Few of the characters in Oblivion have an easy time getting through the day. More self-aware than might be healthy, the tangled souls situated in eight new stories by David Foster Wallace tack through a series of actions that read like extrapolations on Edvard Munch's painting The Scream. In "Mister Squishy," a "thunderingly unexceptional" marketing analyst digs for focus-group data like a mathematician gone manic. In "The Soul Is Not A Smithy," an old man sifts through strangely composed memories of a substitute teacher cracking at the seams. In "Good Old Neon," a suicide casualty explains how and why he ended a lifelong spell of fraudulence.
With almost cruelly tuned intensity, Wallace writes around his characters in the virtuoso style best set down in his epic novel Infinite Jest and his previous story collection, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. His fans will recognize themes and approaches from his earlier work, but Oblivion's predominantly long stories burrow into the whole of consciousness with pitched-up purpose. At the core of the collection is "that type of embarrassment-before-self that makes our most mortifying memories objects of fascination and repulsion at once." It's a grim lot mapped by characters both over- and underequipped to focus on anything else, but Wallace's void-ward howl hits on some heartening melodies along the way. The self-questioning prophet in "Another Pioneer" refracts several gradients of worldly wisdom, while the two empty-nested parents in the title story stand in for the kind of love that's hard to translate beyond waking life.
Many of Oblivion's rewards come by way of Wallace's sheer mastery of craft. His sentences crackle and swoon, patiently peeling back layers of artifice that cloak the Big Questions. Oblivion pulls fewer formal stunts than Wallace has become known for, but his trademark tics remain; no book could toss out more throat-clearing phrases like "as it were," and certain tales seem deliberately crafted to make readers wince by the page. As the stories stack up, however, the catalog of manic spasms and base behavior turns into a strange sort of love letter to human toil. In the especially recoil-worthy story "The Suffering Channel," a character is banished outside by a girlfriend too embarrassed to defecate in his presence. "Standing on that corner was the first time in quite a long time he had not felt deeply and painfully alone," Wallace writes. It's a backward tribute to tenderness, but such moments guide Oblivion toward a vanishing point where human animals do their business in accord, for better and for worse.