Wallace, David Foster (Short Story Criticism)
David Foster Wallace 1962–-
American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Known for his ambitious and unconventional novels and short stories that feature elaborate wordplay, humor, and philosophical speculation, Wallace is regarded as a major American author. His experimental and intelligent works are often compared to the fiction of earlier metafictional writers such as John Barth, William Gass, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon. Critics consider his stories difficult to categorize, as they utilize various narrative forms, such as interviews, outlines, monologue, journal entries, and stream-of-consciousness thoughts.
Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, on February 21, 1962. Both of his parents were teachers and he was encouraged to read, which he did avidly. As an undergraduate at Amherst College, Wallace showed great facility in mathematical logic, an interest that shows up in his fiction. After receiving his A.B. from Amherst in 1985, he went on to earn an M.F.A. degree from the University of Arizona in 1987. By the time he completed his coursework at Arizona, he had published his first novel, The Broom of the System (1986). His second novel, Infinite Jest (1996), garnered much critical attention and catapulted him into the forefront of contemporary American letters.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Wallace's reputation as a short story writer is based on two collections of short fiction: Girl with Curious Hair (1989) and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999). In Girl with Curious Hair Wallace utilizes multiple perspectives, journal entries, conversations, stream-of-consciousness reflections, and third-person narratives in his stories. Moreover, he explores themes of alienation, identity, the futility of communication, and meaning in an age dominated by popular culture. “Little Expressionless Animals” tells of a “Jeopardy!” game show producers' plot to unseat the longest running champion of their show because they fear the consequences of the public learning of her lesbian relationship. In “My Appearance” an actress tranquilizes herself into a stupor attempting to relieve her anxiety over appearing on the Late Night with David Letterman television series. The novella Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way follows a group of former child actors on their way to a reunion. The twenty-three pieces of fiction in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men explore many of the same thematic concerns as his earlier collection but is structured by a series of monologues in the form of mock interviews with narcissistic men reflecting on their dysfunctional relationships with women. The other stories in the volume utilize monologues, a play, pop quizzes, an outline of a writer's revisions, and brief snapshots of various characters and their lives to explore questions of physical and emotional intimacy and the difficulty of personal relationships.
Wallace is recognized as a major literary talent. His many awards include the Whiting Writers' Award (1987), a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction (1990), and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1997). But many reviewers have faulted his stories for excessive and self-indulgent wordplay, derivative style, inconsistency, and sophomoric humor. For some, his characters—especially in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—are neurotic, self-absorbed, and unappealing. However, most commend his stories as imaginative, intelligent, and humorous. They praise his dense and complex style and his entertaining plots and characters. Commentators have investigated his place within contemporary American literature and often find parallels between his short fiction and that of William Gass, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme.
Girl with Curious Hair (short stories and novellas) 1989
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men 1999
The Broom of the System (novel) 1986
Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present [with Mark Costello] (nonfiction) 1990
Infinite Jest (novel) 1996
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (essays) 1997
Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (nonfiction) 2003
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SOURCE: Rother, James. “Reading the Riding the Post-Scientific Wave: The Shorter Fiction of David Foster Wallace.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, no. 2 (summer 1993): 216-34.
[In the following essay, Rother discusses Wallace's short fiction as a prime example of “post-scientific writing.”]
Philosophy is a noble and arduous discipline. Fiction is equally severe. But literary philosophy is shit. Literary Sociology is shit. Literary Psychology is shit. What would a literary physics be?
—William H. Gass, a letter
The difference between what I write and poetry and literature is that, in principle, what I write is not fiction. But I do wonder more and more: is there a real difference between theory and a fiction? After all, don't we have the right to present theoretical statements under the form of fictions? Not under the form, but in the form.
—Jean-François Lyotard, Just Gaming
It is not certain that there can be a science of literature.
—Werner Hamacher, “Lectio: de Man's Imperative”
The influential swing toward meaning and away from sense is as discernible on the wilder shores of contemporary American fiction as it is in the shored up wilds of...
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SOURCE: Tandon, Bharat. “The Hidden Earpiece.” Times Literary Supplement (26 December 1997): 21.
[In the following mixed review, Tandon contends that Girl with Curious Hair offers “insight into the roots of Wallace's satiric concerns” and views the short fiction collection as a precursor to his novel Infinite Jest.]
In the Christmas season, one might be forgiven for suspecting a wily piece of comedy on the part of David Foster Wallace's publishers. For, on the face of it, a book of short stories “by the author of Infinite Jest”, that least short of recent novels, sounds an unlikely proposition. But Girl with Curious Hair is real enough; first published in America in 1989, it appears here in response to Infinite Jest's popularity—after the fashion of American authors' early works—and proves to offer much insight into the roots of Wallace's satiric concerns. Given the order of the books' British publication, it is hard to avoid seeing the earlier work as a palette from which Wallace drew to create the larger vision of his 1996 novel, although the effects of this are not unequivocally to his benefit.
One of Wallace's talents as a consumer-age humorist is his facility with narrative defamiliarization. Even in this early collection, he is particularly adept at angling his stories from unexpected points of view; after having navigated through the...
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SOURCE: Orozco, Daniel. “Fast-Forward Fiction.” San Francisco Chronicle (16 May 1999..
[In the following review, Orozco calls Wallace a literary show-off, concluding that the stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men both dazzle and frustrate the reader.]
