Media overkill and other forms of contemporary paranoia and mendacity take their lumps in this third collection from the brainy postmodernist author (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, 1999, etc.).
The most conventional of its eight impressively varied stories is “The Surfing Channel,” the raffish satirical account of trendy Style magazine’s research into the personal history of a popular sculptor who works in the medium of human excrement. How he produces his art is about what you’d expect (“Maybe his colon somehow knows things his conscious mind doesn’t”), and Wallace’s deadpan depiction of his manufactured celebrity is both hilarious and, uh, fundamentally silly. Elsewhere, we encounter an ad agency manipulating public hunger for a cholesterol-laden product (“Mr. Squishy”), a possibly suicidal yuppie devoted to obsessive analysis of his own “fraudulence” (“Good Old Neon”), and the story (told in conversations overheard during a business flight) of an “omniscient child” born in a Third World rain forest and commercially exploited by his fellow villagers (“Another Pioneer”). But Wallace is as versatile as he is facile, capable of such contrasting stunners as a blistering vignette that describes in headlong charged prose the accidental severe burning of a toddler and his parents’ panicked efforts to save his life (“Incarnations of Burned Children”) and the volume’s two standout pieces. In “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” a depressed, lonely father sorrowfully recalls a violent episode at his son’s elementary school, an episode that the distracted boy survived almost without noticing it: a terrific story, in which the generation gap yawns unbridgeably. Then there’s “Oblivion,” the narrative of a 40-ish husband whose wife objects to his nonexistent snoring, leading him to an Orwellian Sleep Clinic, and to question everything he thinks he knows about himself. This ingenious anatomy of incompatibility perfectly illustrates Wallace’s genius for combining intellectual high seriousness and tomfoolery with compassionate insight into distinctively contemporary fears and neuroses.
One of our best young writers just keeps getting better.