Pros: For all his literary cleverness, a distinctive voice with a heart.
Cons: If you want to hate Wallace, it's not hard to do.
Few readers have indifferent opinions about David Foster Wallace. He charms or infuriates so readily that many readers are quick to take sides. If you read with a little more patience, you may find that he charms and infuriates you at the same time. Perhaps you notice how charmed you can be by your own infuriation.
If you?ve never read David Foster Wallace, you should, and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is definitely the place to start.
This is Very Helpful info, because the book?s design is a pinnacle of anti-marketing; browsing Barnes and Noble on your own I doubt you would ever pick it up. Its cover is seriously ugly. Not just postmodernly, self-referentially, jokily ugly. It?s simply ugly, period. The title, if you don?t know Wallace, is intriguing but undeniably lurid. You could wonder if you?ve picked up abandoned galleys for a collection of outtakes from Stephen King.
This collection of short fictions offers the full range of Wallace?s styles, passions, and predilections, without requiring the commitment that?s obviously needed for his 1079-page, 388-footnote magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Most of the pieces are quite short, and while some thought has been given to the ordering, you should feel free to read around in the book, choosing things according to the length that you?re ready for at the moment. The longer pieces in this collection are extraordinary, but even the two-pagers are finely crafted and rewarding.
Now that Infinite Jest has been out for a few years, it?s becoming trendy to dislike David Foster Wallace. Among his detractors, the line on Wallace is that:
1. Some of the most distinctive elements of his style, such as the copious footnotes, are gimmicks. That is, they are a kind of showing off rather than any literary necessity or innovation.
Yes, his footnotes can be irritating, especially in Infinite Jest, where they are rendered as endnotes and therefore require the reader to heave hundreds of pages back and forth each time she hits the next little superscript number. But DFW seems to be recovering from his footnote addiction. In this collection, he uses footnotes to good effect. Some are brief and staccato while others are long eruptions, but they are never gratuitous. And they are indeed footnotes ? conveniently placed at the bottom of the page.
2. (or perhaps 1a, encompassing 1) DFW gets away with stuff that in any other writer would be dismissed as a bad writerly habit, but because he?s DFW, it?s considered genius.
Although Wallace can do multiple narrative voices beautifully, his "home" voice is the rapid-fire chattering of someone whose thoughts are coming faster than he can write. The style features many oddities that might well face the red pen if he were in Freshman Creative Writing. For example, his sentences often contain enough characters that pronoun reference can be a problem. Rather than go back and reorder the words so that the pronouns are clear (the usual Freshman English solution), he (i.e. Wallace) keeps interrupting himself (i.e. ibid) with little parenthetical pronoun-clarifications so that the reader doesn?t lose his (the reader?s) bearings about which pronoun refers to whom.
This writerly "tic" is first irritating, then briefly endearing, but then you get used to it, and it fades into the background. Meanwhile, you may notice that by not reordering his sentences for the sake of clear pronoun reference, he achieves a much more conversational style. Most of us, when we talk, say things that would look on paper like confusing pronoun-reference. In speech, of course, we can intone and pause in ways that make our meaning clear. Through his parenthetical clarifications, Wallace offers us (i.e. his readers, and more precisely mine) a way around this problem. (On the other hand, as with footnotes, he can go overboard, and thereby give dangerous license to his reviewers to do the same.)
3. He?s ostentatiously erudite, as though trying to intimidate the reader with the vastness of his knowledge.
This, the most common irritation at Wallace, is a copout. It?s been hurled at me a few times as well, so I have some fellow-feeling with Wallace on this one.
The bottom line, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, is this: You cannot be intimidated without your consent. Yes, Wallace is fantastically well-educated. Even though I have a Ph. D. in a humanities field, Wallace can easily leave me feeling that I have only the most rudimentary knowledge of English, and should really be hitting the books fast before somebody catches on. Still, it?s my decision whether to revel in his erudition or feel put off by it.
