David Foster Wallace’s writing has often and rightfully been lauded for its absolutely precise prose, its devices, and its footnotes and forms and aggressions. In Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, the first collection of stories to follow the massive and career-defining Infinite Jest, he uses all these skills to tackle selfishness the way Infinite Jest tackled addiction. Wallace is, in all of his work, at least tangentially commenting on contemporary Americans’ incessant egomania, but BIWHM, in true Wallace fashion, investigates this theme from seemingly every fathomable angle. Wallace was never a subtle writer, preferring motive to leitmotif, and action to metaphor, and Brief Interviews is no exception. It is exhaustive.
But, upon re-reading this collection for the first time in at least ten years, and with the understanding that Wallace has completed his output, I’m left with the feeling that all of these devices, all this cleverness, all this exactness, takes over and rules the prose. Wallace seems incapable of letting go of the ideas behind the writing, letting the reader have any space for interpretation within the stories. Wallace’s prose is so intensely controlled—down to his incessant need to quell even the smallest variable of pronoun ambiguity—that he does not allow for the writing to exist in a space that is not his. This control, ultimately, keeps the bulk of these stories from reaching the echelon of a Nabokov or a Fitzgerald, for it’s really in the—sadly few—moments when Wallace cedes some control to the written piece that we see beyond the style and virtuosity and see something, perhaps unintentionally, truly great in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.
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David Foster Wallace was a master of deluging the reader with so much information of a similar sort that there appears to be a system. Much like life, where random occurrences can be imagined to cohere into something systematized, the close reader tries to read an overarching structure into all of the information Wallace provides. This is what drove me nuts about Infinite Jest when I first read it in college, and BIWHM does the same thing. Titles, obviously, recur. A character in an early story (The psychologist in “The Depressed Person”) shows up (as a young boy) in “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (VI).” Frustratingly, the recurrence of this character does not really illuminate the previous story as much as expand upon it. This is Wallace’s system—not illumination but accretion of the theme. The theme in BIWHM is selfishness, such extreme selfishness that when it’s catalogued on the page it’s hard to stomach, but, as a testament to Wallace’s skill, it is almost always familiar. This is our selfishness, taken to an archetypical extreme, but ours nonetheless.
The majority of the “Brief Interviews” themselves, which take up roughly a third of the book, aren’t really “stories” but rather character sketches; they show that David Foster Wallace is a wonderful writer of characters. It is amazing that in these short “interviews” he is able to develop such lushness, if not necessarily complexity, of character. Indeed, most of these interviews center around characters who are so familiar, so nearly mundane, that it is shocking how Wallace repositions their selfishness repositioned to highlight how downright evil it is: a man breaks up with a woman as if he’s doing her a favor by avoiding some mythic future where he will break up with her (“I don’t want to get all testy or hypercritical or pull away and not be around for days at a time or be blatantly unfaithful in a way you’re guaranteed to find out about . . . “); two men keenly dissect the selfishness of another man who stands up his mistress only to have one of the men selfishly use the same woman (“bent over so you can you know just about see her tits. Totally hysterical and with the waterworks and all like that there.”); or a man earnestly trying to argue that violence might be a positive force in a woman’s life (“I’m talking about dignity and respect, not treating them like they’re fragile little dolls or whatever. Everybody gets hurt and violated and broken sometimes, why are women so special?”). These interviews accrete slowly from common wrongs to such a fever pitch of self-centeredness that they become sociopathic.
The majority of the “Brief Interview” characters are so stock, though, they might as well have rolled out of the casting call for a series of made-for-TV movies. That, however, is precisely what makes them so disturbing. These are such familiar faces, such familiar bigotry and misogyny, but taken in one lump they paint a horrifying portrait. And the few that stray from the simply ugly and get to a real conflict, are nearly amazing, such as the adolescent who wishes to stop time a la Bewitched and make love to a beautiful gym-goer in front of the frozen masses, but ultimately can’t handle the responsibility of stopping time, because he would have to be responsible for stopping the entire universe. He gives no thought to the woman who is the object of his desire; the thought of having to do the work of stopping time so arrests him he denies himself even the satisfaction of a masturbatory fantasy.
