Warning: This review contains spoilers for the book Oblivion
I was looking for information on the David Foster Wallace story “The Suffering Channel” which is part of book called Oblivion. I like Oblivion and I consider it to be Wallace’s third best novel after Infinite Jest and The Pale King. The best stories in the book Oblivion are “Good Old Neon,” “Oblivion,” “Mr. Squishy” and “The Suffering Channel”. All of these stories have something in common, the desire to be famous after death and what is reality beyond our existence. I read a deleted article by Andrew Altschul on Wayback which analyzed the story Suffering Channel in terms of Reality TV. The essay contained the author’s personal experience upon meeting David Foster Wallace. He was a big fan. He wanted the experience to be more significant and lasting as each one of us wants to be important or at least significant in terms of the world.
“The Suffering Channel” is a novella set in July 2001. Protagonist, Skip Atwater works for a fictional magazine named “Style” in the offices at the World Trade Center. Laurel Manderley is an intern at the Magazine. The Suffering Channel is a Reality TV Channel in the essay which can be seen as a metaphor for human existence. In order to be on the Channel people need to have done something interesting. They are encouraged to be unique and to be their own genuine selves. All they have to do is be themselves, but because there are so many people in the world, all of them can’t be on the Channel. I see it as similar the chances of going to Harvard. Each child starts Kindergarten with the same possibility of going to Harvard, but as time passes the students with lower grades lose out and finally only the ones with the best grades are eligible. Some of the eligible students do not wish to attend Harvard or maybe they cannot not afford to attend. This leaves a very small group of students who then compete for the top grades at Harvard. But the others who did not make the school or who failed to make an impressive career that causes them to be newsworthy (such as curing cancer) fall away are unrecognized in a fate the author feels is worse than death because it amounts to not have ever existed. However, when the entire planet is destroyed by climate change even the famous dead people will be forgotten. It will like they never existed, just like everybody else.
In the story “Good Ole Neon” in which the main character Neal, feels wasted his whole life being phony. In spite of achieving much, he never feels like he is real. (Maybe he suffers from Impostor Syndrome?) Neal was adopted. His sister who is the biological child of his parents grows up to become a witch. It is likely she put a spell on him to make him feel phony because the feeling began after he told a lie and got his sister in trouble. Rather than enjoy his life he is doomed to watch over his statue which is a symbol of his legacy. (As I am writing this the Princess Diana status is being unveiled.) While Neal’s girlfriend enjoys a picnic with another man, Neal’s ghost cleans bird dropping off of his own statue.
“Oblivion” (the story not the book) is about a man who is confused about reality. He dreams he has a daughter named Audrey who is away at college. His wife asks him to sleep in Audrey’s room due to his snoring. In the end Audrey may not be a real person but just part of his dream which involves getting to tee time at the golf course on time with his father in law in spite of being nearly perished from lack of sleep.
“Mr. Squishy” is about a market research firm conducting a study on chocolate snack cakes called Felonies. The name of the snack cake is important because Terry Schmidt leading the focus group is considering poisoning a male coworker whom he perceives as his rival in love. Schmidt is in love this a female coworker, but is unable to tell her or is afraid to tell her. He thinks about her all the time. He wants to call her, but is unable to think of what to say. At the same time a man is climbing outside the building like a Spiderman and that leaves us with a sense of doom. The Spiderman represents an overwhelming dread. But, the story never comes to a conclusion as other reviewers have pointed out. We just have to imagine the ending. If you are wondering about Mr. Squishy, he is a kind of cross between Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and The Pillsbury Doughboy. Mr. Squishy is a mascot for the snack cakes.
Finally in “The Suffering Channel” there is ultimate sense of dread because the people working in the office will be likely killed during 9/11. There are located at the Twin Towers and the magazine called Style is scheduled to come out on 9/10. I think the dread was Wallace was thinking of killing himself at the time he was writing these stories. Therefore many of them involve dread that one can see such as the Spiderman or terror one can not anticipate such as 9/11. All of the stories examine what is reality and what is important in life. Life is filled with trivial details of everyday existence, but we want life to be meaningful and significant. Everyday should be a peak experience because we don’t know how long we have left to live. If we waste even one day on trivial matters we can’t get that day back. If this is the last day of our lives each trivial detail become important such as in “Good Old Neon” as Neal prepares to kill himself he thinks of everything he does and notes it will be the last time he ever does these things.
I liked Oblivion and I have listened to the audio book several times, but feel the book is under appreciated due to the titles of the stories being confusing and the plots hard to pin down. All four of these stories are about a similar theme of reality vs reality TV. They ask questions like does life have meaning without documentation and recognition? Before recorded history many people died and we don’t know anything about them, and even after recorded history many people died without being a part of it. These forgotten people can be said to have never existed because we can’t find any proof of them existing. Yet our perceptions are not important in the long run, as our existence is not permanent unless one considers an afterlife. In the essay Andrew Altschul made several points about existing in history vs. not being significant enough to exist in history, which is similar to not qualifying for Harvard. Most of us will not qualify to even have a shot at being famous.
Bonus Thoughts on “Good Old Neon”
This is a very poor title there is nothing Neon about the story. I am sure that bad titles like this put people off. I am in a literacy group on Facebook and most people don’t even consider DFW works other than Infinite Jest because they failed to be accessible or they are hidden amongst less interesting/replusive stories such as the good awful “Backbone.” People don’t like to be jerked around and they will respond by putting a book down and not going back to it later. Most people like “Good Old Neon” best from all the stories in the book Oblivion because it is most easy story to relate to. Neal’s closest friend (because he too screwed up to have friends) is his therapist. He wants to not like his therapists and he gives them a hard time for suggesting obvious solutions. He finally decides he does like his therapist and he begins to take therapy seriously, but his therapist develops fatal cancer. Neal talks about how he did speak with the therapist in the afterlife and they had shared a laugh. This indicates that after his suicide he still exists and so does his therapist. All throughout the story Neal promises to tell us what we really want to know, what is death like, does it hurt, and is there an afterlife. But at the end of the story Neal does not follow through, maybe because Wallace was unsure of what he wanted to say. The story could have continued into the afterlife because it is established during the story that Neal is already dead and yet writing to us in the form of a letter or maybe a statement about how he ended up in this situation. I believe “Good Old Neon” was drawn from Wallace’s sense of pressure he felt to try and create books that exceeded Infinite Jest which he was never able to do.