Oblivion, Wallace's first book of fiction in five years, might exemplify a brilliant apex for Wallace's inimitable style; sentences spin and twist, beautifully and gracefully contorting like lyrical algorithms. But while Wallace's technical aptitude is on full display, his usual emotional impact is MIA, and sorely missed--Oblivion's as dense and smart as anything Wallace has done before, it's just not nearly as humane or rewarding. For the first time since his early work, there's a disconcerting, disappointing lack of verve in Wallace's portrayal of his characters.
Fittingly, Oblivion's best stories are those that give off small sparks of affection (usually barely masked pity) for the subjects. In "The Soul Is Not a Smithy," a young boy obliviously wanders around in his own imaginary world while his classroom chaotically devolves. In "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature," Wallace finds a mother and son duo so fucked up that it's impossible not to feel some affection for them, despite their unrelenting repulsiveness. And both "Good Old Neon" and "Oblivion" boast narrators that, at times, offer the reader their disturbing, all-too-familiar intimate thoughts.
But weirdly, it's the stories that display Wallace's narrative disconnect that are more interesting, at least from a theoretical standpoint. "The Suffering Channel," which follows a glossy magazine's attempts to profile a man who shits out intricate fecal sculptures, and "Mr. Squishy," about a focus group's food testing session, are, plot-wise, the easiest and most entertaining of Oblivion's stories, but they're also the most hollow. "Another Pioneer" daringly attempts to build a story out of a narrator's account that strangely echoes Wallace's detachment; while its narrator's awkward removal from the tale is probably meant to mean something, I can't figure out what. Like Oblivion as a whole, the story feels like there's a massive wealth of emotion and insight there--but it's frustratingly hidden, just beneath the surface, inexplicably beyond Wallace's focus.