David Foster Wallace's Short Stories
A Reading According to Jean Baudrillard
zur Erlangung des akademischen Grades
Master of Arts (MA)
an der Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz
am Institut für Amerikanistik
Begutachterin: ao.Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Roberta Maierhofer, M.A.
I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to my thesis adviser Professor Roberta Maierhofer for her invaluable input, guidance, and patience. Her course on postmodern American fiction sparked a lasting interest and passion. Thanks to Dr. Nancy Campbell for her continuous support. I offer my sincere appreciation for the learning opportunities provided by the Joint Degree Program in University of Graz and Université Paris VII.
Finally, I thank my loving family for their support.
1. “Death of the Author” 5
2. Resolution of Dyads 11
3. Representations of Death 27
4. Revisiting Assumptions 41
4.1. Critique of Sign 41
4.2. Simulacrum 47
4.3. Need 55
4.4. Dead Labor 61
4.5. Simulation and Hyperreality 66
5. Symbolic Exchangeability of Death 74
5.1. “Mister Squishy” 74
5.2. “The Suffering Channel” 79
6. Conclusion 89
7. Bibliography 92
I first approached David Foster Wallace as a literature student in awe of his versatile writing style, rhetorical skill, and seemingly unbound knowledge that takes the reader through a whirlwind of related trivia. His dense, precise, and cerebral prose is alluring and difficult. Sentences may run up to a page and it is quite a feat to find the gist, at times impossible during the first read. He belongs to the group of authors who want to capture the totality of culture in their works; an enterprise he achieved in Infinite Jest (1996). Wallace’s first book, a co-authorship, was Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present (1990), which he wrote on the then-emerging genre. Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (2003) is a history of mathematics and the concept of infinity that shows a different side of Wallace, a philosophy major with an interest in math and logic that has also permeated into his fiction.
Oblivion Stories is Wallace’s last collection of short stories and is the object of study in this thesis. It covers a vast territory in 329 pages. Chronologically, it starts in the Paleolithic age and ends with a story set in 2001. The collection consists of eight stories originally published in various venues between 1998 and 2004 and were finally compiled under Oblivion Stories (2004). They vary in length and style. The opening story, “Mister Squishy”, is about a test-market focus group at an advertising firm and its facilitator Terry Schmidt. The story gives a glimpse into the machinery of modern advertising industry and the facilitator’s scheme to poison random consumers. “The Soul is Not a Smithy” is the second story. It starts by recounting memories of a traumatic school day, when a substitute teacher has a mental break-down. The story culminates in the shooting of the teacher by police in the presence of four students, the narrator included. In another plot thread, the narrator tells the tale of his father’s boring employment life and his childhood nightmares about adult working life. The third story, “Incarnations of Burned Children”, is a thematic and stylistic departure from the previous ones. It takes place outside a town and away from the hustle and bustle of any metropolis. This is the only story that does not provide any time reference, as it could have happened any time in any small town in order to show cosmic indifference in face of unjustifiable and random human suffering. In a tour de force of raw human trauma, Wallace captures the few moments before the death of a child, after a pot of boiling water overturns on him.
The fourth story is “Another Pioneer”. It takes a great leap back in time to a Paleolithic village and chronicles the events around the rise of an oracle child. Initially, he brings new technologies to the village yet ends up interrogating the primitive beliefs of his tribe. The story ends with the pioneer child burned at his dais and the return of the tribe to jungle. The fifth story, “Good Old Neon”, returns to contemporary America, set in 1991. It won the O. Henry Prize in 2002 and portrays the life-long struggles of a hyperconscious protagonist, Neal, and his ultimate suicide. “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” questions superficial judgment based on appearances. A mother and son’s faces, one by a failed cosmetic surgery and the other by nature, invite fear and disgust in passengers on a bus ride. The penultimate story, “Oblivion”, is about the marital struggle of a couple. The man is accused of snoring, which he strongly denies. It documents the hallucinations of the insomniac husband and a reality that shatters to smithereens in a dramatic ending. “The Suffering Channel” is the closing story of the collection. It is an implausible tale of a man whose bowel movements produce works of art. The protagonist journalist, Skip Atwater, wants to write an article on the artist for Style magazine. By the end of the story, the artist is also going to appear on a live reality TV show to create his pieces, while his wife is describing the suffering that such a gift has induced throughout his life to the viewers of the Suffering Channel.
