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‘The Ambient Smell of Freshly Cut Wood, as Well as Industrial Plastic’: David Foster Wallace’s Lynchian “Oblivion”

[Note: Unless otherwise noted, all the page numbers in this essay are from the hardcover edition of Oblivion by David Foster Wallace, published by Little, Brown in 2004. I didn’t do academic citations because this essay was written for fun, but I did include page numbers for many references because the story is so dense that I know it will be hard for readers to flip through and find passages without any guide.] Anyone familiar with David Foster Wallace’s work already knows that he is a fan of David Lynch. To refresh your memory, let’s refer to his article “David Lynch Keeps His Head” (as reprinted in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again):

“This is what was epiphanic for us about Blue Velvet in grad school, when we saw it: the movie helped us realize that first-rate experimentalism was a way not to ‘transcend’ or ‘rebel against’ the truth but actually to honor it. It brought home to us—via images, the medium we were suckled on and most credulous of—that the very most important artistic communications took place at a level that not only wasn’t intellectual but wasn’t even fully conscious, that the unconscious’s true medium wasn’t verbal but imagistic, and that whether the images were Realistic or Postmodern or Expressionistic or Surreal or what-the-hell-ever was less important than whether they felt true, whether they rang psychic cherries in the communicatee.”

Upon close reading, it seems to me that “Oblivion,” the title story in DFW’s latest collection of short stories, is a perfect example of an effort to deploy images in an experimental way to get at something psychically disturbing and real. The nightmare world of repressed feelings and dark undercurrents that DFW creates functions also as an homage, an acknowledgment of the stylistic and imagistic influence of David Lynch.

Twin Peaks
When first reading “Oblivion” there were two pieces that resonated in the back of my mind as very “Twin Peaks”-ish, though the story was so engrossing that I didn’t give them much thought until later. The first was the description of Hope Sipe-Napier, the wife of the narrator. While reading the story I was picturing Grace Zabrinski, the actress who played Sarah Palmer on “Twin Peaks,” as Hope.1 Later I went back to try to determine exactly why that happened. When I think of Sarah I picture a gaunt woman reclining at home, suddenly jerking up and beginning to scream for no reason that I can immediately see. This seems to be a scene that Hope is reenacting every night in her marital bed. The physical description of Hope reinforced this identification, she is “haggard,” “sharp featured,” with “leathery” skin, and an overall “weazened,” “predatory” look. Of course she lacks Sarah’s most distinguishing characteristic—hair in a huge frizzy perm—but when her hair is described as “a tall ‘Bouffante’ which stood aloof and unchanging above the shifting tides of coiffure fashion” (217), it is a distinct echo of Lynch, who loves to put his female characters in oddly retro hairstyles. Hope is characterized as a woman who falls deeply asleep right away—and based on the seamy nocturnal ramblings of both Leland and Laura I think it’s safe to assume that Sarah Palmer was a very sound sleeper, as well.

The second, more shocking, “Twin Peaks” reference comes while Randy Napier is sitting down to hear his diagnosis from the sleep team: “I suffered or experienced a rapid and terrible flash or ‘strobe-‘ lit interior vision of a prone female figure wrapped in clear plastic industrial sheeting, which cleared almost instantly (227).” This is explicit—an image straight from the “Twin Peaks”‘ pilot episode, when Laura Palmer was found dead, wrapped in plastic. The strobe light is another echo: the light in the Twin Peaks autopsy lab kept shorting out when the police and FBI came to examine Laura’s body.

My husband was the one who asked me what I thought of this reference. After thinking it over for a while, I found that linking this story with the “Twin Peaks” series and movie makes a lot of sense in context. “Oblivion” and “Twin Peaks” both deal with fathers molesting their daughters and the truth you can find in dreams.2 Can you think of any fictional character who put more stock in the importance of dreams than Agent Cooper? Laura also experienced vivid, horrible flashes of insight while dreaming. (But just as dreams are porous and polyreferential, I don’t mean to suggest that DFW is using only “Twin Peaks” imagery in this story. There are echoes of Lynch’s other films throughout.)3

The Daughters
One striking similarity between the fictional worlds of “Oblivion” and “Twin Peaks” is the nightmarish way that different daughters can stand in for one another. In “Oblivion” the first young woman who seems interchangeable with Audrey, the narrator’s daughter, is Audrey Bogan. Audrey Bogan is a sexually experienced, high school drop-out who works as a waitress. This recalls both Shelly Johnson at the Double R Diner and Audrey Horne, the most sexually charged high schooler in Twin Peaks.4 Hope Sipe-Napier and her sister Vivian are described as “interchangeably alike” when younger (214), and what divides them as they get older is that Vivian remembers being molested by Dr. Sipe, while Hope denies this ever happens. To confuse things further they also have at least two stepsisters who appear and disappear at the whim of the narrative (the corollaries in “Twin Peaks” would be the incidental younger sisters of Donna Hayward and Norma Jennings).