Similarly interesting is the Brief Interview with the man who judges his father for working as a bathroom attendant to provide for him (the narrator) and the rest of the family. This story has the sort of nuanced complexity that might have made BIWHM a success. The narrator’s relevance springs from his audacity to judge his father for working double shifts to provide for his family: only a character from Wallace’s generation couldn’t even fathom a world in which this job is a blessing, in which opportunity and freedom of self-fulfillment aren’t givens. (As an aside, this Brief Interview (#42) contains the best rundown of all the various permutations of waste-elimination available in the English language.)
And, of course, there’s the ultimate Interview, the one that is the pinnacle (or, possibly, result?) of the accretion of the previous interviews: the serial killer that “falls in love with” a woman precisely because she has previously survived a rape and near murder by another serial killer. It ends with the interviewee chillingly addressing the interviewer: “I felt she could have saved me I said. Ask me now. Say it. I stand here naked before you. Judge me, you chilly cunt. You dyke, you bitch, you cooze, cunt, slut, gash. Happy now? All borne out? Be happy. I don’t care. I knew she could. I knew I loved. End of story.” Perhaps this section is even more disturbing because one of these characters finally makes his disdain for women overt. It takes a man who has taken himself outside of societal norms to identify and own his own selfishness, which makes him in some ways more honest and true than the men who cloud their selfishness behind justification. It leaves me wondering if this is what Wallace saw as the endpoint of all of this selfishness. If the “point” here is that all of the first-person narrative, the ego-centrism of our current culture is driving us all to be not only sociopathic, but psychopathic, to see that the same extremism that leads to a tree full of dead babies in Cormac McCarthy leads to, in Wallace, “normal,” Dockers-wearing American men in airports. Perhaps only by getting to that point can we tackle the systemic problem.
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Despite the book’s ambitious project, many of the stories in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men are unsuccessful, and the driving force of their failure is Wallace’s layers and layers of style and pedagogy. Like an epically talented singer who can do such amazing runs that she loses sight of the beauty of the true, simple note, the David Foster Wallace of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men often loses sight of the value of the simple, unexhausted, story. What is seen here more so than in any of his other writing is that Wallace as a fiction-writer has two warring halves: one that is virtuosic, and one that is virtuosic to a fault.
There are some truly atrocious stories in this collection, and they ride off the counter on the melt of their own experimentation. For example, “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,” which exists outside of the page count of the book (it’s on page 0), seems like an attempt at an introduction to the egocentrism theme, but is completely unnecessary (why introduce a theme which is so blatant, so pervasive?). The various “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders” stories, while at times pleasing, fall short of being stories. “Datum Centurio” and “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko” are fun in their undeniable imagination and style, but they amount to little more than pretty baubles. “Adult World (I) and (II)” strikes me as more egregious. The first part sets up a complex story of a woman who believes her husband is displeased with their lovemaking (and, this being a study of selfishness, she believes it’s totally about her). Unfortunately, rather than actually write the second part of the story, Wallace chooses to give us a very metafictional outline of what might become part II. While this device might work within a longer piece, here it seems like Wallace lost interest in his own story and didn’t want to take the time to work it out, preferring to step back and provide the more nominal thrill of the authorial view.
