Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The periphery

Some things I'm realizing about DFW...

I've read a few essays, a whole collection of short stories plus a couple others, and a fraction of one novel. So I'm an expert now.

I thought there might be some clever way to encapsulate his style, to call him someone's literary descendant. Some part of my mind even suggested to me Patrick Hamilton — there's a certain breathlessness, an inevitable accompaniment to the attempt to follow and explicate the dark and wondrous workings of the human mind.

If he is anyone's "descendant" — in the tradition of those examining the psychology of minutiae, what constitutes the banal — he is so via Calvino, tracing a precise mathematical function of action and reaction.

The stories in Oblivion were somewhat darker than I'd expected. Though I don't really know what I expected. There's death and suicide, grim circumstances. Nasty thoughts. Pettiness.

A couple things in particular strike me.

In one story it's explicitly stated that life happens in our peripheral vision. And I think he's right. The point of things is sometimes brought into sharp relief against things we can barely make out, but most of life is a blur, a mash; if there is a point, it ripples through the mire as we shift our attention.

The other thing is the quick cuts. In some stories we switch story lines by the paragraph. Elsewhere the shifts happen one clipped sentence after another, within the same breath even. This confused me at first, but I came to understand it as the parallel unfolding of simultaneous thoughts, memories, events. We are film-literate enough to understand it if it occurs on screen; but our habits of how to read a page are more ingrained, harder to remould.

I liked the stories better than I liked the bit of novel I've read to date, and I like the essays better than the stories. Keen observation, of which David Foster Wallace is a master, outshines vivid imagination. This thing about the periphery — I think real life is richer in senseless detail than fiction could ever be.

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