Oblivion: Stories

Oblivion: Stories
Oblivion: Stories  
Oblivion Stories book cover.jpg
First Edition hardcover
Author(s) David Foster Wallace
Cover artist Mario J. Pulice
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Literary fiction, Postmodern literature
Publisher Little, Brown and Company
Publication date June 8, 2004 (U.S.)
Media type Print (hardback, paperback)
Pages 329
Preceded by Everything and More
Followed by Consider the Lobster

Oblivion: Stories (2004) is a collection of short fiction by American author David Foster Wallace. Oblivion is Wallace’s third and last short story collection and was listed as a 2004 New York Times Notable Book of the Year.[1] Throughout the stories, Wallace explores the nature of reality, dreams, trauma, and the “dynamics of consciousness.”[2] The story “Good Old Neon” was included The O. Henry Prize Stories 2002.


List of Stories

  • "Mister Squishy" was originally published as "Mr. Squishy" in McSweeney's #5 (2000), under the pseudonym Elizabeth Klemm. The story takes place in November 1995 and follows a focus group in a Reesemeyer Shannon Belt Advertising conference room as well as the facilitator of the focus group, Terry Schmidt. Schmidt leads the focus group that is taste-testing a new chocolate snack, named “Felonies”, while a person “free climbs” up the buildings north face.
  • "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" was originally published in AGNI #57 (2003). In this story, an unnamed narrator recounts his experience as a boy in his fourth grade civics class in Columbus, Ohio. The substitute teacher Mr. Johnson suffers a psychotic breakdown, which results in a hostage crisis, but the narrator spend his time quietly daydreaming and looking out of the classroom window.
  • "Incarnations of Burned Children" was originally published in Esquire (November 2000). A young baby is burnt with boiling water.
  • "Another Pioneer" was originally published in Colorado Review (Summer 2001). This story is a fable about the effect of a wise child, who can answer any question posed to him, on a Stone Age village.
  • "Good Old Neon" was originally published in Conjunctions #37 (November 2001). It was also included in O. Henry Prize Stories 2002. This story is a monologue about a lonely narrator who thinks that he is a fraud. Throughout the story, the narrator provides his psychiatrist with stories regarding his deceptions, failures, and manipulations.
  • "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" was originally published, in slightly edited form, as "Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (VIII)" in McSweeney's #1 (1998). In this story, an unnamed narrator recounts the story of his mother’s botched facial plastic surgery, which left her with a look of constant terror on her face, and the litigation surrounding that surgery. The narrator also mentions throughout the story his own entanglement in litigation related to his black-widow spider farm.
  • "Oblivion" In this story, the narrator, Randall Napier, recounts his exhausting fight with his wife Hope over his alleged snoring, which she claims has been so loud that it keeps her awake at night. Randall protests, maintaining that he was awake and consequently unable to snore, while his wife was actually asleep. Eventually they travel to a Sleep Clinic in order to monitor their behaviors and determine for certain who is right.
  • "The Suffering Channel" Skip Atwater, a writer for Style, attempts to write an article about an extremely shy and private man from Indiana, Brint Moltke, whose excrement reportedly resembles famous cultural objects.

Critical reception

The book received generally positive reviews from critics. The review aggregator Metacritic reported the book had an average score of 68 out of 100, based on 22 reviews.[3] Joel Stein, for Time writes that the “breathtakingly smart” stories are “epic modernism,” with “big plots, absurd Beckettian humor and science-fiction-height ideas portrayed vis-a-vis slow, realistic stream of consciousness.”[4] Jan Wildt for The San Diego Union-Tribune writes that Oblivion argues convincingly that the short story is the 42-year-old author's true fictional metier.” She additionally states that Oblivion "puts [Wallace's] stylistic idiosyncrasy to better use than any of its predecessors."[5] Despite these positive reviews, some critics were unimpressed. For The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani suggests that the collection was dominated by “tiresome, whiny passages.” She writes that even though Wallace is a “prose magician,” in Oblivion he “gives us only the tiniest tasting of his smorgasbord of talents. Instead, he all too often settles for the sort of self-indulgent prattling that bogged down his 1999 collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and the cheap brand of irony and ridicule that he once denounced in an essay as 'agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture.'"[6]


Thomas Tracey asserts that, in “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” as well as many of the other stories in Oblivion, Wallace seeks to “place the crucial events of each tale beyond the frame of the main exposition.” Indeed, “the important actions of the narrative are seen to occur only on the extreme periphery of the narrator’s awareness.” Tracy suggests that the meaning and goal of this is to “call for greater attentiveness to out peripheral surroundings” and to show that “the most important events of our lives often take place on the margins of our quotidian experience.” Tracey also maintains that the narrator’s inattentiveness in class also depicts how “imaginiation can provide a psychological outlet, or refuge, from suffering.” [7]

In the same essay, Tracey further develops his thoughts on the title story, “Oblivion,” which raises questions about what reality is, and what is real. The story, Tracy asserts, gives an ambiguous answer, which suggests that what is real and true comes from our own decisions about what to believe. [8]

Walter Kim, in a review for The New York Times, claims that "Good Old Neon" focuses on “a philosophical conundrum: the question of whether human beings can be said to possess authentic selves or whether, like 'David Wallace,' the story's narrator, we are really just a bunch of shabby fakes cut off from our own and others' essential beings by the inadequacy of language.”[9]


  1. ^ "100 Notable Books of the Year". The New York Times. 5 December 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/05/books/review/1205books-notable.html. Retrieved 27 July 2011. 
  2. ^ Tracey, Thomas (2009). "Representations of Trauma in David Foster Wallace's Oblivion". In David Hering. Consider David Foster Wallace. SSMG Press. p. 177. 
  3. ^ "Oblivion by David Foster Wallace: Reviews". Metacritic. Archived from the original on 2007-09-16. http://web.archive.org/web/20070916184332/http://www.metacritic.com/books/authors/wallacedavidfoster/oblivion. Retrieved 2008-02-17. 
  4. ^ Stein, Joel (30 May 2004). "The Horror of Sameness". Time Magazine. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101040607-644191,00.html. Retrieved 27 July 2011. 
  5. ^ Wildt, Jan. "Number Cruncher". The San Diego Union-Tribune. http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20040613/news_mz1v13number.html. Retrieved 27 July 2011. 
  6. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (1 June 2004). "Life Distilled From Details, Infinite and Infinitesima". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/01/books/books-of-the-times-life-distilled-from-details-infinite-and-infinitesimal.html?src=pm. Retrieved 27 July 2011. 
  7. ^ Tracey, Thomas (2009). "Representations of Trauma in David Foster Wallace's Oblivion". In David Hering. Consider David Foster Wallace. SSMG Press. p. 178. 
  8. ^ Tracey, Thomas (2009). "Representations of Trauma in David Foster Wallace's Oblivion". In David Hering. Consider David Foster Wallace. SSMG Press. p. 185. 
  9. ^ Kim, Walter (27 June 2004). "Staring Either Absently or Intently". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/27/books/review/27KIRNL.html. Retrieved 27 July 2011. 
  • Goerlandt, Iannis. "'Still steaming as its many arms extended': Pain in David Foster Wallace's Incarnations of Burned Children." Sprachkunst 37.2 (2006), 297-308.

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