And David Foster Wallace is at his worst in a story like “The Depressed Person.” At 32 pages, it’s one of the longest stories in the collection, and rife with lengthy, digressive footnotes. As is promised (threatened? who could possibly fathom a less engaging title for a story?), it’s about a depressed person, who worries constantly about putting out her friends by laying her problems on them. Wallace puts the reader in the position of one of these friends. There’s no real reason for this person’s depression, besides pretty standard stuff, but the reader is forced to slog through her incessant prattling concerns for an eternity. Wallace is pushing his reader to the edge here, challenging her to exist in this annoyance, which is a perfectly fine commentary on self-obsession and egomania, but goddamn is it boring. This is a moment where Wallace gives in to the part of him that tells him that the “point” of the story is worth the slog to arrive there. And while I think many readers are willing to slog through, purely to watch him do it, there are probably at least an equal number who find it obnoxious. Much like visual art that requires an accompanying manifesto, the idea is valid, but the outcome exists only as a closed entity, devoid of beauty and lacking an inroad to the story except for the idea that is the story. And while such art can be fascinating on first engagement, I don’t want to hang it on my wall. When I read this book again in a few years I’ll skip this story.
For all of those difficult and/or downright bad moments, though, I relish the times in this book where Wallace gives me a character to like, a character to feel for, a character I think Wallace himself finds some value in. Where David Foster Wallace gives over the project and lets the fictions be fictions. “Suicide as a Form of Present” and “Think” both have nuance that the Brief Interviews lack. Even if these characters, too, are not all that likeable (a mother who is so exacting of herself that she transfers it to her son and is disappointed by him in every way; a man who is cheating on his wife), they are given enough background to allow us, as readers, to believe in redemption if we would like, or to at least believe that their crippling faults are the result of something external to them, and not just endemic.
By far my favorite story in the book, perhaps because of all of the noise around it, is “Forever Overhead” a small story about a boy coming of age. This story is sincere, complex, and pitch-perfectly written. It reminded me of how Wallace wrote about Mario in Infinite Jest, one of the few characters he seems to have felt affinity or sympathy for. In “Forever Overhead” the boy is at the exact, dangerous precipice of adulthood, able to see but not yet inhabiting its pressures and challenges. The world of the adults is encapsulated in the simple metaphor of a bee hovering over a sweet drink; it looks so effortless to the boy but “A still, floating bee is moving faster than it can think.” David Foster Wallace treats this boy with a tenderness and caring he rarely uses. This story makes me wish for a Wallace that felt empathy for a wider swathe of the population, or chose to write not only (or primarily) about the ills of the world but also about the ones struggling, against all odds, to be good in spite of all of that.
* * * *
To fully get at both the genius and the problematic within Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, I find myself turning—grudgingly—to the story “Octet.” After playing with a couple of mock pop quizzes on morality, Wallace breaks from the form with “pop quiz #9 [existing, even in number, outside of the octet] which begins, “You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer,” and then goes on, in great detail, to describe the story that has come before, other portions which didn’t make the cut and are thus not present, the goals of the piece, how it is failing to fulfill the desired affect, how it is, at turns, too complex or pat, etc.
I enlist this story grudgingly because it seems an easy mark to read as a direct discourse from David Foster Wallace to, well, himself. It has all of the brilliant hallmarks of Wallace’s style, including great asides, like in a footnote: “You’re still going to title the piece ‘Octet.’ [Even though it doesn't have eight parts] No matter if it makes any sense to anybody else or not. You’re intransigent on this point. Whether this intransigence is a kind of integrity or just simply nuts is an issue you refuse to spend work-time stewing about.” Elsewhere, he writes, “The trick to this solution [the very solution that is then happening, breaking out of the narrative and writing metafictionally in an attempt to 'save' the story] is that you’d have to be 100% honest. Meaning not just sincere but almost naked.”
And David Foster Wallace does seem almost naked in this story, but maybe not in the way he intends. The argument here is about how to save the “idea” of the story, but in doing so he doesn’t even seem to give a thought to the fact that he, in this saving, is actually ruining the “story” itself. Not that this story assuredly would have amounted to an actual “story” anyway, which he does point out, but in breaking out of the narrative he makes it about the idea wholly, rather than freeing the prose to stand or fail on its own. Wallace is trying to do a couple of things here: 1) he’s trying to get away with having a great idea for a story without actually writing the story successfully. I’d posit that most fiction writers who’ve been around for awhile have at least a couple of story ideas they have tried multiple times to write and failed at. Sometimes these stories make it into the world and sometimes they are a private struggle the writer uses to get at other stories. Wallace wants this story, and fast-tracks it a bit, rather than letting it mellow on its own until it’s ready to come of its own accord and style; and 2) Wallace wants to show us how intricately he’s conceived this story. How the failure of the story is not inherent in the idea of the story, but in the failure of the writer. The story’s failure is Wallace’s failure.
