Oblivion: stories by David Foster Wallace

Mirror, mirror, off the wall

David Foster Wallace is an eminent representative of the epic tendency in the American novel. The 1,000-page Infinite Jest places him with Don DeLillo as a descendant of Thomas Pynchon, a writer of vast, minutely detailed, conspiracy-driven fiction, but one who believes that the moral as well as aesthetic possibilities of modernism must be pursued if the circular labyrinth of postmodern attitudes is not to become a permanent prison for the imagination.

The pleasures of Oblivion include huge energy and ingenuity, as well as damning humour, often spun out of the linguistic depravity produced by the unanchored cleverness of his characters. Foster Wallace also devotes great care to exploring the contemptible or dull. In the title story, a row about whether the husband snores is interesting only because of the energy lavished on this sad dispute, its pitiful subtext and the disputants' rapid recourse to medical aid.

Most of the stories fight the slow suffocation by complacent knowingness of a world (or of a media-rich slice of America, which to the characters is all that counts) where irony has exhausted itself and become a marker of status rather than a moral faculty. The raised eyebrow, the smirk and the inverted comma are signs of belonging - though what anyone here belongs to is as much of a mystery to them as to the reader.

In the novella "The Suffering Channel", a beautiful intern on Style magazine, the very glass of fashion and "excellence" to colleagues, moves assuredly through the corridors "like the living refutation of everything Marx ever stood for". Not for much longer: it is July 2001 and Style's offices are in the World Trade Centre. For now, though, the magazine is fully-equipped for America's next absurdity: the discovery of a man in Indiana who shits sculptures. When the artist excretes a cry for help on a journalist's doorstep and is ignored, the catastrophe depicted in Nathanael West's Hollywood satire The Day of the Locust seems a permanent state of affairs. People share obsessions but rarely a flicker of solidarity.

Oblivion might be merely clever work, were it not that the stories are animated by a sense of insatiable anxiety. This is manifested partly in the recessions of parentheses and qualifications and digressions that carry sentences beyond mere paragraph length and breathlessly over the page. It all counts: inclusiveness, the exhaustion of surface detail, is a way of gesturing at depths where some people swim like carnivorous eels.

In "Shame", the American poet Richard Wilbur describes "a cramped little state with no foreign policy" - a phrase suggested several times in Oblivion, where scarcely anyone is ultimately interested in anything but themselves. A man spends his last days patronising his dying psychiatrist to demonstrate a superior grasp of his own narcissism. At one point, art itself exists in despairing evasion of the public realm. Oblivion is a partial view, but in presenting a vast political silence masked by voracious and terrified infantile jabbering, it is both recognisable and convincing.

Sean O'Brien's selected poems, 'Cousin Coat', are published by Picador

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