Short story: “Oblivion”
by look i have opinions
“Oblivion,” by David Foster Wallace
First appeared in Black Clock, issue #1, spring 2004/summer 2004; collected in Oblivion: Stories
48 pages, 18,929 words
This story is “a den of iniquities,” to borrow a remark about a very different story. There’s so much happening in the narration that I want to do a chart about it. When I say there’s a lot of stuff happening, I don’t mean that it’s a brilliant story with beautifully synchronized moving parts, or anything like that. I’m not even sure if it’s a good story. Let’s find out.
There are four doubled character names (I’m not counting Dr. Paphian’s), which contribute to the dreamlike atmosphere and also have other functions.
- The name “Audrey” is probably doubled so that Randall has an obvious excuse to call his stepdaughter “‘our’ Audrey” multiple times. Audrey Bogen also acts as the more openly sexual counterpart to the seemingly virginal Audrey.
- Chester “Jack” Vivien’s surname seems specifically designed to remind the reader of the absent Vivian and her “hysterical” accusations, which haunt the story throughout.
- Meanwhile, Hope’s younger brother Chip is actually named Chester. I don’t know why. Maybe to call Chester Vivien to mind again, and thus Vivian.
- The name Meredith shows up in the name of the sleep clinic, as well as belonging to Hope’s younger stepsister. Again, I don’t know why. Maybe all Hope’s siblings, who never make an appearance in the story, want us to know they’re there behind the scenes.
Besides the doubled names, there are too many double entendres (sexual and otherwise) to be worth counting. But here are some things that get repeated a lot:
- The word up: sitting up straight, getting an erection, waking up.
- Dryness and desiccation as age; wetness as sexuality and youth.
- Storms: Hope is terrified of them, possibly because of the wetness = sexuality thing. Thunder and snoring are linked, and are both associated with violence.
- Childhood; the word foetal.
Like other unreliable Wallace narrators, this one is intentionally ungrammatical. He omits hyphens where they should be and inserts them where they should not (“saffron scented under-garment”).
Except for the waking dialogue at the end, and a few intrusive bits of dialogue throughout, this story uses single quotes. I have not preserved this convention. I do have limits.
|Page (in Oblivion: Stories)||Notes||Stepfathers, childhood, sexuality||Death, horror||Waking reality|
“the whole ‘can of worms’ of the conflict”: First mention of the sleep dispute.
|First sentence: They’re washing their balls. I am twelve.|
|191||“scenes in a Victorian oil”: First mention of the Victorian era.||
“‘Father'”: The title demonstrates Dr. Sipe’s power over his family and stepfamily.
“both warm and cozy and ‘snug’ and yet also somewhat over-confined, not unlike the lap of a dominant adult”
|The mention of oil painting sounds like something from Hope’s mind, not Randall’s.|
|193||Dr. Sipe’s age as an excuse for ogling. The Audreys and their contemporaries as temptations for men.|
“Greatfather”: Audrey’s name for her step-grandfather gives him even more authority. Meanwhile, she shows no such respect for her stepfather.
|Here, the dream incorporates “‘For God’s sake'” and “‘up‘” smoothly. Whether these words are actually intrusions from the waking world is unclear.|
|197||“Then an extremely brief and almost ‘strobe’-like associative tableau”||The “associative tableau” is probably Hope’s own memory. It’s certainly not Randall’s, although he could have reconstructed it later.|
|198||The dispute is explained at last.||“Actuarially speaking”: Associating storms with death.||Also smoothly incorporated into the dream: “‘for God’s sake'”|
|200||“‘snoring’ loudly enough to—as she puts it—‘wake the dead'”: Symbolically, waking the past, its traumas, and its buried resentments.||Narrator-Randall claims that Hope falls asleep and wakes up quickly, contrary to what we see on page 237.|
|201||The first mention of Vivian.|
|202||It seems implied that Vivian accused Hope of being “in denial.”|
|205||Hope sees herself as the “victim” of Randall’s snoring.|
|206||The only mention of Hope’s stepsister Denise (“Donni”).|
|207||“Resurgam!”: In Latin, “I shall rise again!”||
(See notes on up.)
Vivian seems like kind of a Cassandra figure.
|209||“‘And can I ask why the thing with the fingers?'”: Probably finger quotes. Probably annoying as hell to Ed the Counselor.|
|210||“another unwilled or involuntary interior tableau”||
“daughterly charms”: Ew.
Randall envisions himself as a child.
|“as a boy or small child”: This is even more redundant than usual, unless the real narrator is Hope.|
A child in an enormous lap, being touched and spoken to by a dominating giant.
“evidently not ever once, during his entire career, physically touching a patient”
|This is the first scene in which the apparent waking dialogue is not incorporated completely smoothly. Same with the impression of being seized by the shoulder and shaken.|
|212||Without explanation, Audrey Bogen has transformed into “our Audrey […] serving highballs to wet men.”||
“daughter or perhaps conceivably stepdaughter or niece”
“a cat or nocturnal predator’s”: Randall seems to see himself as predatory.
“our Audrey supine in a beached canoe” etc.
“the ‘Age of consent'”
No, don’t go take a shower yet. There’s more grossness to come.
|214||Hope and Vivian looked alike as children.||
“‘merkin-esque’ or pudendal”: I don’t even know.