Sometimes, I do feel put off by high erudition, but usually it?s either because (a) I?m feeling depressed and inferior or (b) the writer really shows no self-reflection or self-doubt. The omnilingual novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco strikes me as a pompous bore, because he lacks, for all his knowledge, any curiosity or doubt about himself. Wallace may be over your head, but he?s never pompous.
So yes, I can feel inferior because this guy with three times my vocabulary is about my age. (He did himself no favors by decorating Infinite Jest with a jacket photo that makes him look about 18.) But that?s my choice. Wallace is just being who he is.
So Enough Already. What about the Book?
BIHM begins with a two paragraph "flash fiction" called "A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life". Don't judge Wallace by this showy little throwoff. Everything from there on is worth your time.
The collection includes three types of work:
1. The "Brief Interviews" themselves. These are interspersed throughout the book, in small clusters. In these clever, sometimes painful, but ultimately not-massively-consequential pieces, a woman typically puts questions to a "hideous" man, usually about some sexual predilection. The woman?s questions are omitted, noted only as "Q.", so we must infer the questions from the man?s responses. For the most part, the Brief Interviews are fun. They also form such a sweeping and detailed catalogue of heterosexual male perversions that I almost could imagine Wallace envying me for being gay.
2. The short pieces. These are typically 2-3 pages, tops. Most are absolute gems. The first of them, "Death is Not the End," describes a famous poet during an unremarkable moment in which he is doing virtually nothing, but Wallace fills in the gaps with reminiscences, fears, free-floating facts, and other detritus to form a satisfying if unresolved portrait. Also unforgettable is the piece about how people will buy something for $5 that they would never accept for free. (Read for more than that joke, though. Wallace is playing here with a non-beginning, non-ending style of fiction. For example, the story begins with the word "Plus...")
3. The long pieces. Several of these are outstanding, namely ...
Even the most hardened Wallace-hater must soften a bit at this story. It begins: "Happy birthday. Your thirteenth is important." The piece explores a brief scene at a public pool where the second-person hero, still finding his way in his rapidly changing body, ascends the high diving board to take the biggest dive of his life. Here, Wallace captures the way time slows down at moments of fear or consequence. The split-second when his hero reaches the diving board goes on for pages, but not a nanosecond is wasted:
It is a long cold rough white plastic or fiberglass board, veined with the sad near-pink of rough candy.
But at the end of the white board, the edge, where you?ll come down with your weight to make it send you off, there are two areas of darkness. Two flat shadows in the broad light. Two vague black ovals. The end of the board has two dirty spots.
They are from all the people who?ve gone before you. Your feet as you stand here are tender and dented, hurt by the wet surface, and you see that the two dark spots are from people?s skin. They are skin abraded from feet by the violence of the disappearance of people with real weight. ? The abrasion and disappearance leaves little bits of soft, tender feet behind, bits and shards and curls of skin that dirty and darken and tan as they lie tiny and smeared in the sun at the end of the board. ?
No time is passing outside you at all. It is amazing ?
Here is the whole universe of adolescent feelings: longing, fear, disgust, leavened with a child?s amazement. And it takes no time at all. This the book's warmest piece, so if you find Wallace cold, start here.
"The Depressed Person".
First published in Harper?s, this story explores the experience of depression from the viewpoint of a clinical observer seated between the depressed person?s ears, not quite in her consciousness but as close to it as we could bear to be without screaming and hurling the book across the room. It opens with a candid, precise bleakness worthy of Beckett or Dostoevsky:
The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor to its essential horror.
It?s hard to imagine a more offputting opening sentence, and yet to be put off means that we fail to hear the articulation of pain, and are therefore contributing to the pain ourselves. Wallace?s major pieces, once entered, can be very hard to get out of.
"The Depressed Person" moves through ominous unfolding like a very slow theme-and-variations. Central images occur over and over while varying slightly each time. The tone remains clinical throughout, but through this tone a real human story emerges. The friction between the clinical tone and the human story is the core of what makes this successful postmodern fiction -- an exercise in "writing against the grain." Only one genuine irreversible event occurs in the entire piece, but the delicacy of the progression is remarkable. There?s even an ending.
