The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews
 by David Foster
by David Foster Wallace

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Those scared off by David Foster Wallace’s 1,100-page magnum
opus, fearing that
Infinite Jest may be no laughing matter, will find
the short stories in his 2004 collection
Oblivion an easier access
road to this brilliant and quirky writer.   Think
of it as Wallace’s
Dubliners, but without the
epiphanies.  As for those whose only experience
with this author is via his expansive and un-
wieldy major novel, they may be surprised at
his deftness in the shorter form.   

Say what you will of this author—and pretty
much it was all said, in the aftermath of his
suicide death at age 46—his writing never lost
its capacity to morph into surprising new forms.  
Some authors seem destined to tell the same
type of tale over and over, but even in the
context of the eight stories that comprise
Oblivion, Wallace revealed his ability to recalibrate his approach to
match the subject at hand.   And whatever he addressed throughout
his all-too-brief career—tennis schools, lobsters, Alcoholics
Anonymous, you name it—he did so with an intensity of perception
that leaps off the page.

For example, the opening story of
Oblivion, “Mr. Squishy” deals
with an unlikely literary subject:  market research and product
positioning.  These are areas I have some experience with—at one
point in my own repeatedly “recalibrated” life I managed the market
research and strategic marketing function for a NYSE company.   
Wallace’s ability to get inside the thinking of a marketing executive
is uncanny, and he has mastered all the jargon and pseudo-scientific
techniques of the trade—so much so, that I can’t help but wonder
what research or personal experiences  he drew on to make this
portrait so vivid.  The ad account execs on
Mad Men come across as
kids playing at marketing concepts by comparison.  

The story ostensibly surrounds the anticipated launch of a new
snack food.  Okay,
War and Peace it’s not.  But Napoleon himself
never planned a battle with the angst and zeal of the execs focused
on this money-making project.  Of course, with Wallace, he doesn't
just present his story straight.  The quasi-mathematical language of
consumer research gradually collapses into the demented discourse
of the mentally ill.  This is no easy transition to pull off, but Wallace
handles it deftly.  This is a virtuoso performance, and I can think of
few contemporary writers who would have been able to construct a
story of this depth  and complexity with the starting point of a “high-
concept, chocolate-intensive, Mister Squisy-brand snack cake
designed primarily for individual sale in convenience stores.”  

The other stories in
Oblivion are nothing like this opening gambit—
as noted above, this author was not one to repeat himself—but are
equally daring in their conception.   “The Soul is Not a Smithy”
focuses on a much more intrinsically dramatic focal point than a
packaged food item, in this case a hostage situation.  But if “Mr.
Squishy” finds elements of the disturbing in the midst of the banal,
this second story in the collection reverses the process, evoking the
quotidian in the land of the maniacal.  “Another Pioneer” plays a
different hermeneutic game, relaying an account more akin to
anthropological ethnography than the short story tradition, but
transmutes it in the literary equivalent of a game of Chinese
whispers or “Telephone.”   The story is related fourth-hand—or, in
the words of the narrator, “derived from the acquaintance of a close
friend who said that he had himself overheard this
exemplum aboard
a high-altitude commercial flight while on some sort of business
trip.”  This odd framing of a tribal narrative imparts new meaning to
the term “unreliable narrator.”

In each of these stories, Wallace establishes himself as the modern-
day master of the run-on sentence, able to rival even José Saramago
and Thomas Pynchon in his elongated periods.  Yet his range of
attitudes in presenting these excursions is seemingly endless,
moving from the clinical and theoretical  to the psychological and
confessional.  Often two seemingly contradictory tones fight for
dominance of the same sentence, a masterful achievement on the
part of the author, and one that imparts a vertiginous sense of
dislocation to the narrative.  

Wallace is capable of more straight-forward story-telling, at least
from the standpoint of sentence structure.  “The Suffering Channel”
relates incidents in the life of Skip Atwater, “human interest”
reporter for
Style magazine.  Here Wallace takes a quasi-absurdist
approach, sending his journalist off to cover the most tasteless and
incongruous topics, including a cable channel devoted to human
anguish and a creepy artist who produces “sculptures” by means of
an intimate body function.  Remember when Ed Sullivan refused to
let the camera show Elvis from the waist down?   After you read this
story, you will think that Sullivan wasn’t wrong, just ahead of his

In most instances, writing so flamboyant, so multilayered, so
overtly experimental tends to deaden the emotional center of the
story, and elevate the authorial presence—which almost always felt
hovering nearby—over the characters themselves.  Yet Wallace is all
but invisible in the stories that comprise
Oblivion, and in particular
he does without the ironic or cynical tone that often calls attention
to the writer pulling on the puppet strings behind the scenes.  
Indeed, if the definitive account of the death of irony is ever written,
David Foster Wallace will deserve a prominent place in the account—
his entire oeuvre can be read as a rejection of that corrosive post-
modern attitude.  

At Wallace’s suicide death, he left behind only a half-dozen works of
fiction, of which
Oblivion was the last published during his lifetime.   
As such, this book will perhaps be more widely read and discussed
than it would have been had the author lived and continued writing
for several more decades.  Yet this work not only withstands the
scrutiny, but invites and deserves it.  Certainly if Wallace had lived
longer, he would have left us more stories and novels, but I doubt
they would have surpassed
Oblivion and Infinite Jest, both of which
eminently deserve their reputations as contemporary classics.  
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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Gabriel García Márquez:
Love in the Time of Cholera

David Foster Wallace:
Infinite Jest

Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaid's Tale

Toni Morrison:

Jonathan Franzen:
The Corrections

Don DeLillo:

Zadie Smith:
White Teeth

Roberto Bolaño:

Mark Z. Danielewski:
House of Leaves

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Blood Meridian

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American Pastoral

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The Fortress of S0litude

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Kafka on the Shore

Edward P. Jones:
The Known  World

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The Amazing Adventures of
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Philip Roth:
The Human Stain

Mario Vargas Llosa:
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Marilynne Robinson:

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A Visit from the Good Sqad

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Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot

Donna Tartt:
The Secret History

Michael Ondaatje:
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Saul Bellow:

A.S. Byatt:

Umberto Eco:
Foucault's Pendulum

Cormac McCarthy:
The Road

David Foster Wallace:
The Pale King

J.K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the
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Arundhati Roy:
The God of Small Things

Roberto Bolaño:
The Savage Detectives

Paul Auster:
The New York Trilogy

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Out Stealing Horses

Ann Patchett:
Bel Canto

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The Famished Road

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Marisha Pessl:
Special Topics in Calamity

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The Master

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Tree of Smoke

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Empire Falls

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London Fields

Mark Haddon:
The Curious Incident of the
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The Sea

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Fight Club

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The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

Aravind Adiga:
The White Tiger

Tim O'Brien:
The Things They Carried

Irvine Welsh

Tobias Wolff:
Old School

Tim Winton:

David Foster Wallace:

Oscar Hijuelos:
The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come

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