The daughter figures in “Twin Peaks” created a dazzling array of sexual anxiety and transference. Benjamin Horne manages to avoid harming his own daughter, but has a sexual relationship with her classmate Laura. As a result of Laura’s murder Audrey finds herself literally in Laura’s place, about to be violated by her father as a whore. Leland transfers his jealousy and madness to Maddy, who is unfortunate enough to look just like the dead daughter. Donna the good girl has the luck to narrowly escape a similar fate, and has a close relationship with her saintly father, Dr. Hayward. But she ends up traumatized by violence surrounding her true paternity at the close of the series.5 “Twin Peaks” played with the interchangeability of its young female cast for the close of its second season with the Miss Twin Peaks pageant, which all the young women improbably enter. Windham Earle goes the extra step by contriving his deck of cards: he explicitly does not care which of the girls is to be murdered, any one of them will do. “Twin Peaks” offered the viewer Audrey, Shelly, Donna, Laura: rich girl, poor girl, good girl, bad girl. These aren’t really characters so much as archetypes, which is what dreams often deal in.

DFW always plays with forms and techniques in his stories, so it seems only natural that he would employ some Lynchian methods here. What I find especially brilliant about the form of “Oblivion” is the fact that Lynch’s oeuvre is one that does infect your dreams.6 Lynch has a wonderful touch with surreality and dream logic; his images can seep into your brain and float around your mind for a long time. Choosing to set a Lynchian story in a dream (a dream about sleeping problems!) is very clever, and it also just feels right.

He uses soundscapes in “Oblivion” to highlight the discomfort and madness of the dream. The narrator’s aural hallucinations unsettle the reader and give weird, inexplicable clues to the dark heart of the story. When Randy is awaiting his diagnosis from the sleep team he hears an ominous series of sounds (from “the sound of a blender making frozen drinks” to “the sound of struggles and muffled breathing”) that eventually fade into the sound of construction down the hall (227). The emphasis on sounds of nail guns and hammers points to Lynch: his love of industrial sounds and compositions is well-known. When DFW writes ” … Dr. Paphian averred between several sudden, conspicuous, screaming or ‘shrieking’ sounds from a ‘power’ saw or router somewhere down the corridor (there was also the ambient smell of freshly cut wood, as well as industrial plastic … )” (230) I think it comes close to all-out tribute to Lynch’s sound style. The parenthetical smells may allude to timber, Twin Peaks’ main industry, and the plastic Laura and Maddy were found in.

Even the narrator’s insane use of scare quotes, although admittedly a typical DFW device, can be read as a reference to Lynchian style. In “Twin Peaks” the actors often read their lines in a very formal way, imagine Agent Cooper’s “This is damn fine coffee, and hot!” or Pete’s “There was a fish in the percolator.” Their line readings and the writing itself often calls attention to itself as ironic or fake or strange. Randy Napier’s annoying air-quoting and use of Latin has a similar effect, especially once you realize the true nature of what’s going on in this story.

Many of DFW’s descriptions are explicitly cinematic, suggesting camerawork. The visions or hallucinations of Randy Napier remind the reader of the sudden memories and images that cut into films. There are many examples of this technique in Lost Highway and Wild at Heart. This method in “Oblivion” reminds the reader of a certain kind of movie, and the specific images and sounds he chooses echo individual Lynch scenes and signs. The following are some of my favorite examples:

  • The two creepy stepfathers golfing together. Golf, that suburban and mutedly masculine pastime, signifies violence in the world of “Twin Peaks” (just ask poor Maddy). (190)
  • Randy seeing himself as a predatory triclops monster when he looks in the mirror. It is a convention of Twin Peaks that when people are inhabited by evil we see BOB in the mirror. (212)
  • Vision of Audrey in long gloves gliding around serving drinks to old men. I picture the casino/brothel where Laura Palmer once worked, One-Eyed Jacks. Some of the girls there actually did wear long gloves. (212)
  • The light in the Darling Sleep Clinic, which renders everything “shadowless” and “dreamy.” The institutional lighting in the Twin Peaks hospital has a similar quality. (220)
  • Hope is very uncomfortable about sleeping under plastic-coated covers and high-intensity light while strangers observe her. This seems natural to me, since it strongly recalls the autopsy scenes in the Twin Peaks series and movie. (221)
  • Randy notices that the sleep clinic has an “all too familiar” Goya hanging amid the more conventional Impressionist prints. Since the horror is steadily mounting at that point in the story, I think Randy is seeing Goya’s “The Dream of Reason Brings Forth Monsters (El sueno de la razon produce monstruos),” which seems about right. In his essay on Lynch DFW took a lot of time examining the disturbing artwork used on the sets in Lost Highway, interested in the effect that these incidental background images may have on the viewer (see section 17 of “David Lynch Keeps His Head”). An eerie painting also figures prominently in some of the last dreams of Laura’s life. (226)
  • Lightning and other electrical phenomena. Lightning is deployed throughout “Oblivion” in unsettling ways—from the golf course, to the ride over the Darling Sleep Clinic, to Hope’s reaction while waking up on the last page. We are reminded several times that Hope is afraid of electrical storms. Electricity as somehow related to or reacting to evil is a major element in “Twin Peaks.” And again, shorting or flashing lights, the type that DFW mentions in the wrapped-in-plastic vision, light Agent Cooper’s inspection of Laura Palmer’s corpse.7 (198, 226, 232)
  • The way Randy will begin covering one eye and then the other. One of Lynch’s most distinctive Expressionist techniques is having characters use weird gestures that do not make sense to the viewer but still put you on edge and seem to mean something. For a grand example see Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. FBI agents watch the weird pantomime of a “woman in blue” and then Chester Desmond explains to his inexperienced partner what these coded gestures mean.8 (232)

