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Thursday, July 14, 2005

More on DFW and Oblivion
I've been continuing through Oblivion slowly since returning to America last month. It's just not the sort of book one can plow through. I'm digging it, but then again I'm the sort of fellow who digs this kind of writing1. I can see where some of the more negative reviews2 are coming from, but how can one resist3 a twenty-page, one-sentence story about a seemingly omniscient child capable of answering any question posed to him, which reads in part:
...[upon being asked] "What method of yam propagation is least apt to offend my family's fields' jealous and tempermental Yam Gods?" the catastatic child apparently launches into an entire protodialectical inquiry into just why exactly the interlocutor believes in jealous and tempermental Yam Gods at all, and whether this villager hsa ever in quiet moments closed his eyes and sat very still and gazed deep inside himself to see whether in his very heart of hearts he truly believes in these ill-tempered Yam Gods or whether he's merely been as it were culturally conditioned from an early age to ape what he has seen his parents and all the other villagers say and do and appear to believe, and whether it has ever late at night or in the humid quiet of the rain forest's dawn occurred to the questioner that perhaps all these others didn't really, truly believe in petulant Yam Gods either but were themselves merely aping what they in turn saw everyone else behaving as if they believed, and so on, and whether it was possible -- just as a thought experiment if nothing else -- that everyone in the entire village had at some quiet point seen into their heart's hearts and realized that their putative belief in the Yam Gods was mere mimicry and so felt themselves to be secret hypocrite or fraud; and, if so, that what if just one villager of whatever caste or family suddenly stood up and admitted aloud that he was merely following empty custom and did not in his heart of hearts truly believe in any fearsome set of Yam Gods requiring propitiation to prevent drought or decimation by yamaphids: would that villager be stoned to death, or banished, or might his admission not just possibly be met with a huge collective sign of relief because now everyone else could be spared oppressive inner feelings of hypocrisy and self-contempt and admit their own inner disbelief as well; and if, theoretically, all this were to come about, what consequences might this sudden communal admission and relief have for the interlocutor's own ffeelings about the Yam Gods, for instance was it not theoretically possible that this villager might discover, in the absence of any normative cultural requirement to fear and distruct the Yam Gods, that his true religious conception was actually of Yam Gods who were rather kindly and benign and not Yam Gods he had to be fearful of offending or had to try to appease but rather Yam Gods to feel helped, succored, and even comme on dit loved by, and to try to love in return, and freely, this of course assuming that the two of them could come to some kind of agreement on what they meant by 'love' in a religious context, in other words agape and so on and so forth...
And that's from "Another Pioneer", originally published4 in The Colorado Review, which many reviewers5 consider one of the weakest pieces in the book.

I've found that generally speaking, Infinite Jest6 aside, DFW rewards whatever time you're willing to invest into his fiction. Maybe he asks for too much time, given how much one return actually gets out of said fiction in the end, but that's an argument for another day7.

1 when it's done right
2 for instance, this review from the Post-Gazette entitled "Wallace's Short Stories Have Become Unreadable", which says in part:
In his aptly titled new collection of short stories, David Foster Wallace has taken the deft characterization found in medical dictionaries, added a compassion for human beings typical of your average technical manual and wrapped it all in the luminous poetry of a pharmaceutical company prospectus.
3 except perhaps by putting the book down or some similar action
4 not online
5 for instance, this one and this one
6 a big aside, perhaps, considering IJ is considered by most to be his magnum opus and by few (ie, me) to be fairly wretched -- but please be willing to put it aside for the sake of argument nonetheless.
7 or for the comments. That might be fun.

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