Friday, December 11

Considering David Foster Wallace's "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men"

I admit. I never heard of David Foster Wallace until his suicide November last year. Considering the accolades that followed, this was apparently a terrible oversight on my part. The next time I visited Auntie's I picked his second collection of short stories, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. It seemed like an easier introduction to the man's writings than his elephantine tome of a novel, Infinite Jest, and more up my alley than his two collections of essays and arguments, Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

I've had the book for nearly a year now and read it full through twice and am still not entirely sure how I feel about him. I respect him, sure. But do I like his work? That's a bit trickier. One of the review blurbs on the back calls him a "mad scientist of American literature" on par with Edgar Allen Poe. It's incredibly apt. The man experiments with the short story with the ruthlessness of Mengele, and as you might expect, the results are mixed. Sometimes he succeeds better than that kid in October Sky. Sometimes he manages to fail worse than my seventh grade science fair project investigating whether people think green spaghetti put through a blender tastes different than the more traditional stuff. "A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life," a piece of flash fiction falls in the former category. It bursts through the typical confines of prose and into poetry in its lyricism, and because it's only 70-odd words long, I'm going to reprint it here.

"When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

"The man who'd introduced them didn't' much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one."

Wow. "The Depressed Person" is similarly amazing. A friend once explained to me that part of Van Gogh's genius in "Sunflowers" was not just using the paint to simulate the plant's colors but to layer the paint so thick that it mimiced the very texture. Wallace writes the words so thick that to read the story is to wholly enter the state of the titular protagonist. I've never been depressed myself, but I have been sad, and I have never read anything that so perfectly captures the constant self-criticism, the fears of other's judgment, the chasing thoughts and recriminations. Then again, sometimes this fails, too. Consider "Wiggle Room," a piece published in The New Yorker just this past March. Wallace so perfectly captures the boredom of auditing that I couldn't finish the piece. I was too bored. I'm also a particular fan of "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko," a wonderful and surprising story of the rise and fall of a TV producer and his youngest daughter in the 1980's cast in the style of Ovid. The wordplay and classical allusions are rich and mindblowing. Just try and identify everything going on in the title alone.

Then there are all the rest, the experiments which just kind of fizzle and annoy. "Datum Centurio" is a story told through three defintions of 'date' and examples of usage taken from Leckie & Webster's Connotationally Gender-Specific Lexicon of Contemporary Usage, published in 2096. And "Octet," actually a series of five pop quizzes, that begins by asking the reader which terminal drug addict in an alley behind the Commonwealth Aluminum Can Redemption Center on Massachusetts Avenue survives the harsh winter night and ends by asking the reader whether the whole conceit is successful. It does, however, include possibly the greatest first line in the history of English literature. "You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer." I still laugh when I read that.

I can't help the feeling that maybe if his editors were a little less indulgent and a little more willing to practice their craft, there would be more successes than failures in this collection. As varied as his approaches to fiction are, Wallace has some consistent idionsyncracies, his heavy use of footnotes probably the most famous. Mostly I'm indifferent to those. They're distracting but never too much so. There's also his obsession with the scatalogical. "Adult World" revolves around the masturbatory lives of a married couple, "Signifying Nothing" has its narrator trying to come to grips with his father once wiggling his penis in front of the boy's face, and the Hideous Men are often so because of their sexual proclivities. Worst, though, is his inability to ever let a phrase or tic go. He repeats himself an awful lot. It might be to emphasize a point, but it gets old fast.

"A sickly child, weak and cheese-white, chronically congested. The suppurating sores of his chronic impetigo, the crust. The ruptured infections. Suppuration': the term means ooze. My son oozed, exuded, flaked, suppurated, dribbled from every quadrant." And it continues to go on much in this vein throughout "On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright's Father Begs a Boon."

I certainly would have liked "Octet" a whole lot more if he could have just come to the final question and not kept backing off, trying to demonstrate yet again how hard and revealing and all the rest it is to ask whether you like his story or not. I answered in the negative. Largely from spite.

If you're curious taking a shot at his stuff yourself, his writings, both fiction and not, for Harper's Magazine and The New Yorker are still stored on their sites.

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