After the success of Infinite Jest in 1996, David Foster Wallace took a vacation from fiction and, perhaps, from fans’ expectations with A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. He reported–a trip to the Caribbean on a cruise ship, to the Illinois State Fair, a David Lynch set, a Canadian tennis tournament–and he reviewed: his childhood tennis career, a book of literary theory and novels by his contemporaries. In “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Wallace scolded young writers of “Image Fiction,” who copy television’s will to entertain, who relentlessly attempt “to wow, to ensure that the reader is pleased and continues to read.” He called for “new literary rebels” who will “eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue,” who will “risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.”
Although Infinite Jest wows every couple of pages and includes almost a hundred pages of self-conscious endnotes, it depicts characters in such emotional distress that only melodramatic actions seem appropriate. Wallace’s achievement is showing how his desperate people are formed by multiple, often interlocking cultural contexts. The class differences between his elite tennis academy and neighboring halfway house reflect the politics of a United States that dumps its waste in Canada. In Wallace’s late late capitalist future, American years are sponsored by consumer products, and most Americans are addicted to visual entertainment, drugs or both. In a culture of image and a society of physical beauty, misfits belong to the “Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed.” The merely grotesque find help in the sentimental platitudes of AA.
Infinite Jest is monstrous, willfully hypertrophied, deformed to model the gigantic delusions within it. “Radical realism,” says a character who resembles the author. I agree and think Infinite Jest belongs on the A-list of ample art with books by Wallace’s progenitors–Gaddis and Pynchon–and with large novels by “new rebels” whom Wallace has praised: William Vollmann and Richard Powers. The title of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men implies that Wallace is continuing a rebellious realism, but much of this collection works off the B-list, the brief works of Borges and Beckett, Barth and Barthelme. As an undergraduate, Wallace studied philosophy and mathematics, and he seems attracted to the “thought experiment” fiction of the B-writers, the way a premise can generate its logical contradiction or create an exhausting regress.
Wallace updates Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in “Datum Centurio,” a future dictionary’s entry on “date,” and he restages the final soliloquy of Beckett’s Endgame in “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon.” “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko” retells Barth’s retelling of Narcissus and Echo (herself a “reteller”) in Lost in the Funhouse. “Octet,” a series of pop quizzes for the reader, extends to a meta-dimension the questionnaire in Barthelme’s Snow White. Wallace also recycles himself: “Adult World (I)” tells a story; “Adult World (II)” offers a writer’s notebook revision or recursion.
These fictions and others like them do not “eschew self-consciousness,” but they’re also not “fatigued.” Challenging himself to play B-games, to advance (or regress) the art unto the third generation, Wallace is frequently inventive, often witty and always demanding–rather than “pleasing,” like television and its imitators.
The highly cooked fictions alternate with “raw” stories in four sections titled “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.” The eighteen transcripts range in length from one paragraph to twenty-six pages, and most have the authenticity of voice–solecisms and colloquialisms, pedantic instruction or rhetorical urgency. Two “Interviews” are “overheard” dialogues; the rest are first-person monologues rarely affected by questions that Wallace never states, only implies, with a “Q.”
Almost all the “Interviews” are about women, seduction, sex or romantic relationships. Several are about parent-child dynamics. As a character says of a group, the stories are “Inward Bound.” One of the few references to politics comes when a narrator explains that he suffers from something like coprolalia: He yells, for no reason he can understand, “Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom” when he ejaculates. Another interviewee says, “If there wasn’t a Holocaust there wouldn’t be a Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. In the “Interviews,” bondage is more common than liberation, denial more likely than meaning.
But, in the terms Wallace used to characterize the work of “new rebels,” melodrama, sentimentality, softness and overcredulity abound–at least in the narrators’ voices. All four qualities unite in the final and longest “Interview,” in which a man tells a woman about seducing a soft “Granola Cruncher” and then falling in love with her after she tells him the melodramatic and emotionally clichéd story of her rape by a man who threatened to kill her. Is the narrator sincere and trying to redeem himself after his initial manipulation of the Granola Cruncher? Is he hideously using, maybe even making up, the story to seduce his suspicious–or credulous–auditor?
There’s another question too. Is this narrator, who remarks on “flaccid abstractions” like his own and speaks of “consciousness of self-consciousness,” a front man for the author, who uses–rather than risks–violence, sentimentality and direct address to seduce the reader? Maybe yes, maybe no, and in these maybes lies the fascinating “creepiness” (a favorite Wallace word) of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.
