A boy is so engrossed in his daydreaming that he misses his substitute teacher having a nervous breakdown in front of the class and possibly becoming a danger to the students. A market researcher reflects on his job during the testing of a new chocolate bar by a focus group, while outside a strange figure is climbing up the side of the building. A couple seeks help in a sleep clinic for the, possibly imagined, snoring of the husband.
These are just three of the stories in this collection in which strange events are thoroughly examined that sometimes are grotesque and darkly funny, but sometimes just sad and depressing. They are populated by some very unconventional, and some almost too conventional, characters, and each one of the stories provides a lot of food for thought. If I had to choose a favourite, it would be “Good Old Neon” in which the opportunistic and narcissistic protagonist details his descent into despair when he recognizes himself as a fraud that is unable to form any kind of honest relationship. In the beginning, this is an acutely unlikeable character, but the longer it goes on one can’t help but feel sympathy for him, and the reason for that is Wallace’s masterful description of the isolation and the alienation from other people that is at the root of his issues. The story is full of biting wit, but in the end it is revealed as mere gallows humour.
Overall, all of the stories are very impressive, with only one exception. In “The Suffering Channel”, the ins and outs of a celebrity magazine are revealed when one of the journalists wants to write about a man whose feces come out as amazing sculptures. Unlike the other stories, this one lacks finesse and is unbearably obtrusive in its critique of current society. There is nothing fresh about it, and it instead feels like something that has been done before and better. Unfortunately, it is also the last story which leads to an underwhelming end for the whole collection.
Otherwise, this is a great book, one that showcases incredible craftsmanship and a deep understanding of human nature. It is very dark at times, and probably too verbose and self-indulgent in some places, but the originality of most of the stories is hard to beat.