DFW writes an extended hallucination of a bank of public phones ringing unheeded by the passersby (194). The ringing is described as both melancholic and foreboding. David Lynch uses creepy phones in practically all of his films. The best example is Lost Highway when Fred Madison calls home to check on his eerie wife and we see shots of phones ringing throughout the deserted house. Or think of the scene in the “Twin Peaks” pilot when Sarah starts hysterically breaking down while on the other end of the phone Leland is being informed that Laura’s body was found. In “Oblivion” the phones make me think of a wake-up call. We are in Hope’s unconscious and there is something urgent that is trying to get through.

One of the best-known mannerisms of David Lynch is his use of the grotesque to heighten the feeling of surreality or to highlight the ugliness of a situation. DFW employs two grotesques in “Oblivion.” Representing banality we have Dr. Sipe who, like almost every other adult in the story, is described as “predatory.” The narrator focuses on the creepy details of the elderly man’s skin and post-stroke tics. When the narrator looks at the old man’s mouth and is reminded of a small animal writhing on a road after being hit by a car (196)—come on, that’s Lynchian to the extreme. While reading the passages about Dr. Sipe’s mouth it is impossible for me not to picture the gross slurping-creamed-corn imagery from Twin Peaks.

The most famously odd figure of “Twin Peaks” is the Man from Another Place. DFW comes up with his own version, the Man from Rutgers-Brunswick Hospital Administration (or the Man from Latin America, if you prefer something more noir): Dr. Desmundo-Ruiz. Desmundo-Ruiz is snazzily dressed and cologned, and has nasty lesions on his hands not unlike those of Dr. Sipe. His big scene comes on page 232: “I then either imagined, hallucinated or witnessed Dr. ‘Desmondo-Ruiz”s—the large eyed Latin administrator’s or compere’s—mouth mouth, very distinctly, the word ‘Su-i-cide,’ sans any emergent sound.”9 And later, of course, Dr. Desmundo-Ruiz peels off his own face at the point when the dream is reaching a point of maximum terror.

The last scenes of the dream, where the narrator and the dreamer are transfixed while watching the image of themselves sleeping on a television set, is another amazing touch. Lynch’s characters often find themselves fascinated with video images of themselves or people they know. The video of Laura and Donna frolicking at a picnic is replayed by several characters for several purposes in the first episodes of “Twin Peaks.” In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me there is a very strange scene where Agent Cooper stands in a room but on the surveillance screen he can see himself simultaneously standing in the hallway. The scenes that seem most similar to me are in Lost Highway, when a couple receives videotapes showing the interior of their home, including shots of them asleep, and finally of the husband murdering the wife, all filmed by an anonymous cameraman. This has something to do with DFW’s observation (quoted earlier) about the language of the unconscious being “imagistic.” Perhaps the idea is that through these images you can learn something about yourself and others that could never be put into words, a dark something. DFW does a very effective job writing Randy’s simultaneous horror and fascination while watching himself sleep, which are really Hope’s emotions. It’s such a scary scene, as her consciousness starts to emerge while he opens his eyes like a waking monster.

I understand that some people hate to read essays like this one, that they may feel that groping around for influences and references is a waste of time and we should accept artwork on its own terms. I agree that you do not need to know anything about David Lynch to appreciate “Oblivion.” It is a killer short story without any of this exegesis. But I remember that while admiring David Lynch for several reasons, in “David Lynch Keeps His Head” DFW stressed that he parts ways with him on a very important point: DFW believes that art should be a form of real communication between the maker and the viewer/reader. This is an interesting point because DFW’s work is often criticized as purposely opaque and hard-to-understand. When reading “Oblivion” and coming across the wrapped-in-plastic vision on page 227, I must consider that this may be the author reaching out to me, his reader, and handing me a key. By signaling that part of his purpose in this story is to explore the art of David Lynch, DFW may be giving me a truly rare glimpse into his process. It doesn’t explain the story’s ambiguities, but it gives us a different way to think about them.

