Although Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is a collection of short stories, its unifying threads make it an almost-novel. A glance at the table of contents reveals that the book’s title is drawn from four listed entries of the same name, which are separated by several other stories, some of which also recur. “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders,” for instance, appears three times with a different roman numeral following it each time. As it so happens, many of the stories apart from the interviews also focus on hideous men.
In “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,” the seven-line chapter that begins this collection of stories, readers are immediately exposed to the level of experimentation the author invokes. The initial chapter ends, “One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.” Instantly, the reader knows that Wallace is playing with words and punctuation—or lack of it—much as Gertrude Stein did in such experimental works as Three Lives (1909) and The Making of Americans(1925). Curiously, the page number of this first page of the book is not 1 but 0.
Progressing to the second chapter, “Death Is Not the End,” readers are regaled with a virtuoso performance worthy of French author Marcel Proust in an initial sentence that, while grammatical and comprehensible, rolls on for two and a half pages and includes two footnotes, one of them seven lines long. At this point, readers will either throw up their hands or conclude that they are being exposed to such a unique and exciting talent, that they must not only continue reading but also seek out all the author’s previous books, including his blockbusterInfinite Jest (1996), which runs to almost eleven hundred pages.
No one who reads Wallace can be neutral about him. Readers will love him or hate him, be intrigued by him or completely alienated by him, find him utterly confusing or wholly challenging. Tom LeClair pointedly addresses this matter in his essentially favorable book review in The Nation: “Editors say they can publish only works they love. I’d like to meet the person who loved or will love Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I doubt even David Foster Wallace loves all the work in this collection.”
Certainly, there is much not to love in many of these stories, but there is much to admire. Wallace takes his readers on surrealistic excursions into absurd worlds of his own creation, as he did in The Broom of the System (1988), whose aged protagonist, the wealthy ninety-two-year-old dowager Lenore Beadsman, always had her way and insisted on living in an environment heated to precisely 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet, in the end, Wallace makes sense of the absurdities he plays with imaginatively, excitingly, and, most important, extremely intelligently. He possesses a turn of mind and a level of imagination and intellect rarely encountered among contemporary writers. He has an exhibitionism and puckishness that will alienate some readers but attract others.
The interviews under the same name of the title occupy ninety- eight pages, which compose approximately one-third of the book. They are unique in that the questions are presumed rather than stated. Each interview is identified with notations such as: “B.I. #30 03-97 Drury UT.” Although locales are given for each interview, locale is of only passing importance. In this particular interview, there is a fleeting allusion to the Mormons, though it is not essential to the story’s development.
In the interviews, Wallace makes general but indirect statements about some of society’s most cherished institutions and conventions. In the aforementioned case, the interviewee reveals that he married his wife because she had a good body and because she “had a kid but wasn’t all blown out and veiny and sagged.” Wallace then gets to the crux of how the man views marriage: “I’d always had a dread of marrying some good-looking woman and then we have a kid and it blows her body out but I still have to have sex with her because this is who I’ve signed on to have sex with the whole rest of my life.” The woman the interviewee marries has, in his words, been “pre-tested.”
Some of the sentiments revealed in this interview emerge in different ways in “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon,” one of the most fully realized...
(The entire section is 1835 words.)