor Michael Pietsch, who arranged The Pale King for publication, reveals that Wallace began “Adult World” and “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” as parts of the tax novel (Moody, Veronesi, and Pietsch). “Smithy” in particular, about a daydreaming fourth-grader held hostage by a psychotic civics teacher, seems ready to insert into the world of the novel, since the narrator’s dream about his remembered father’s workplace, an insurance office full of actuaries, strongly resembles the Peoria rooms in The Pale King. Moreover, this traumatic childhood story of 1960 would have set the narrator of “Smithy” up to join the many examiners of The Pale King who have been recruited to the Regional Examination Center (Wallace’s plan for the unfinished novel [End Page 145] suggests) because childhood “trauma or abandonment” somehow grants them the massive amounts of concentration tax work requires (Pale 545). Did Wallace see this insurance job as complementary to the tax accountancy that the narrator (had he gone into The Pale King) presumably would have taken up after his childhood trauma, remedying the undoing of civics class by the teacher’s insertion of murderous messages into the Constitution? Or did Wallace shift from a tax setting to the insurance world once “Smithy” became a separate fictional world? Regardless of these unknowable answers, Wallace’s fictional works, especially now that we can see them all at once, appear to have accreted like those of Joyce, a writer Wallace studied closely (Max 316n18) and alludes to in the story’s title: that is, Wallace’s works almost always have porous borders, the preoccupations, motifs, and even plots of one bleeding into those of another, where they might be wrestled with at greater length and with other accents.

If “Westward” was in part about Mark’s disillusioning search for a father figure in Ambrose and J. D., “Smithy,” also an unconventional portrait of the artist, is about the fall of fathers, the diminution and even Oedipal tragedies of figures of patriarchal authority on all levels, ranging from Mr. Simmons’s severed arm (a symbolic castration) in the story-within-the story to, in the immediate setting, the teacher Richard Johnson, who is shot through the eyes in another nod to Oedipus’s fate. The teacher’s first and last names also point to the two US presidents who will lead some of these students into the trauma of the Vietnam War, evidence that political authority has descended into psychosis. The most pathos-laden of these falls, though, is the death of a father the narrator never truly knew, and in climactic ruminations on that fact, we come to see the boy’s comics- and TV-like vision as a prodigious lie when compared to the inherently antidramatic nature of adult life, which plays out in an insurance office. Of his father’s work the narrator says,

I knew that insurance was protection that adults applied for in case of risk, and I knew it had numbers in it because of the documents that were visible in his briefcase when I got to pop its latches and open it for him, and my brother and I had had the building that housed the insurance company’s HQ and my father’s tiny window in its face pointed out to us by our mother from the car, but the actual specifics of his job were always vague. And they remained so for many years. Looking back, I suspect that there was something of a cover-your-eyes and stop-your-ears quality to my lack of curiosity about just what my father had to do all day.

(Oblivion 105) [End Page 146]

Using the same “HQ” language with which he described State Farm in “Mrs. Thompson’s,” Wallace in this moment has the narrator, though a retrospecting adult, maintain his boyish naïveté of his father’s insurance work, as though the pathos of the disconnection between father and son includes in its weight a neglect of certain social principles. We have just heard at remarkable length of the narrator’s “cover-your-eyes and stop-your-ears” response to the classroom trauma, but in the oblique way in which “Smithy” and almost all the stories in Oblivion expose life’s real traumas through seemingly tangential remembered events, it is the daily challenges of the adult world that this narrative is designed to evoke—a realm in which protection from the unnoticed, undramatic risks of everyday life takes precedence and instills a real, lasting terror.

“Smithy” thus presents Wallace’s highly intimate and emotional approach to the theoretical categories of risk perception and risk management. In the story’s arc, it is not the classroom hostage crisis, the window daydream, or a horror movie that bring the narrator to a psychic bottom; rather, it is the notion of insurance and remaining true to and systematically vigilant about its grim view of the future that he ultimately cannot handle: his chronic “nightmare” from childhood is not a recurrence of the classroom trauma but an anticipatory vision of the insurance-office desk order that awaits him—a room the size of a soccer field, “utterly silent” and with “a large clock on each wall” counting out an unbearable time (103). His fear is not of Mr. Johnson but of his father’s eyes, “lightless and dead, empty of everything we associated with his real persona” (103–04). The insurance office seems here to be not just a workplace but an existential landscape, complete with a bygone sense of ethical duty. Also alluded to is Kafka’s insurance office career and the many uncanny fictions he built from it.7