Wallace doesn’t step fully from behind the authorial wall, though, which makes reading this section as a purely authorial working-through impossible, even though there is really no other way to read it (which is frustrating). This apostrophic section is obviously only to himself, but it still ends with the final line “So decide,” reentering the narrative structure and forcing the reader to question the metafictional moment as “real.” So tricky. Coming of age in the shadow of New Criticism, I have a lot of trouble saying this is Wallace, but I will say this says something about Wallace. This is Wallace at his best and his worst. The story invites the reader into a (at least seemingly) personal space of the author working through the problems of the prose and coming up with a solution. And watching this work is something to behold, the intellect and care that he brings to this section are what many readers come to literature to experience, but this is also what holds Wallace back, just like all of the footnotes and “w/r/t’s” and all of that: he just can’t allow the flawed story to stand or fall on its own. He has to control it, systematize it, and define it. It is what makes Wallace one of the most interesting writers of his generation, his enormous capacity for precision and definition and, ultimately, “ideas,” but it’s also the thing that stops him from getting to the larger truth that great writers sometimes get to by accident, and that is what makes for enduring writing.
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Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is not the book of David Foster Wallace’s that will be read in 50 years, when Infinite Jest is on Seminar Syllabi and his nonfiction has been reanthologized all over the place. BIWHM is a footnote of a sort to Wallace’s more enduring works. This book is beautifully written, but poisonous. For every moment I spent marveling at his ability to make these archetypical characters as real as he made them, I was left wondering how he had the capacity to spend so much time in their dark cloud. This is a book about horrible people, and Wallace’s love and skill at describing them. It shows that, undoubtedly, David Foster Wallace was one of the most talented literary writers in America’s history. His mastery of the craft of writing was, to my mind, unquestionable, as was his willingness to take on “big” subjects in “big” ways.
However, a somewhat less driven and exacting David Foster Wallace, a Wallace who was willing to let the ideas behind his writing take a back seat to the story, would have given us something more. More than his unequaled talent, more than his philosophy. We would have gotten more of the intangible greatness, the uncontrollable greatness, the sometimes accidental greatness that is the result of great talent unfettered.
Wallace repels some readers not because his books are lacking but because they endeavor to include everything. Wallace’s intellect and insecurity was a veil, and I’m left wondering, were he to have continued on and grown and matured as a writer, if that veil would have come off. Now, though, we’re left to peer through it to discern the bones in profile, which are still pretty fucking gorgeous in their own right.
I don’t know what would have happened to David Foster Wallace had he continued to live and write. Just as it’s possible that he would have given us mature, canonical work, it’s equally possible his tics and his driving need to dissect and analyze, which is so antithetical to base emotion, would have taken him over completely. Perhaps, rather than the boy in “Forever Overhead,” whom he judged as “largely good,” Wallace saw himself as the boy in “Brief Interview #59,” forever frozen by the enormity of the undertaking. Thinking that to arrive at love he must examine and discard all else, to be able to say: “[I] have alone seen love in all its horror and unbound power. I alone have any rights to speak of it. All the rest is merely noise, radiations of a background which is even now retreating always further. It cannot be stopped.”
CJ Evans is the author of A Penance, forthcoming from New Issues in 2012, and a chapbook, The Category of Outcast (Poetry Society of America, 2009). He edited, with Brenda Shaughnessy, Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House, and his work has recently appeared in Boston Review, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, and Pleiades. He is the managing editor of TWO LINES: World Writing in Translation and a contributing editor for Tin House.
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