The Horror Of Sameness

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David Foster Wallace writes so beautifully, is so show-offishly smart and understands the intricacies of human emotion so keenly that a reasonable person can only hope he is terribly unhappy. Which, if this collection of short stories is any indication, he is. His characters in Oblivion (Little, Brown; 329 pages) are corroded by a desperation to express their uniqueness: a marketing analyst who feels so inconsequential that he injects ricin into snack cakes (Mister Squishy), a homicidal substitute civics teacher whose students are not even paying attention when they're taken hostage (The Soul Is Not a Smithy), a therapy patient who kills himself after hearing his pain articulated as a joke on Cheers (Good Old Neon). "I was evidently so hollow and insecure that I had a pathological need to see myself as somehow exceptional or outstanding at all times," says the man ripped asunder by a Frasier Crane bon mot.

Wallace, who hasn't put out a novel since his brilliant, dense Infinite Jest in 1996 (or any other fiction at all in five years), takes it easy on the reader here. Sure, his three-page-long sentences can make Faulkner look like Hemingway, and even short sentences can require four trips to the dictionary, but he has dropped his numbered footnotes, has cut down on the math formulas and tells linear tales nearly grounded in reality. This is as close as the guy is going to get to beach reading.

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But even stripped-down Wallace is epic modernism: big plots, absurd Beckettian humor and science-fiction-height ideas portrayed vis-a-vis slow, realistic stream of consciousness. In an effort to make his often bizarre endings more powerful, Wallace frequently stops stories before their climax, which sometimes improves them and sometimes makes them seem like an aborted attempt at a novel. When it works, it's part of his Pynchonesque trick of keeping the reader uncomfortable by withholding information and embedding the most devastating facts within long descriptive paragraphs.

In fact, like Thomas Pynchon, Wallace is really a horror novelist. The best stories in the collection are the three-page take on a scalded baby (Incarnations of Burned Children), the nightmare of a sexually abused woman whose marriage has fallen apart because she and her husband can't figure out whether he's snoring or she's hallucinating (Oblivion) and Good Old Neon, which succeeds where thousands of 20th century novels failed, nailing the yuppie angst of being found a fraud. It alone is worth buying the book for.

Even the stories that meander in their own cleverness until they are bogged down in Wallace's detail-obsessive word marsh are still breathtakingly smart, like a middling Stoppard play. Strange, then, is the self-doubt that creeps into most of the tales, often in the form of acknowledging potential criticisms before the reader even thinks of them. And Wallace frequently seems to wonder whether his or any art is just a foolish attempt at uniqueness in a world where we're all fundamentally the same. His final story in the collection, The Suffering Channel, is the slightly drawn-out tale of an artist whose work is his incredibly well-crafted feces. The artist is eventually forced by his fame-seeking wife to create his works on live television. While it may seem whiny and self-flagellating of Wallace to depict art as carny detritus, it's still comforting to know that the guy is suffering.