Review: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

by Tom Ingram

David Foster Wallace is not who you think. He’s the product of a university MFA program. He writes astoundingly long, weird novels with long, weird footnotes. He’s been published and praised in places like The New Yorker. His author photos look like this:

These bits of knowledge may trigger our book-choosing heuristics, setting off alarm bells and driving us away. The truth is, at a glance Wallace looks for all the world like your typical True Artist, trading in the beret for a bandana. The type who tries to be incomprehensible. Whose work is “challenging” in the sense that it turns art into a vulgar guessing game. Who writes dull and pointless novels aimed at no one in particular, and enthusiastically received by their audience.

But look a little closer, and you’ll learn that the bandana is because of his problem with heavy perspiration. Wallace was apparently a timid, nervous, deeply self-conscious and uncomfortable man, not the kind of smug artiste it’s so easy to imagine. His work, which often looks deliberately incomprehensible and coy, on closer inspection has a heartfelt sincerity and a kind of vague unity, and the reason it seems so opaque is that he’s trying to grasp at something slippery and hard to pin down—as he said in his commencement address at Kenyon College, “the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”

That’s what Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is about. The Brief Interviews themselves mostly appear to be about gender politics, which is definitely a secondary theme, but there’s an undercurrent running through the entire collection that they’re a part of. It’s something best summed up by the first and last segments, and centred on the O. Henry Prize story “The Depressed Person”. It’s about self-consciousness, self-criticism, self-consciousness of self-criticism, and self-criticism of self-consciousness collapsing into a neverending spiral of recursion.

The titular depressed person laments the death of her therapist, but then realizes that she doesn’t seem to care about the therapist as a person and is only upset about the death because she’s lost her best confidante. She hates herself for that. Another part of her realizes that hating herself for it is still essentially a selfish attitude, which makes her hate herself even more. She hates herself, and hates herself for hating herself, and hates herself for hating herself for hating herself, ad infinitum. She hates posturing, but everything she does or thinks seems like posturing to her, even criticizing her own posturing, which kicks off an infinite loop that is not only almost impossible to break out of, but difficult even to describe*.

Shortly after that story, we get the famous “Octet”, an ill-fated cycle of pop quizzes that was intended to communicate (“limn”) an idea about humanity. Wallace realized that some of the quizzes were not working, so he cut them out. One of them he rewrote in a different form, but then realized that the revision depended on the original in order to make sense. In the end, the cycle became an octet of five–two of the original pieces, the one that didn’t work, the revision of the one that didn’t work, and a quiz that explains the whole situation in the form of an extremely long hypothetical scenario that never actually ends in a question. As this final quiz wears on, we begin to get a sense of the frustration that results from being stuck in this self-conscious loop.

Wallace uses one of his favourite devices in this story: denigrating something as trite and cliched, then explaining why it’s important anyway. He sneers at sappy talk of relationships and how people interact, but admits that that’s what the whole story is about. He also puts down trite “S.O.P.” metafiction, which increases self-consciousness and only makes the infinite regress worse, and yet what is “Octet” if not metafiction? This book is essentially a continuation of themes originally stated in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction”, where he discusses the shallow “self-consciousness and fatigue” of postmodern fiction, and dreams of new literary rebels with the “childish gall to actually endorse single-entendre values”**. Wallace may have been one of those very rebels, using the language of self-conscious post-modernity in order to talk sincerely about serious things.

The collection includes several other stories, too. Many are humorous, and Wallace has a knack for a kind of humour unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Some are a little ungainly and opaque, such as “Church Not Made with Hands” and “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko”. One, “Forever Overhead”, is a completely conventional no-frills short story, which I would count as one of the finest pieces of his I’ve ever read. The imagery, the use of language, and the merciless rhythm is simply unparallelled.

That’s perhaps the best thing about this collection. While Wallace is exploring difficult themes that are not very poetic, he never loses his artist’s sensibility. In evidence in his writing is a masterfully versatile command of the English language, a talent for mimicking voices, a strong, if unusual, sense of humour, and a fierce intellect. It also betrays a troubled soul, someone who is, no posing, no bullshit, alone and a little afraid. This gives the work a poignant delicacy, and perhaps brings out the “sense of urgency” he was so desperate for in “Octet”. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is an immensely pleasing, thought-provoking read, and a good place to start with Wallace’s work. Go have a look.

You can find Brief Interviews With Hideous Men online at McNally Robinson.

* Wallace would have liked the avoidance of a split infinitive there. [return]

** That essay is available in his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. It’s a good read all the way through, and I heartily encourage you to seek it out. [return]