The collection’s best story is an “Interview” that combines a speaker’s creepy obsession, the authorial inventiveness displayed in the B-fictions and a world outside the psyche. As a boy, the Russian narrator was able to watch American television because his mathematician father worked on nuclear weapons. A fan of Bewitched, the boy uses Elizabeth Montgomery, her ability to freeze action around her while she did what she wanted, as a masturbation fantasy, but soon he realizes that his “bewitching” of an erotic scene can be interrupted by motion elsewhere. He tries to imagine Russia, the planet and then the cosmos frozen still so he can masturbate, but he can never rid his fantasy of Gödelian “inconsistencies” and incompleteness. Finally, he renounces sex altogether and speaks from an “Institute for Continuing Care.”
The narrator wants to be “liked,” a word Wallace examines in and after his brief prologue, “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”: “When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. They each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.” “He” and “she” get to go home. Wallace’s other characters also want to be liked but are imprisoned, literally, in correctional facilities; figuratively, in hospitals, in a toilet or in their homes; in relationships with partners, parents or a therapist; in dreams, paradoxes, conundrums or obsessive-compulsive disorders. Unliked, characters are ashamed.
“The Depressed Person,” first published in Harper’s, is a radically extended history of this shame and blame. The young female protagonist is first depressed about her childhood, then doubly depressed by lack of interest from her support group, then triply depressed by her therapist’s suicide, so depressed and caged within herself that she shamelessly expects a terminally ill friend to comfort her. Told in the third person (perhaps because the first person is too depressed to say so), the story is initially humorous, parodic. But as it goes on and on and on to “tiresome length” in a therapeutic language never interrupted by dialogue, the reader feels imprisoned in a thoroughly unlikable story.
“Interview” narrators confess to being “annoying” or “trite.” Like the form of Infinite Jest, they are instructively monstrous, postindustrial narcissists, privateers of private life, their desires inhibited and repeated in ways analyzed by Foucault and Lacan, who are mentioned in one “Interview.” But when the pathological first-person voice oozes into and takes over third-person stories such as “The Depressed Person,” Wallace deprives himself of the outside world that gave Infinite Jest its purchase. When the cooked sound like the raw, the reader remembers that “transcripts” are as artificial as the B-inventions.
The lengthy notes in Brief Interviews, like those in Infinite Jest and in some of Wallace’s journalism, imply that his imagination is constricted by any form but especially by essays and stories. In places, this collection appears to be a para- or proto-novel, very small parts and large sections struggling to cohere, to complete a larger pattern. “Octet,” which has only five parts, may be an internal model of the book. Along with two versions of “Adult World,” Wallace includes two two-page pieces titled “The Devil Is a Busy Man” and threeequally short numbered pieces with the title “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders.” The borders between sections are porous. Stories not in the “Interviews” are about hideous men, and one story is narrated by the most shameful person in the collection, a man who, on his deathbed, reviles his son for being his son.
The eighteen “Interviews” may also be secretly linked–if they have been conducted by the same interviewer. They are dated and numbered but presented out of both sequences. If rearranged chronologically, the “Interviews” tell a unified though episodic story of a woman (Q) who, after being abandoned by her lover, travels America trying to understand what men want, what they like and perhaps whether or not they like her. The last “Interview” ends with “oh no not again behind you look out!” so the story may have a hideous, possibly violent end for “Q.”
Like the sequenced “Interviews” or like Barth’s Möbius-stripped Lost in the Funhouse and Fibonacci-patterned Chimera, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men could have an intricate design, perhaps generated by a “stochastic” mathematics or conforming to a new paradigm that will be revealed on the Internet at the millennium by Wallace or someone who has read the collection thirty times.
Twice was enough for me: once to be both amused and displeased, once to understand why and respect Wallace’s willingness to attract and repel, to employ as fictional method the “double bind” to which he refers and from which many of his characters suffer. Despite Wallace’s warning about a “sham-honesty that’s designed to get you to like…another manipulative pseudopomo Bullshit Artist,” I almost like this book. Editors say they can publish only works they love. I’d like to meet the person who loved or will love Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I doubt even David Foster Wallace loves all the work in this collection. And this suspicion brings me back to the first A-list writer I mentioned, William Gaddis. He sacrificed the high-Modernist style of The Recognitions to “record” in long-playing later works the simulacra, banalities and noise of televisual culture. Now that Gaddis is gone, we probably need Wallace’s unlovely, unlikable hideousness. I give him a “B” for bullshit and bravery.