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Modernism/modernity 11.4 (2004) 819-821

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An Undeniably Controversial and Perhaps Even Repulsive Talent

Department of Popular Culture, Blacksmith College
Oblivion: Stories. David Foster Wallace. Boston: Little, Brown, 2004. Pp. 336. $25.95 (cloth).
Understanding David Foster Wallace. Marshall Boswell. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2003. Pp. 232. $34.95 (cloth).

For some critics of contemporary literature, David Foster Wallace is simply the most gifted writer of his generation. For others, his stature is more troubled: a writer whose obvious talents are being squandered in verbal hijinks and self-regarding mannerisms. The controversy that surrounds Wallace adds to the sense of timeliness that will attend Marshall Boswell's monograph, Understanding David Foster Wallace. With intelligence and aplomb, Boswell surveys the entire career. After a brief chapter that guides the reader through Wallace's life and background, Boswell proceeds to a synoptic account of Wallace's four major works, covering the two novels (The Broom of the System [1987] and Infinite Jest [1997]) and the two collections of short stories (The Girl with Curious Hair [1989] and Brief Interview with Hideous Men [1999]) which have established his formidable reputation. Boswell elects not to devote a separate chapter to Wallace's essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997), instead interweaving discussions of individual essays into his chapters on the major books. Boswell is a judicious and sympathetic reader, and he offers important insights into Wallace's thematic and stylistic preoccupations. He is especially good at noticing the difficulties that surround attempts to define Wallace as a postmodern writer, and his work will be welcomed by anyone who has read Wallace with pleasure. It is no fault of Boswell, needless to say, that his book should have appeared just when Wallace was about to publish two more books, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (2004), a study of the concept of infinity in mathematics, and Oblivion (2004), a new collection of short stories. [End Page 819]

Oblivion displays the stylistic and narrative tics with which readers of the oeuvre are surely by now familiar. All the letters and numbers are here, all the colors of the spectrum, all the voices and sounds, all the code words and ceremonial phrases. It is, we might say, just a question of deciphering, rearranging, peeling off the layers of unspeakability. Heroically contorted periodic sentences (round parentheses contain square parentheses [furthering diversions from the main statement] which are then brought back in line [with the help of performative, often unnecessary repetitions of the subject, drawing attention to said diversions, the performative repetitions draw attention to them that is, while reasserting the dominance of the subject]) and persistent double possessives (Wallace's apostrophes' regularity creating for this grammatical aberration a kind of coherence and normativity) thrust Wallace's Oedipal relationship with grammar (his mother wrote Practically Painless English, a remedial writing textbook) into plain view. Not to mention the interjections (providing clues about the stories' ostensible conflicts' psychic origins) that occur with insistent regularity. Wallace is far less compulsive in using that anti-hegemonic footnote for which he is notorious (Infinite Jest contains close to 100 pages of additional narration under "Notes and Errata"; one story in Brief Interviews requires readers to follow two simultaneous narratives [to be like a tree in which there are two blackbirds], arranged in Freudian relation to one another, the hegemony of the "conscious" narration disturbed and distorted by an increasingly assertive "subnarrative"). But there are only a few such narrative diversions in Oblivion, thankfully, and they seem to know their place.

But that's the thing about Wallace the stylist: postmodern self-awareness and irony notwithstanding, these cavortings should become stale and predictable, or, worse, simply comic. This work, however, like its predecessors, is exhilaratingly serious, funny, and fresh, like an inventive new commercial for an old and familiar product. Perhaps this is because the derivativeness of the style (especially with regard to itself) does not really detract from the breathtaking originality of Wallace's descriptions ("Amber Moltke directed Atwater through...


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