Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

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What are we to make of the curious literary career of David Foster Wallace? The success of his 1,079-page doorstop of a novel, Infinite Jest, has been variously ascribed to the marketing muscle of its publisher (Little, Brown and Company) and a rapacious mainstream media waking up to the realization that literature has acquired the same blockbuster potential as Hollywood movies and the O.J. trial. Infinite Jest was published in 1996, the same year as Jacquelyn Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean, the novel that became the inaugural selection of Oprah Winfrey’s outrageously successful talk-show book club. There was a time not too long ago when a book like Infinite Jest would have been tastefully marketed as serious literary fiction or perhaps an eccentric cult book, and The Deep End of the Ocean as a minor women’s suspense novel. But the media no longer make these distinctions. Wallace and Mitchard were identically anointed as the authors people were talking about and reading about, if not necessarily reading. Infinite Jest has gained a notorious reputation as the most unread bestseller of recent years.

I enjoyed both novels. The Deep End of the Ocean was one of a number of books I read during the year it took me to finish Infinite Jest. Another book I happened to pick up during that time was Wallace’s 1989 collection of short stories, Girl with Curious Hair. I was expecting it to contain the awkward efforts of a fledgling twentysomething author. Instead I discovered an array of dazzling and funny short stories that showed more range and proficiency than Wallace’s big fat novel. Girl with Curious Hair deserves to stand beside J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories and John Barth’s Lost in the Fun House as a benchmark American short story collection. And this brings me to the sad question: If David Foster Wallace is such a great short story writer – and I think he’s one of our very best – why is his new collection of stories, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, such a major disappointment?

The "brief" answer is that the hyping of Infinite Jest has transformed David Foster Wallace into a commodity. While he has been frequently published in magazines and literary journals in the last couple of years, only three stories – The Depressed Person, Adult World, and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men #20 – are equal to his earlier work. Much of what has appeared in print since Infinite Jest is fragmentary and unsatisfying, with the low point being a "story" of two paragraphs and some 75 words published in the journal Ploughshares last spring. (A Wallace fan on the Internet waggishly dubbed the story Infinitesimal Jest.) Not only does this shortest of short-short stories reappear in Wallace’s new collection, it actually leads off the volume.

What seems clear is that the new book is woefully undernourished. The only reason it exists is to placate the David Foster Wallace industry. Are we really so hungry for this author’s work that his publisher feels compelled to publish a $24 hardback book of largely second-rate work to keep us satisfied?

The Depressed Person is a funny/scary portrait of the insanely analytical chatter that passes for insight in the psychiatric community and in our obsessive compulsive daily lives. The story mines an area not dissimilar to the world of addiction and recovery programs portrayed in Infinite Jest, but The Depressed Person does the job in a fraction of the time and is nearly as powerful.

Interspersed throughout Brief Interviews with Hideous Men are fragments of varying lengths all titled "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" and assigned numbers (haphazardly, it appears, and with no discernible pattern, though some critics have begun to assert that there is a "hidden" narrative to the pieces). All of the "Brief Interviews" share the same question and answer format, sometimes in an obvious clinical or therapeutic setting, sometimes not. The conceit isclever: we never see the actual "questions" that are being asked and which apparently come from a female interrogator – we only see the stark denotation "Q" that stands in for the absent queries. The focus is on the procession of "hideous men" who relate their stories of callous and insensitive behavior toward women.

Some of these fragments are comical, such as #14, in which a man divulges that every time he reaches orgasm during intercourse he compulsively yells out the phrase, "Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!" There are darker fragments involving domestic abuse or S-M sex. The most effective is the only one that really has the narrative breadth and contour of a story, and that’s #20, in which a callow young man describes picking up a woman at a music festival for what he assumes will be an evening of casual sex, but instead becomes a true-crime confessional in which the woman relates a gruesome tale of having once been brutally raped by a stranger. The young man is disturbed by the woman’s story, but his response is uncomprehending and defensive. The story ends with him verbally abusing the female interrogator who has been asking the unseen "Q" questions.

Brief Interview #20 is stunning and it deservedly won an award from The Paris Review when it ran in the journal in 1997. What is unfortunate, however, is Wallace’s decision to continue utilizing the B.I. format that really adds nothing interesting to the misogynist landscape that he so chillingly explored in#20. The majority of the other fragments are pointless or gratuitous; they are arranged throughout the volume as if in the hope of providing shape and cohesion to a collection that is wildly uneven to say the least.

The collection is fatally marred by flat experimental stories like Octet (yet another endlessly deconstructed story about the difficulty of writing a story) and Datum Centurio (a tiresome Woody Allen-like "lexicon" entry from the year 2026 on the social concept of "dating") that rely on turgid footnotes and mock academic posturing to feeble effect.

Bob Wake

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