In “Westward,” Wallace showed how the alignment of irony and advertising in the 1960s had left his 1980s generation without access to the values of the 1930s, as mediated by figurations of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Roosevelt is subtly present in “Smithy” as well. The story ends with a memory of the class President’s Day presentation, in which one of the four hostages, Chris DeMatteis, plays FDR at the 1933 inauguration (occasion for announcing many parts of the New Deal agenda) but fails to remember his lines and, “thrust[ing] his lower jaw . . . out further,” simply repeats “‘Fear itself, fear itself,’ over and over”—the number of repetitions noted, importantly, by the narrator’s father, who has taken time away from work to attend (113). This forgetful Chris, who often sleeps in class and has no time to study because he is a child-laborer working on his father’s paper route, seems to be Wallace’s nod to the deep background from American [End Page 147] history and his own career that informs “Smithy”: a forgetting of (or obliviousness to) the communal confidence and New Deal programs needed to overcome economic disaster and things like child labor.8

In “Oblivion,” Wallace transforms the positive (even awe-inspiring) insurance-associated elders of these previous narratives into a grotesquely powerful figure of the for-profit insurance industry—changes in his idiom that seem appropriate to the particular cruelties of US health insurance in the twenty-first century. “Oblivion” narrates the attempted repair of a deeply troubled marriage in a surreal sleep-clinic setting that is revealed, in the final page’s dialogue, to be the dream creation of Hope, a woman who is in fact, in the story’s central distortion and another of Wallace’s recursive loops, dreaming in the parodic voice of a projected version of her husband, Randy. Dream logic and dream fears suffuse the narrative, which Wallace so stuffs with psychoanalytic tropes that he seems intent on capsizing any Freudian method of literary interpretation. For instance, Hope apparently projects a Randy who has pedophilic desires for his stepdaughter Audrey, Hope’s child from a previous marriage. (And is Randy his actual name or her mind’s pun for an excessively sex-minded husband?) But perhaps Hope is mediating here an attitude toward her own stepfather, Dr. Sipe, referred to as “Father” throughout, even by Randy (or, to play the story’s own game of attenuated signification, “Randy”) (191). Doubling, sexual innuendo, hallucinations, and disintegrating identities abound: Audrey is also the name of an attractive waitress at the country club and “Sipe,” the family name, means to seep, which is what happens to every identity and self-sameness here, from Hope’s voicing of her husband to the endless bleeding of words into multiple near-synonyms and recontextualizations.

In this hall of mirrors the story also narrates a version of contemporary health care and insurance that, while horrifically surreal, seems—like all well-interpreted dreams—to hold a deeper set of truths about these institutions. “Oblivion” in fact illustrates Heise’s Foucauldian claim that, in the management of risk, “governments, insurance companies, and other social institutions” can “ultimately serve purposes of social surveillance and control” (131). “Father” is a physician but makes his living in “something called ‘Demographic Medicine,’ which involved his evidently not ever once, during his entire career, physically touching a patient” (Oblivion 211). While it may not be a term the industry uses, we recognize in “Demographic Medicine” an only slightly exaggerated version of the profit-oriented practices of health insurance conglomerates in the contemporary US. “Demographics” is also often used in the statistics-mad, manipulative (and very much antihealth) snack cake advertising world of Oblivion’s [End Page 148] opening story, “Mister Squishy” (5). Randy—in dream terms, an inadequate substitute for Hope’s powerful Father—exists further down insurance’s long bureaucratic chain, an “Assistant Systems Supervisor” (or A.S.S.) for a company called “Advanced Data Capture,” “which provided outsourced data and document storage facilities and systems for a number of small- and mid-sized insurance providers in the Mid-Atlantic region” (194). An example of what Boswell calls Oblivion’s preference for narrators “controlled, sometimes to the point of madness, by . . . layered, nested, entropic” idioms (“Constant” 151), Randy seems to have no thought truly free of his employer’s systems: he speaks of a decision made with Hope as “a compromise or [in the language of insurance regulation] ‘Technical compliance’ with this priority” (Oblivion 203; brackets in original), while on seeing his own brain activity represented on an EEG machine, he describes his very consciousness in terms of the money pried from a larger demographic body. The lines look “trended with dramatic troughs and spikes or ‘nodes’ suggestive in appearance of an arrhythmic heart or financially troubled or erratic ‘Cash flow’ graph” (228). Rife with computer-driven abstractions, “Oblivion” depicts neoliberal health care’s version of the atmosphere of posthumanism Paul Giles finds across Wallace’s works. Such posthumanism, though, Giles argues, is balanced by Wallace’s sentimental traditional value system, which, in my reading, broadly correlates with Wallace’s idealized, antineoliberal vision, beneath all the absurdity, of what collective militating against risks to crisis might become in a less market-oriented world (Giles 330).

