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Volume 41. No. 1.
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Interview with David Foster Wallace


Oblivion
By David Foster Wallace
Disney Professor of Creative Writing
Little, Brown and Company, 2004
330 pages • $29.95


Oblivion: You Won’t Find it Here

By Kristin Kearns ’03

In the spring of my junior year at Pomona, a group of students trekked over to Sumner House to pick up David Foster Wallace. Over the next two days, Wallace would tour the campus, lead a writing workshop, give a reading and leave no doubt that he would soon be the holder of Pomona’s new creative writing professorship. As an English Department liaison, I helped coordinate his visit, recruiting students to help me acquaint him with Pomona College. This wasn’t hard; there was a waiting list of students, majoring in everything from math to philosophy, who wanted to hang out with David Foster Wallace.

That night, he came to the door wearing sweatpants and told us to call him Dave. Over dinner at Tutti Mangia, he talked to us about college classes; we discussed our favorite writers; I recall that I didn’t like the polenta that came with my meal, so I gave him the rest. What I most clearly remember is what a good time we all had and how much he knew about, well, everything. And I remember how very easy he was to talk to.

Considering the complexity and brilliance of his writing, it is no wonder that we were all a little surprised at Wallace’s accessibility. He has become a sort of legend among readers, the Joyce of our generation: we hear the words Infinite Jest and, whether or not we have actually read it, nod vigorously to prove that we are in the loop. Even those who have not read his work have likely heard enough to associate him with an extensive collection of knowledge, wordy prose, a sharp sense of humor, footnotes and the bandanna he’s been known to wear in his “About the Author” pictures.

However, Wallace’s writing, even with its long, elaborately constructed sentences and complicated logic, is in its scope and subject matter unexpectedly accessible, exploring anxieties, fears and quirks that are strange yet movingly, sometimes painfully recognizable. Oblivion, his new book, is a collection of short stories (one of which, “Incarnations of Burned Children,” he read to his standing-room-only audience at Pomona in 2001) that deal with the desires and struggles that so often come along with being human. Their characters want desperately to fit in, to distinguish themselves and to live extraordinary lives. What helps to make these stories so remarkable is that the characters know what they want to be, and they know what they are, and they recognize the immensity of the gap between the two while refusing to accept it.

Each of the eight stories in Oblivion takes us deep into the minds of its characters while managing to keep us at the distance of clinical observers, just as the characters analyze their own thoughts even as they are thinking them. In “Mister Squishy,” the first story, a focus group is sampling a new chocolate snack cake. In Wallace’s hands, everyone becomes data, even the lonely, love-starved focus group facilitator whose thoughts and yearnings pop up so intermittently and briefly, you almost think you imagined them. Later stories allow us more access to the characters’ psyches. In “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” a boy daydreams as his teacher goes (or seems to go) insane, and “Good Old Neon” is a soul-searching monologue of epic proportions. The most poignant and eloquent story in the book, “Good Old Neon” explores the conflict between who we are and who we appear to be, and who we want to be, and who we want to appear to be.

It is clear that Wallace is writing for our time. He writes about one of the most contemporary and frustrating of conflicts: the struggle to conform, but also to understand who we are in a society that sends increasingly mixed messages. Men explain themselves to their therapists; a woman is disfigured by plastic surgery; the media chases sensationalist stories; the erudite mingles with the everyday; brand names and abbreviations abound; and exquisite sentences trail off into “&c. &c.” or “and so on.” At times, even the narrator seems unable to maintain focus, going off on frequent tangents.
This is self-conscious writing at its best, aware of its own brilliance and its own shortcomings, reveling in language at the same time that it recognizes the inadequacy of words. “Many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life,” says the awesomely self-aware narrator of “Good Old Neon,” “... have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc.—and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English.”

Wallace uses English to express how very difficult it is to express anything. His writing builds relentlessly, pushing the reader along and manifesting the driving need to verbalize reality. You get the sense that you are inside a mind that goes faster than its possessor can write—yet its possessor can write that fast, and does. Everything about Oblivion is obsessive: the narrator, the characters, the sentences themselves. Wallace does not just touch upon truths about life and being human. He pokes and prods and rips open these truths, going on to cover them up again and attack them from another angle. It can be exhausting. There is no denying that reading David Foster Wallace isn’t just a pastime; it’s an experience.

All seriousness aside, Oblivion is funny. This will surprise no one who has read Wallace, a master of the unexpected. In the writing workshop he held in the spring of 2001, he told us never to be clever just for the sake of cleverness, and with Oblivion he shows us what he meant. There is a reason for every bit of wit, for every stylistic quirk. As much as the stories treat serious situations—loneliness, suicide, the dissolution of a marriage—with humor, Mr. Wallace never pokes fun. He finds dignity in the most ridiculous characters and circumstances, all of which are complex and contradictory.

Indeed, Oblivion is full of contradictions; the title itself contradicts the insanely analytical nature of the world Wallace has created. The narrators of these stories are very much aware, not only of external situations but of the characters’ thoughts, emotions, and impulses. The characters themselves are far from oblivious; they analyze themselves to exhaustion and are hyper-aware of how they come across to others. Oblivion seems to refer not to the people’s perceptions of themselves, but to their inability to see other paths and the possibility of change, not to mention their blindness to one another.

This is not to say that story takes a back seat to some thematic agenda. Story and theme seem to have emerged together, and spectacularly, and the result is a book that impresses without manipulating, a book that is entertaining, provoking, and larger-than life

Wallace’s stories make you feel smarter. His writing is proof of the versatility of fiction, and his popularity is proof that something is right with today’s readers. It is tremendously encouraging to know that people are ready to pick up a book that is consciously about something even as it tells one hell of a good story. These stories encourage us to explore new ways of reading and writing and seeing the world—in short, to refuse to be oblivious: thinking and worrying and analyzing may be exhausting, but it is part of being human, and it can be the stuff of terrifically innovative fiction. Wallace has faith in his readers. (He has faith in his students, too. Just look at the names of some of the courses he has taught at Pomona: “Eclectic Fictions” and “Inconceivably Advanced Essay Writing.”)

When Wallace’s visit to Pomona had drawn to a close, a friend and I drove him to the airport. He was wearing his famous bandanna for the first time during the trip. By that time, I almost felt comfortable calling him Dave. He had given me a handwritten, five-page critique of the story I had submitted for his workshop; the upshot was that he ultimately liked the story, but he didn’t know why. In workshops, you are generally expected to articulate what you like and don’t like and why. It was a relief to realize that sometimes, it’s okay not to know; it reminded me that writing is a process that even writers don’t always understand, and that it can reach people in unexpected ways.

Anyway, we arrived at the Ontario airport, and he signed my copy of Brief Interview with Hideous Men, adding a smiley face to his signature. It’s amazing, the little ways in which people surprise you. But then, when you consider how much goes on inside people’s heads, maybe it isn’t so amazing after all.

Kristin Kearns ’03 is writing and working in Palo Alto, California.

Everything and More: A Compact History of (∞)

By David Foster Wallace
Disney Professor of Creative Writing
W.W. Norton, 2003
319 pages • $23.95


Also in the bookstores is another little tome by the author whom The New York Times has called “a writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything.” As if to test the limits of this assertion, here Wallace tries his hand at science writing—or rather, that even more obstruse field, math writing. The result is as exquisitely readable as it is informative. “Wallace embraces the incompatibility of mathematics and prose and makes art from it,” says noted science writer James Gleick in a blurb on the book’s back cover. “And it’s a great story, too.” The book is part of publisher W.W. Norton’s “Great Discoveries” series.
©Copyright 2004
by Pomona College
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