The sentence is possibly the most basic grammatical tool used by writers, a standard format by which information is conveyed to a reader. But there are sentences, and there are SENTENCES, and American author David Foster Wallace most indeed writes SENTENCES.
These are sentences that defy easy categorization - sensational amalgams of disparate thoughts and hidden meaning. These are sentences that push the boundaries of both style and length, wherein the format itself is as important as the content.
When they work, the result is breathtaking in its audacity and verve. With sentences as perfect as "the angle of his shoulders as he leaned into the door had the same quality of his eyes," Wallace truly earns the accolades he had accumulated.
Be forewarned: reading Wallace can be exhausting. He makes you work. And in Oblivion, his uneven collection of short stories, the rampaging prose overwhelms everything else in its path.
Wallace is in the higher ranks of modern writers, often mentioned in the same breath with postmodernist icons Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. His award-winning prose, most vibrantly on display in his mountainous bestseller Infinite Jest, takes modernist techniques to their most extreme, threading themes and motifs in an artificially self-conscious style that is now Wallace's trademark.
With Oblivion, Wallace presents a bewildering display of bizarre narratives, each notable for never once treading familiar roads. A boy daydreams his father's existence while a teacher slowly goes insane. A man recounts his suicide. A husband goes to great lengths to prove he does not snore.
In the very funny "The Suffering Channel", Wallace tackles "the paradoxical intercourse of audience and celebrity." While a magazine editor anguishes over how to correctly market an artist of magical faecal manifestations, a television executive takes reality television to its logical next step, wondering, "How far along the final arc would Slo Mo High Def Full Sound Celebrity Defecation be?"
Wallace's overall style, when it works, captures those moments and thoughts "that flash through your head so fast that [italics] flash isn't even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by and they have so little relation to the sort of non-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."
Yet unlike the brilliant stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which manage to combine his manic vigour with subtle restraint, Oblivion ultimately never satisfies. Many of the tales trail off to nothing, their ultimate arguments lost in the raging sea of Wallace's text. Oblivion displays all of the worst tendencies of an author lost to his talent, refusing to reign himself in, running roughshod over the page.
In the end, Oblivion functions best as a Wallace primer. If his convoluted expressions exhilarate the reader, Wallace's better works beckon. If, however, the reader is confounded more than engaged, tackling his Infinite Jest may seem like just that.