When I watch Lynch’s films, I don’t struggle to understand every little thing, or reach for a one-to-one correspondence for all the symbols. While I try to grasp the signs and think about them, I simultaneously accept that some things are inexplicable (but not merely nonsense, either). These unexplained things often add to my experience of the film by setting a certain tone or by tickling subconscious associations. After thinking about the Lynchian aspects in this story, I’ve taken a similar approach to “Oblivion.” It’s not that important to parse out what exactly is real outside of the dream (e.g., Does Audrey exist? Was Hope actually molested by her own stepfather?), I can accept all that I don’t know and understand the dream on its own terms. Applying David Lynch’s ideas about evil to the stepfather characters is another example of how this reading helped me think about the story. Hope’s dream is a sort of house of mirrors where daughters and fathers are reflected over and over, and but there is a real evil that is present. For instance, it’s not wrong to think that Desmundo-Ruiz is, in a way, the Devil. Whether or not Audrey exists, there is something horribly wrong, not just with Hope’s father, but with her husband, as well. The Lynchian worldview would never discount the meaning of a nightmare.

I hope that this essay gives you some ideas of your own as you read “Oblivion.” It’s a dark story, but also fascinating and worthy of close reading.

1 For the purposes of this article it will probably help if I refresh your memory on the names of the main players in the two families we are comparing. In “Oblivion” the daughter is named Audrey, the mother is named Hope Sipe-Napier. Randall “Randy” Napier is Hope’s husband and Audrey’s stepfather. Dr. Sipe is Hope’s own stepfather. In the television show “Twin Peaks” the daughter is, you probably remember, Laura Palmer. Her parents are Leland and Sarah Palmer. I purposely don’t go to a lot of trouble explaining all the details of who’s who and what’s what in the Twin Peaks universe in this essay. It’s just too much. If you want to better understand some of the references you can watch the DVDs of the show (the second season is finally available on DVD, hurray!) and rent the movie. Or if you prefer some written explanations, refer to David Hughes’ excellent book, The Complete Lynch. (And if you are already a big Lynch or “Twin Peaks” fan I can’t recommend this book enough.)
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2 If you haven’t seen it, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is a totally harrowing film experience, a horror movie (in the true sense of the phrase) about evil and incest. It is not surprising that DFW would retain a strong memory and impression of the film’s language of signs and meanings and use it when writing his own frightening piece about a father’s sexual obsession with his daughter. It’s interesting that DFW manages to make “Oblivion” a story from both the father and mother’s points of view, which are absent from Fire Walk with Me.
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3 For instance, anxiety about when you are awake and when you are dreaming, what is real and what is not, is a theme in both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.
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4 The other recurring names are Chester (which is shortened to either Chip or, more bewilderingly, Jack) and Vivian. Chester is a well-chosen name in the way it evokes a childhood rhyme and underscores the idea that men may be molesters. Chester Desmond is the name of Chris Isaak’s FBI agent in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. The name Chester Desmond seems to garble and spread, into the Chesters and Desmundo-Ruiz. I don’t have a theory on why DFW chose Chester Desmond’s name as the one to bleed throughout the story. Maybe he just though it sounded especially cool. It’s also worth mentioning that the physical description of Desmundo-Ruiz is reminiscent of Agent Jeffries, David Bowie’s character in Fire Walk with Me. Agent Jeffries disappeared to Buenos Aires—maybe that is where the vaguely Latin American doctor in “Oblivion” comes from, as well?
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5 I can still hear Lara Flynn Boyle sobbing “you’re my daddy, you’re my daddy,” which is a nice way to leave that character to the ages. (I always hated Donna.)
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6 When “Twin Peaks” was on television I used to have recurring nightmares about BOB. We lived in the country and in the mornings I could hardly walk to the bus stop without being overcome by terror at the sound of owls hooting.
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7 For a much more thorough and thoughtful exploration of electricity imagery and meaning in Twin Peaks, read David Hughes’ The Complete Lynch.
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8 I could go on and on. The Somnologist’s ring of keys vs. the ring the victims wear in Fire Walk with Me vs. the ring that forms a gateway to the Black Lodge in the series … the use of Freudian ideas in “Oblivion” vs. Lynch’s oeuvre … Randy’s work problems and Leland’s own psychotic breakdowns on the job … but since my free time is not infinite I had to cut myself off somewhere. I’m sure you can come up with your own ideas and correspondences. [back to essay]

9 Perfect, and especially if you’ve seen Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and remember the close-up of a mouth whispering “electricity.” In my opinion this is where DFW is reaching virtuoso levels using Lynchian imagery for his own purposes.
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