That view of for-profit insurance’s very different tradition and origins emerges in traces Wallace leaves in the story of the history of Dr. Sipe’s employer, Prudential Insurance, which played a more decisive role in earlier drafts, Wallace’s archive reveals. Dr. Sipe “[makes] a point of referring to a draft Feigenspan lager as ‘[a] P.O.N.’” (Oblivion 191) because he knows its Newark origins:

[A] career Medical executive for Prudential Insurance, Inc.—or, “The Rock,” as it is often popularly known—as his own father before him evidently was, as well, as well as being a “Fourth Ward” historical district native born and bred, [Sipe] knew Feigenspan lager by its original trademark, “Pride of Newark” (or, “P.O.N.”), and made rather a point of referring to it in no other way, also affecting to brush across his upper lip with a knuckle after drinking, in the way of the city’s “working-”men.


The working-class pose is immediately undercut by his lighting of an expensive cigar. In a note in Wallace’s handwritten early manuscript [End Page 149] of “Oblivion” at the Harry Ransom Center, he directly attributes the P.O.N. detail to Kurt Eichenwald’s Serpent on the Rock, which Randy brings to the sleep clinic as (appropriately disturbing) bedtime reading, reinforcing the sense that the nightmare here is truly that of corporate insurance’s degradations. Eichenwald’s book is a mass-market exposé of the securities fraud of the 1980s at a subsidiary of Prudential-Bache (the name of the merged company after Prudential expanded into investments) that cheated 340,000 investors of eight billion dollars, the costliest fraud scandal for a Wall Street investment firm in history to that point. It resulted in fines but no jail time for the perpetrators. Eichenwald shows the fraud to have been a result of Bache Securities, seeking a merger partner in 1981, looking to wrap itself in the “blanket of respectability” provided by Prudential’s “unwavering integrity” as an insurance provider (94). Prudential was more than a century old, founded in 1875 Newark by John Fairfield Dryden on the basis of his “Widows and Orphans Friendly Society, a nonprofit [group] that [sold] insurance [primarily burial insurance] to its members” and paved the way for a for-profit version of the company (95). This description comes from the same page of Eichenwald’s book on which the “P.O.N.” beer detail Wallace exported appears.9 One of Wallace’s multiple handwritten attempts at “Oblivion” even begins with a sentence referring to the 1875 origins of Prudential Insurance and linking it to the 1980s fraud—as though Wallace considered making the perversion of the insurance company’s mission a far more explicit element of the story (“Oblivion”). In a narrative rife with suburban New Jersey country-club luxury built on profits from Demographic Medicine, Wallace undoubtedly links the long transformation of Prudential from an insurance company with civic pride into a financialized moneymaker for distant executives with the concomitant decline of Newark (long ago fled by Father) into one of the US’s poorest cities. Parallels with Bloomington and State Farm, while not exact, may also have struck Wallace. As in Heise’s formulations on risk ideology, insurance practices here perpetuate hierarchy.

Let me turn again, for a moment, to The Pale King. Prudential-Bache’s fraud, as Eichenwald details, emerged from the expanded selling of investments known as tax shelters, the demand for which exploded with 1970s inflation, facts Wallace (in another instance of porous narrative borders) may have been intending to add to the incredibly complex matrix of economic history in which The Pale King’s fictions of 1985–86 are situated. One goal in Claude Sylvanshine’s systems agenda is “to enhance Peoria 047’s ability to distinguish legitimate investment partnerships from tax shelters whose entire purpose was to avoid taxes” (13). Later, the young David Wallace, misassigned on his first day, figures out that many of the “Immersive[s]” [End Page 150] he witnesses at work are “shelter specialists” (337) “engaged with anti-shelter protocols” (338). The Tax Reform Act of 1986 eliminated the advantages of tax shelters, “gut[ted]” the business, and led to Prudential-Bache’s eventual prosecution (Eichenwald 279). The Pale King mentions the 1986 TRA once, claiming that the profit-based IRS logic of the Spackman Initiative (a Wallace invention) was “ostensibly” a product of this 1986 Act, though in development long before that (Pale 71). Does Spackman, though, amount to the government’s reflection of Prudential’s shift from the insurance business to nefarious finance, undermining the tax code’s moral purpose? While separating the tangled threads of the profit motives of government, corporate insurance, and investors here is beyond my scope (and grounds for a separate article), I will ask, would Prudential-Bache have played a role, maybe a central one, had Wallace completed the puzzle of The Pale King? He must have sensed an alignment between Prudential-Bache’s expansion into investment capitalism at the expense of tax returns (away from its core business of consumer insurance and far away from the nineteenth-century non-profit service of widows and orphans) and the market-based logic of Spackman. Filling in this story may require attention to the more than 3,000 pages at the Ransom Center from which Pietsch drew the published Pale King.

