Of those many things is David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Oblivion.
However, the description “short story collection” seems ill-fitting and dismissive, considering Wallace is a master of the English language. Though the opening story, which I admittedly did not make it through and skipped for the greater good of my sanity, is dense and painful to wade through, it’s the kind of pain referenced in the phrase, “No pain, no gain.” However, Wallace doesn’t throw his mastery of the language in your face, rubbing it around, pointing and laughing at your inferiority. He simply demands, with each sentence (and they are epic), that you pay very close attention to what he is showing you.
Why’d I buy this book in the first place? Last Thanksgiving a good friend of mine introduced me to the story “Incarnations of Burned Children,” one of the stories in this collection. Honestly, I bought this entire book so I could own that one story. (Yes, I have bought entire albums for one song.) And here’s why: Wallace doesn’t just tell you the story of a baby having hot water spilled on him and the reactions of his parents immediately after. Instead, he simultaneously puts you into the situation and above it without confusing you once. I can’t even describe what he does so flawlessly without being confusing. His sentences have a breathless quality that forces you to continue reading without pause in a way that parallels the father’s reaction in the story. The rhythm of the sentences, the details he gives along with the precise moments he decides to give them, all work together to form one of the best stories I’ve ever read.
Of the other two stories in the collection that I’ve read, one in particular stuck with me. “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” is a tapestry: at first my interest was piqued because of the subject matter (crazed substitute teacher begins writing “KILL THEM ALL” on the chalkboard in front of a frightened classroom), but my interest was held because of the narrator’s sincerity in relating the events. Wallace doesn’t choose to tell the story from the usual characters; he doesn’t describe the process of derangement in the substitute teacher, or the slow recognition of impending danger from the other children in the classroom. Instead, the story is told from the perspective of a kid whose attention isn’t easily paid to the front of the class. He describes in the type of detail reminiscent of hand stitching a hem (which, if you haven’t done, requires great concentration with the goal of emulating the accuracy of a machine); not only do you believe that this kid stares out the window and comes up with stories in his head, you are told the thread of the story as it happens with peripheral flashes of the goings on in the classroom. The result is an eerie division of events that eventually collide, not suddenly but gradually, in a way that only when you look back can you see how the events of real life affect the events of the boy’s “daydreams.”
Word of advice: Don’t read this on the train. Unlike the boy in the story, you need to pay close attention.
What I Wish I’d Written: “…and the Daddy kept saying he was here he was here, adrenaline ebbing and an anger at the Mommy for allowing this thing to happen just starting to gather in wisps at his mind’s extreme rear and still hours from expression.”
“…though hours later what the Daddy most won’t forgive is how badly he wanted a cigarette right then as they diapered the child as best they could in gauze and two crossed handtowels and the Daddy lifted him like a newborn with his skull in one palm and ran him out to the hot truck and burned custom rubber all the way to town…”