“The fuzzy Hensonian epiclette Ovid the Obtuse, syndicated chronicler of trans-human entertainment exchange in the low-cost organs across the land, mythologizes the origins of the ghostly double that always shadows human figures on UHF broadcast bands thus: …”
This is the opening line of one of the stories in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, written by the late David Foster Wallace. I wouldn’t say this line is at all representative of the work in and of itself, but it is a great example of what Wallace is* trying to do with this book. Regardless of what Wallace himself says in one of the stories, Interviews is experimental fiction, plain and simple. That’s not to say that there aren’t great themes or characters contained within — but I think one of Wallace’s main goals was to try some crazy shit and see what happened. When he opens his story with a overtly loquacious translation of “The muppet from the syndicated tv show was talking about shadows,” I’m not sure how he could argue with such a classification.
Just to let you know what I mean, here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of some of devices used in Interviews: Second-person narration, super-detached narration, beginning a story in the middle of a sentence, large pieces of stories contained in 5+ page spanning footnotes, a story in the form of dictionary entries, stories in the form of question-and-answer sessions, stories in the form on word problems, meta-meta-second-person narration, etc. This is maybe half of the unexpected, unique risks that Wallace takes.
Of course, a risk wouldn’t be a risk if it guaranteed success. Some of these devices work better than others. The extreme detachment of the narration (referring to the main character as “the depressed person” throughout the longest story of the book, for instance) becomes grating as Wallace uses it in at least half of the stories. Writing a short story in a footnote is cute at first, but annoying when it pops up two or three times. The dictionary story is, at best, boring and, at worst, pretentious.
But when Wallace hits, he hits big. The quiz section, entitled Octet, which starts to plod on a little too long, became on of my favorite sections when I was finished. The final pop-quiz of the cycle is written in a meta-fiction style that I loved. This quiz is written in second person, starting with the line “You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer,” which I laughed at for far too long. This quiz describes “your” (Wallace’s) thought process in writing Octet and considerations on what should go into this final quiz (which is great, because it leads to mind-bending turns of phrase such as “I would leave this unsaid if I were you”). Meta-fiction is a tricky subject; straight meta-fiction (“I’m the author!”) is sort of cliché and uninteresting by now, and even meta-meta-fiction (“I’m the author and I know I’m writing meta-fiction!”) isn’t completely original. But Wallace’s choice to write the piece in second-person (“You’re the author, and you’re writing meta-fiction!”) is something I’ve never seen before, which made up for some of the less enjoyable quizzes in the cycle. Stories like this serve to remind us why we need authors who will push boundaries rather than just emulate the masters.
The bulk of the book is made up of titular Brief Interviews With Hideous Men sections, which are presented as question-and-answer sessions between and interviewer and a so-called hideous man. Sometimes these interviews are presented as neutral; other times, I got the feeling that the two people knew each other personally (even though the questions are never written out, simply represented with a ‘Q’). I absolutely loved this part of the book. I can’t get enough of creepy, transgressional characters. Possibly realizing that a bunch of similar interviews with different characters could still get repetitive, Wallace chooses to break them up in different sections of the book. Even in the same section of Brief Interviews, many of the interviews are presented in slightly different formats, which was a great editorial choice. Ultimately, whenever a certain story falls a little bit flat, Wallace swoops in with an Interview to keep your trust and interest.
Another story I particularly liked, called Signifying Nothing, is a short, simple story about a man that, for no apparent reason, recalls a day that, as a child, his father wagged his penis at him. Wallace presents this possibly scarring situation with a hilarious absurdity. The main character is not angry or horrified, but simply confused about why such a thing would ever happen, which is an easily understandable position. There is nothing hugely distinctive or experimental in this story; just simple plot and great dialogue and characterization. The main character’s line upon confronting his dad made the story for me: “I sort of briefly described what I had remembered, and asked him, ‘What the fuck was up with that?’” Wallace’s dialogue is nearly always spot-on, and often incredibly funny. It’s actually sort of unfortunate that he doesn’t use as much of it, as the narration doesn’t benefit as much from the crazy situations, characters and devices that he applies.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t call Brief Interviews With Hideous Men a masterpiece. It is somewhat inconsistent in quality, ranging from page-turn-a-minute brilliant, to page-turn-a-second-because-you-just-skipped-five-of-them boring. However, it is clear that David Foster Wallace is a literary mind to be reckoned with, and I look forward to reading more of his work. It’s a shame we lost him prematurely, as I could certainly see myself smiling with glee after finding the release date of his newest novel.
You are, unfortunately, Matt Borgard, and you’ve just finished your latest review…
*Is it appropriate to talk about a deceased writer in the present tense? I’ve always been told to speak about books as if they are happening in present time, but something about this just seems wrong. **
**Don’t include this in the blog.