But to return to the more tractable domain of “Oblivion,” the health care institution toward which Dr. Sipe leads Hope and Randy in the story’s resolution is a travesty of care that seems not to serve patients at all. The “Darling Memorial Sleep Clinic”—named in a way that suggests a loved one’s death—is a dystopian scene of surveillance, reminiscent of Infinite Jest’s riffs on the medical settings of A Clockwork Orange. (Wallace knew the Anthony Burgess novel well, Max reveals [73].) This nightmare of a sleep clinic inexplicably has the cacophony of Prudential’s capital at work in the near background, the sounds chosen to accentuate an orientation to money: “The sound of a blender making frozen drinks, of coins in a Prudential ‘Executive-’ or ‘Senior Management’ lounge’s vending machine. . . . Some type of construction, maintenance or related activity was under way some distance along the central corridor,” with hammers and power saws at work (227). No quiet rest, no space free of capitalist relations, is to be had, even in a clinic ostensibly devoted to better sleep. While the Darling Clinic is affiliated with a university and devoted to research, the profit motive shadows the staff as well, and Wallace may have in mind criticism of the interaction of scientific research and the pharmaceutical industry: Dr. Paphian, “the Sleep specialist’s cognomen or sur-name,” later slides into lowercase with mention of “the young, forbiddingly nubile or ‘paphian’” technician (230). While “paphian” primarily pertains to illicit love in general, a secondary meaning is [End Page 151] prostitute. In the dream’s slipperiness of signifiers (especially regarding transgressive sex, including incest and adultery), Wallace links physicians and prostitutes. The latter are, he says elsewhere, paradigmatic of those who upset the exchange of value that ideally underlies human relations: “The prostitute ‘gives’ but—demanding nothing of comparable value in return—perverts the giving” (Both 54).

Finally, in the saddest angle on a satiric tale, “Oblivion” reads as Wallace’s surreal allegory of his own journeys through the US mental health care system and its various treatments—most, unlike AA, not free or gift-oriented. Max details Wallace’s two leaves from Amherst, his courses of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) in 1988, his 1989 breakdown in Boston (spent at Harvard’s McLean Hospital, “ensconced within the teaching hospital” of a university, like the Darling Clinic at Rutgers [Oblivion 215]), and his ongoing relationships with therapists he sometimes paid in cash, lacking health insurance (Max 169). In 1988–89, Max writes, Wallace was about to turn 27 and “still dependent on his parents” for food and shelter: “His encounters with the mental health system had cost his insurance company a lot of money, and when the insurance ran out, his family had had to foot the bill, filling Wallace with guilt” (118). He went to graduate school at Harvard in 1989 in part for the health insurance, and he viewed some of his teaching jobs in similar terms (Max 50).

The baroque metafictional recasting of his leaves from Amherst in the “Author’s Foreword” of The Pale King cautions us against any naive transposition of biography into fiction, but “Oblivion” calls out for some associative interpretations. Snoring—along with the obsessive insistence that one is not doing it and the resistance to treatment for it—is clearly a grotesque, expressionist form through which to explore the spirals of mental illness, as well as, more broadly, the problem of limited, solipsistic minds that always moved Wallace to metaphor. “Oblivion” thus describes through sleep and snoring two intimates’ ultimately opaque relationship to each other, mediated by language or unconscious, incommunicative noises, somewhat like Hal’s in the opening of Infinite Jest. Perhaps Wallace’s ECT experiences are limned in the story’s EEG leads and wires (Oblivion 222). In general, in the recursive and inherently intersubjective intricacies of its storytelling, “Oblivion,” much like Infinite Jest, points toward something US health care as Wallace experienced it does not foster: his dense narrative opposes an ethic of reader attention to the wholly medicalized, technologized “brain ‘reading’” of the data-dependent health care edifice and those who speak its language (Oblivion 225).