This humblest of titles hides the book?s deepest plunge into Wallace?s literary heart, and his most desperate meditation on the hopeless condition of the contemporary literary fiction writer. It starts out with a fun device: the pop quiz. Wallace lays out brief parables that end with a question for the reader. The question may be factual, something the reader is to infer from the tale, or it may be ethical, asking the reader to judge the characters one way or the other.
Fun or not, it?s certainly a literary device. Has it been done before? Well, yes, by Bertolt Brecht among others, though not in quite this way. But this game can't sustain a story; instead, the stylistic funhouse starts folding in on itself, leaving the author trapped in his own hall of mirrors. Soon, Wallace is chronicling his own failure to make this piece work, spiraling downward through depictions of each blind alley he's explored. When he hits bottom, he reveals the horror of writing in a world where everything worth doing seems to have been done. His only escape is through his own thin device, the pop quiz format. Using it, he dumps his own failure in the reader?s lap ("Pop Quiz 9: You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer") and after fully laying out what an awful range of options are left to him (now transformed via the quiz into you), he hightails it off the page.
But I haven?t really given away the ending. This compact literary Chernobyl is a must-read. And don?t skip the footnotes, which explain, in great detail, why you don?t want to know what he?s already cut out of the piece in his desperate, flailing attempt to salvage it.
About That Vocabulary
Although Wallace's vocabulary is probably bigger than yours, his work is still entirely readable, especially in this collection. Wallace knows when he's using an unusual word, and he uses it in a way that both (a) enables you to figure it out and (b) convinces you that, indeed, no other word would have done. For example, in the passage from "Forever Overhead" above, you might not recognize the verb "to abrade", but its meaning is obvious in context, and just to be sure, Wallace soon mentions its corresponding noun, "abrasion."
Wallace also knows how to make fun of his own vocabulary. One of the "tics" in his voice is to hit on a really good word and use it repeatedly. "Maxillofacial" shows up over and over in "The Depressed Person." In "Octet," he not only falls in love with the verb "to palpate" (cf. the noun "palpation"), but also warns the reader in a footnote that "palpate's been overused already ...", and suggests that the reader substitute "to limn."
Passages like this make Wallace untranslatable into any other language (not that people shouldn't try.) Much of the onrunning humor in Wallace's prose lies in his exploitation of the mongrel heritage of English.
Ever notice how the word "English" sounds like something unpleasant being stepped on? Our language is the result of a violent, slow-motion, unwatchably grisly collision between the ancestors of modern German and French. As with many collisions, the moment of impact (the Norman [i.e. French] conquest of mostly Anglo-Saxon [i.e. Germanic] England) was just a tripwire for centuries of linguistic blood and gore, leaving, when the dust settled and the last ambulance pulled away, a heap of German and French body parts that somehow crawled together into the brilliantly misshapen beast that English is today.
As a result, English is rich in synonyms, often because we have both Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words for the same thing (e.g. "palpate" and "limn", or more prosaically, "mansion" and "house".) Even after all these centuries, the two ancestries of English continue to quarrel, and if you jam them up too close together, they give off sparks. If a Wallace passage is inexplicably hilarious despite its serious topic, the technical reason is often that he's oscillating rapidly between Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words. At one point in "Octet" he worries about falling into "postclever metaformal hooey", a term which by my count contains two complete oscillations between the Latinate ("post-", "metaformal") and the Anglo-Saxon ("clever", "hooey.") Even once you've noticed it, this simple device still emits continuous pleasure, like a very deep brain-massage, because its effect is so subliminal.
In the end, this is a fine collection. Long after my first reading, it is still on my bedside table, for when I need a brief but filling literary snack.
Wallace can be irritating, but he?s mastered that most crucial element of comedy: the ability to laugh at himself. He is, unfortunately for him, a fiction writer, writing cleverly in a "postclever" age when every movement seems to be over, and every neat idea risks coming off as just another neat idea. Yes, his vocabulary is bigger than yours, but he?s a clown, a hideous man, fumbling his way across the stage with little assurance that there?s even an audience out there.
He deserves one.