9-11 terrorist attacks lurk at the margins of “The Suffering Channel”; however, death, suicide, and mass murder appear in other stories, except the titular “Oblivion” that foregrounds the dichotomy of real/imaginary. Such binaries are a subject of study in the works of Baudrillard, who belongs to the French post-structuralist tradition. In the first chapter, a concise introduction of this movement would be given and Barthes’ theory on authorship would shed light on the logic behind the application of Baudrillard’s theory to Oblivion Stories. Baudrillard bases his theories on the symbolic exchange in primitive societies, which gives him the tool to deconstruct basic binaries of life/death and real/non-real. In the symbolic order, the instances of birth and death are integrated into a continuous social form of exchange. This social form would be extrapolated from “Another Pioneer”; meanwhile, the post-structuralist approach would be used to see the imposition of grand narratives in the text. With the introduction of new forms of social life, death gains a new significance as passage to an afterlife. Baudrillard uses the Foucauldian framework to study the concept of death as a source of “discrimination” and this gives an alternative insight into our reading of death in Oblivion Stories. Baudrillard’s opinions on death and the invention of “eternity” in religions and its contemporary form will help reexamine “Good Old Neon”, “Incarnations of Burned Children” and “The Soul is Not a Smithy”.
Jean Baudrillard proposes the orders of signs and representation, instead of “commodity”, as the underlying current of history. Based on the Saussurean thought, he ascribes the ultimate disjunction to the relation of signifier/signified in our current state of pure simulation. He calls this state the “hyperreal”, where signs only exchange among each other and are not related to any reality. This new understanding of “liberated” signs offers a deeper glance at “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”. Baudrillard’s theoretical framework of hyperreality helps investigate consumer society and corporate culture in Oblivion Stories. In this light, an investigation of the concept of “need” and the progressive disappearance of “labor” in a hyperreal world gives a fundamentally distinct import to the characters actions and reactions in the face of their conditions in their fictitious world. Throughout Wallace’s collection, a few passing allusions are made to Baudrillard’s theoretical concepts, the most obvious one being the claim of “terrain=map” in “Mister Squishy”. As a bright student of philosophy, Wallace must have been familiar with theories and works of Baudrillard. Baudrillard’s analysis of archaic societies, death, semiotics, consumption and simulation prove to be powerful tools in reinstating the reality of Oblivion Stories by foregrounding the silences and pointing to fissures and gaps of the text. This would mean that certain events, passages, and inter-relations would be highlighted. However, a vigorous effort has been made to keep those passages in the larger panorama and context of the story collection to avoid misprision of Wallace.
Barthes proclamation of the “Death of the Author” gives free reign to reader as the text is liberated from the confines of “intentionality”. Thus, this study is in no ways a debate with the intentions of the “author” nor the contemporary understanding and critique of the text (It might be even fair to argue that the absences pointed in this thesis may very well have been intentions of the author). The goal is to reconfigure the stories and the unnoticed interrelations among them, to take Oblivion Stories as a momentary articulation in culture and look at it from a novel vantage point, an experience that constitutes what might be aptly phrased as “reinstating reality”. In this process, the conscious logic of the text and its contemporary criticism are brought forward to help illuminate the alternative understanding that Baudrillard affords us. Bringing the critical toolbox of Baudrillard to the world of Wallace creates a collision of perspectives and proves an intriguing dialogue that I wish to capture in this thesis.