“terrible stepfatherly knowledge”: Vivian appears again, with a confirmation of what we already suspected. Randall openly speculates about what Dr. Sipe may have done to both Hope and Vivian. He describes his molestation of Audrey as merely hypothetical.
|216||Randall’s Father; his childhood thumbsucking and thumb-lacquering.|
|217||Randall’s insistence that the ringing sound Hope hears is a hallucination is especially bizarre and inappropriate because tinnitus can have a non-neurological physical basis.|
|219||“The Edmund R. and Meredith R. Darling Memorial Sleep Clinic”: Named after a married couple?||“Darling”?|
The description of the gowns is rather painful.
“somewhat demeaned or ‘violated'”
|222||“(‘For God’s sake‘)”: The first time the bits of waking dialogue appear in double quotes.|
|223||The book Randall reads, Kurt Eichenwald’s Serpent on the Rock, is about a famous scandal at Prudential Financial, Inc., where Dr. Sipe worked for many years. May signal envy, hostility towards his stepfather-in-law.||Dr. Sipe as a serpent: a tempter, a source of evil, a phallus.|
Some cursory googling failed to turn up any dorm called Ardmore House at Bryn Mawr College, but the description (castle-like towers, late nineteenth century) seems inspired by Rockefeller, nicknamed “the Rock.”
My best guess is that “Ardmore” is a way for Wallace to avoid using a word that calls up Prudential Financial. (I would attribute this choice to the dreamer’s subconscious, but our narrator mentions Prudential elsewhere without any apparent aversion.) The name also sounds like “Audrey” + “more.”
Hope sleeps as though being held down (see the tableau on pages 210 and 211).
Randall parenthetically admits to driving to Bryn Mawr merely to look up at Audrey’s dorm window.
The word “foetally” appears in reference to Audrey.
The word “paphian” means wanton, whorish.
|He considers driving into oncoming traffic.|
|226||“morbid, long-standing fear of ‘violent’ storms”||Does “long-standing” mean “since childhood”?||Again, storms are associated with fear and violence.|
Young female technician.
A lot of ambient noise at the clinic.
“The sound of struggles and muffled breathing and a male- or ‘Father’ figure’s whispered grunts and shushing.”
Randall seems briefly to think he’s in a Prudential building.
|228||Randall stayed “up” with Audrey some nights when she was a child.|
|229||More ambient noise.||
“I was afraid of ‘repeating the cycle'”: Randall himself was abused as a child.
First time he’s had an erection in months. Since Audrey left the nest? Since the snoring dispute began?
|Was Randall really abused, or is he channeling Hope? It seems quite plausible that in real life, Hope and Randall don’t have any kids or stepkids (page 237: “And who’s this Audrey?”).|
|230||“screaming or ‘shrieking’ sounds”|
Creepiest driving lesson ever, that’s all I’m gonna say.
The word “enceinte” can mean either a defensive enclosure or “pregnant.” A machicolation is a hole (!) in the floor through which stones may be dropped on the enemy.
|232||“‘Su-i-cide'”: The most terrible part of this nightmare, for me.||“erect (or, ‘…up!‘)”: This word too is in double quotes, though it’s sort of incorporated into Randall’s thoughts.|
|233||“(‘not start this again my‘)”|
“(‘only hurt a tiny‘)”: Is the real Randall trying to inject Hope with something? Maybe a sedative?
The administrator slurps his tea, prompting this astounding parenthetical: “(a personal pet peeve of mine since childhood, followed as it was by the somewhat affected knuckle across the upper lip)”
The knuckle-across-the-lip affectation is Dr. Sipe’s (pages 194 to 195).
“lissome, mature, voluptuous but somewhat severe or ‘forbidding'”: The scare-quoted “forbidding” suggests “forbidden.”
Based on the knuckle mention, we can conclude that this pet peeve originates not in Randall’s childhood, but in Hope’s.
Randall claims that the video footage was captured at 2:04 a.m. Zulu time, which translates to 9:04 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
|236||“prone, twisted figures”: See Hope’s sleeping posture on page 224.||
“masturbating with a saffron scented under-garment”: Welp.
“rigidly or foetally ‘frozen'”
|“the wreckage and prone, twisted figures of a vehicular accident or ‘Crime scene'”||
“as with most husbands”: This thought could very well come from Hope.
(“or hurt you if“)
|237||“a heavy, familiar nocturnal tread slowly ascends the Victorian staircase to the bedroom door”: I can’t believe I didn’t pick up on this until now. Christ. Randall is envisioning himself sneaking into Audrey’s dormitory. Again, he describes himself as predatory.||
And here we are.
“‘nearly—almost'”: The real Randall is fussy in his speech and weirdly precise about the time, but he doesn’t crowd the room with words and details and Freudian double entendres.
So what are we to make of all this? It seems that the real Hope, who has lost some of her grip on reality, is dreaming about being her husband (or whoever Randall really is)—but why? Her dream does a lot to make him seem ridiculous and weak and perverted and creepy, so that’s one motivation. We can infer that Hope was abused by her stepfather (or someone similar), and that she is conflating that trauma with her present-day fear that her husband (?) no longer desires her.
The part I find hard to understand is that in Hope’s dream, she is Randall, and Randall’s creepy sexual desires and predatory impulses are hers. Maybe identifying with her abuser is a coping mechanism that keeps her from feeling helpless? And yet I feel like the story immerses us in dream-Randall’s head far more than in Hope’s, despite occasional hints that her thoughts and feelings are breaking through.
I still don’t know if this is a good story or if it “works” the way Wallace intended it to. It holds up on multiple rereads, though.