In lines that seem definitive of his writing’s overarching agenda, Wallace said to Kenyon graduates in This Is Water that if they exercise control over their attention, “[i]t will actually be within your power [End Page 152] to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things” (93). The supermarket of This Is Water could stand for the market in general, and its “consumer-hell” is hardly more efficient than the traffic on publicly funded roadways Wallace also recounts. The line is also reminiscent of “Westward,” a foundational narrative of the market’s inability to nourish and, as I have shown, an investment in the sacred possibilities of an insurance that compensates with communal value where markets have disastrously failed. Reading this and less idealized examples of insurance across Wallace’s corpus helps us see his sacred fire as not simply the product of superhuman feats of attention but something systematically cultivated by bureaucratic and actuarial networks, at least potentially. As Lee Konstantinou argues, Wallace, in addressing his irony-withered times, adopts religious language but empties it of specific, traditional significance (86). Insurance, in these terms, marks a techno-bureaucratic formation of modern society into which Wallace can infuse quasi-religious terms, much as he would do with his priestlike tax examiners in The Pale King. While he attended to the ways in which neoliberalism and market schemes had fundamentally changed insurance late in the twentieth century, Wallace never wholly lost his nostalgic sense that shared risk could embody civic value.

Let me close with speculation about an unwritten Wallace piece about insurance. In 2008, in the weeks before he committed suicide on September 12, Wallace canceled plans to attend the Democratic National Convention to profile Obama for GQ (Max 299). What might Wallace’s account of the candidate have looked like had he written that piece? The McCain article, an expansive meditation on voting apathy among young people that surprised many by offering deep praise of the candidate, cautions me against too much specific speculation. But universal health insurance, a signature promise of Obama’s 2008 campaign, would probably have come up. How would Wallace have positioned single-payer versus the private-insurer- and pharmaceutical-industry-friendly model that has ended up prevailing in Obamacare? Wallace’s fiction has, over many years, offered increasingly specific investigations of the possibilities embodied by insurance, especially in government-created forms and the seemingly bygone era of a for-profit insurance with a sense of public mission. We will never see Wallace’s Obama essay, nor his advice on how to proceed as a nation under the threat of a new Depression in the 2008 financial crash, which came fully to light just days after his suicide and provided more cases of complex investment fraud from companies—some of which, like AIG, had grown from origins in insurance [End Page 153] to risky finance ventures. Nevertheless, across his corpus Wallace did leave us a series of oblique examinations of insurance and economic repair that together show the radical rethinking of shared value that forging an American polity of sacred fire will require.

Jeffrey Severs

JEFFREY SEVERS <jeffrey.severs@ubc.ca> is Assistant Professor of English at the University of British Columbia. His articles have been published or are forthcoming in Twentieth-Century Literature, MELUS, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction. He is coeditor (with Christopher Leise) of Pynchon’s Against the Day: A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide (2011) and author of David Foster Wallace’s Balancing Books: Fictions of Value (Columbia UP, forthcoming, 2016).


1. Max also describes Wallace competing with the two-thesis feat the previous year of his best friend Mark Costello (later his Boston house-mate and coauthor on Signifying Rappers), who graduated “with a double summa” and “two theses, one a novel, the other a study of the New Deal” (Max 39). Wallace’s own, less conventional study of the New Deal, I suggest, continued well after graduation.

2. On The Pale King’s engagement with neoliberal economics, see Clare.

3. It is important to note that Wallace’s interest in fictionalizing Democratic administrations that enhanced social insurance programs did not necessarily translate into the conventional political terms of the polling place: Max reveals that the younger Wallace, generally politically apathetic, practiced a “girlfriend-pleasing campus liberalism” but cast votes for Ronald Reagan and Ross Perot, only coming fully around to Democratic allegiances under the influence of George W. Bush’s wars and the opinions of his wife, Karen Green (259).

4. Mirowski, writing of the broader economy and undermining neoliberalism’s adoration of capitalist “risk-takers,” identifies risk as “entirely a cultural construct” that, especially in finance, is manipulated to justify disaster-prone systems as the natural cost of entrepreneurial freedom (120).

5. Wallace grew up in Champaign-Urbana, about 28 miles east of a small town called Collison—one letter shy of Collision and perhaps a basis for his invention?

6. For an account of the legal problems that delayed the collection’s publication, see Max 106–09. Max mentions the Burnett change on 91.

7. Kafka is key throughout Oblivion, including in Skip Atwater’s big, “protruberant ears” (313) in “The Suffering Channel,” a story in which Toon Staes finds both “Westward” parallels and a Kafkaesque definition of the artist. See 473–78.

8. Sweaty examiner David Cusk also repeats Roosevelt’s famous line to himself in assessing his nervousness in The Pale King. See 95–96.

9. A copy of Serpent on the Rock is unfortunately not among the books Wallace owned that are preserved at the Ransom Center. [End Page 154]

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