Book Review: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace

biwhmFirst things first: full disclosure here: I love David Foster Wallace. He is, hands-down, my favorite author. This may change over time (it most likely will) but know that because of this fact I tend to judge his books with a mixture of higher and lower standards. For example, I don’t necessarily expect everything of his to “read well.” That is, I don’t expect everything of his to be entertaining and accessible. I tend to give him the philosophical and artistic benefit of the doubt more than I do for any other author. Put this another way: I tend to assume that everything in the DFW book I am reading at the moment is ruthlessly structured and purposeful, even if the end result is something overladen with information and ultimately non-entertaining. I assume it’s supposed to be that way, that its non-entertainment is there as a philosophical point. However, as I have developed as a writer, personally, I have become more in tune with the sort of artsy “meanings” and “purposes” behind what Mr. Wallace did with his writing. So now I have an odd admixture of giving the benefit of the doubt and yet also judging him by previous works of his that I have read, seeing if he has accomplished his goals as an author. (This is difficult, since often his skill is such that just telling where he’s trying to go is an endeavor in itself. I am undecided as to whether this is a fault of his or if the fault is simply that he orbited in an intellectual stratum much higher than the one I inhabit).

With all that said, and stealing a little bit from a (negative) review I read on Goodreads, I will now try to evaluate the skill and technique and overall quality of the writing of an author who is admittedly on far higher a plane than I.

One of the few negative reviews of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men relied heavily on a comparison of Wallace to James Joyce, that iconic Irish author whose innovations and general tossing out of the literary rulebook are world-renowned. The comparison is understandable, as both authors were (to quote the review) “encyclopaedic.” However, while Joyce’s encyclopedism often seems to stem from an inherent aggression toward the reader – a type of “I’m going to use all these words and do all these crazy things with my language and writing style and I don’t care if anyone understands it. In fact, I don’t really want anyone to understand it” attitude – Wallace seems (at least, to me) to want to connect with the reader. Much, if not all, of his body of work deals with (among many other things) the desire and yet inability to establish some sort of meaningful human connection. In my opinion, giving Wallace the benefit of the doubt here, much of the struggling that goes along with understanding his writing is calculated. He wants you to feel that struggle. He wants you to find it hard to access the “meanings” or “direction” of his work. But this is not, as it often seems to be with Joyce, out of hostility toward the reader. Rather, it is a sort of plea – a desperate cry for connection from a man who apparently found it desperately hard to connect and who wants to say to you “Look! All of us are struggling to connect; all of us find it hard to have genuine, honest, good, loving, understanding relationships.” The tension between author and reader in the works of DFW is a weighted and measured tension.

On to the actual book: Brief Interviews is a collection of stories of varying lengths. The title comes from four stories that contain, well, brief imagined interviews with men on the subject of their serial (mis)treatments of women. But there are other stories in here as well, loosely connected by thematic and stylistic elements. There is a duo of stories called “The Devil is a Busy Man;” a trio of stories called “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders;” and numerous one-off stories. I’d call it a “short story collection” but the term seems partially inadequate, given the connected nature of many of the stories. Thematically, they all deal with relationships – specifically relationships between the sexes and how those relationships can be navigated. Also, a huge theme is the inward-focused laserbeam of criticism that is typical of a Wallace work. He makes you feel, as a reader, that he is revealing a huge part of his soul in every character he writes, and that it is an astounding fact of the universe that in doing so he exposes also a part of your own soul. The man shied away from nothing in his writing. He gives you the ugly details about how we treat sex, how we treat the opposite sex (no matter which sex we ourselves are categorized into), how we treat each other as humans, and how we survive in a world full of both unbounded love and unsearchable darkness. In this, I believe, Brief Interviews succeeds mightily.

I will now tell you the negatives. Not everything in this book can be said to fully “work.” What Wallace does in “Octet” is, in my opinion, take meta-fiction to levels previously unexplored – and he does so with literary gusto and (to use a word he seems found of) cajones. However, his prose in “The Depressed Person” goes from being a well-done mimicry of clinical detachment and a tonal mirror of the inner workings of a depressed mind to being unintentionally dull and boring. He drags it on too long, undercuts his prose with (and this is a rare critique for me to make of him) too many footnotes, and runs off on tangents too much to really “work.” Instead, the reader does not empathize with the depressed person and actually becomes almost a mimicry of the depressed person’s friends in the story – wanting, after a while of enduring the literary gymnastics employed by Wallace, to just go ahead and give it up and move on to the next story.  There is also, in the book, a story that is a reimagined telling of an epic poem in modern hi-speed internet terms. It was fun to read as a writer trying to gain a few tricks to put in my literary arsenal, but as a story it is SUPER difficult to get through. And the story “Church Not Made With Hands” was on an artistic plane too high for me to grasp, and ultimately, I think, too highfalutin for most of us to grasp.

But when he’s on it, he’s on it. Take this example from “Forever Overhead,” a story about a young man’s thirteenth birthday, in which Wallace describes a diving board:

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 rough 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. More people than you could count without losing track. The weight and abrasion of their 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. They pile up and smear and get mixed together. They darken in two circles.

Shivers, man. Chills. This guy could freaking write. And so even though I rate Brief Interviews somewhere on the DFW spectrum as decidedly better than The Broom of the System yet decidedly worse than Infinite Jest, I have to point out that the fact that it was even penned by DFW makes it far better than 99% of things you will ever read, ever, in your life. I would recommend it to anyone, with the caveat that the author was quite probably a literal genius and can sometimes do and say things that are so far above your head that even looking at them can give you a nosebleed. Still, read it. It is worth bleeding for.