Show-offs display proudly. Show-offs seek our attention and favor through, say, brilliant moves on the tennis court or awesome solo riffs on the guitar.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. If the show-off is very good, we take pleasure in the display. But our pleasure is sometimes an uneasy amalgam of “That's incredible!” and “Enough already!”
So it goes with Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, a new story collection by David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) that both dazzles and frustrates. There are 23 stories here, displaying a wide range of narrative forms, from the semi-conventional prose story to stories only one paragraph long, from story as play script to story as dictionary entry (complete with pronunciation key at the bottom of each page).
There are stories replete with digressive footnotes; stories interrupted by the author himself, hijacking his own narrative to make a point; stories broken into sections dispersed throughout the book.
This is an exuberant and anarchic collection whose...
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SOURCE: Begley, Adam. “The Incredible Shrinking Jest: Wallace Makes More with Less.” The New York Observer (24 May 1999): 26.
[In the following review, Begley praises the brevity and focus of the stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and asserts that the pieces offer a “quick glimpse of common humanity in every grotesque.”]
It's a lovely title, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, and also unlikely: as if anything from the pen of David Foster Wallace, the profligate Wunderkind who gave us 1,079 pages of Infinite Jest could ever be brief. Mr. Wallace has a pause button (he's famous for his footnotes) but no mute, no stop, no off. Or that's what I thought till now.
This new collection of short fiction proves that the 36-year-old Mr. Wallace, who is now known in knee-jerk blurb-mode as the major talent of his generation, can do it all, even brevity: The first item, a bitter little ditty, weighs in at less than 100 words; none of the stories bulks up to more than 30 pages. This is Mr. Wallace lean and mean, bantamweight, light on his feet, quick with his hands.
Scratch that. The boxing riff is too macho; it suggests kinship with hideous men. Say instead that Mr. Wallace has mastered the art of “focus”—that's the term used in one of these stories by a young woman, a “Granola Cruncher,” a devotee of an imported,...
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SOURCE: Passaro, Vince. “A Baffling Man.” Salon.com (online magazine) (28 May 1999): http://www.salon.com/books/feature/1999/05/28/hideous man/print.html.
[In the following review, Passaro maintains that Brief Interviews with Hideous Men “continues Wallace's record of presenting new turns, new valleys and imposing palisades in the landscape of American short fiction.”]
A couple of years ago the young novelist, essayist and short story writer David Foster Wallace showed up on the “Charlie Rose” show. It was a delightfully painful television experience. The hook for the appearance was that Wallace's massive novel, Infinite Jest, had just been issued in paperback.
The publicity that surrounded Wallace and that difficult, brilliant, heavily promoted but little-read novel provides a good working example of the differences between the agent-editor-media matrix's vision of a serious writer and one who actually is serious. In the happy publicity vocabulary of Nice Cover Quotes and glossy mag author profiles, Wallace is a soulful Gen-Xer with long, light brown hair, an eccentric bandanna, a girlfriend, a tennis background and the added glamour of deep thoughts and a successful rehab history.
In reality, however, Wallace is a strange, very intelligent man with bad clothes who...
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SOURCE: Johnson, Greg. “Wallace's Prose Experiment Pays Off Handsomely.” The Atlanta Journal and Constitution (6 June 1999): 13L.
[In the following favorable review of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Johnson investigates Wallace's place within the pantheon of experimental American authors, which includes Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and William Gass.]
In recent years, experimental fiction has fallen on hard times.
During its heyday in the late 1960s and '70s, such writers of so-called metafiction as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, William Gass and Robert Coover were the much-touted literary heroes rescuing the art of fiction, as their partisans claimed, from the otiose, middlebrow realists (such as those villainous Johns—namely O'Hara, Cheever and Updike) who scored best sellers and top literary prizes though they persisted in the habit, decades after the modernist revolution, of including coherent plots, characters and settings in their novels and stories.
But Barthelme has been dead for a while, and Barth turned out to be a one- trick showman who rewrites the same story every few years; Gass lost himself in a labyrinthine, unreadable novel called The Tunnel that was politely ignored when it finally appeared a few years ago, and Coover became a computer-age Pied Piper keyed into a realm called hypertext, where almost no one cared to follow....
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SOURCE: Balitas, Vincent D. “New Tricks for Contemporary Fiction.” Book World-The Washington Post (18 July 1999): B7.
[In the following positive assessment, Balitas recommends reading Wallace's earlier work before Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.]
If David Foster Wallace's new collection of short stories is one's first encounter with this fascinating young writer who has been published in all the right places—Paris Review, the New Yorker and Harper's, to mention just a few—then one is in for many surprises. However, caveat lector: It might be wise to get acquainted with one or more of his previous publications before venturing into waters quite turbulent, always challenging.
Perhaps one might sit down with Mr. Wallace's brilliant collection of nonfiction, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, a gathering of provocative essays that dig deeply and, most often than not, humorously into American culture. Take, for example, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” which throws down the gauntlet to other young fiction writers to work to combat the negative influences of that old bete noir, the boob tube, a machine that fosters inactivity, passive acceptance and—perhaps worst of all—deadening of the imagination.
Certainly, attacks on the television habits of Americans are not new, but Mr. Wallace is able to transform...
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SOURCE: LeClair, Tom. “The Non-Silence of the Un-Lamblike.” The Nation 269, no. 3 (19 July 1999): 31-4.
[In the following mixed review, LeClair finds the stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men as “frequently inventive, often witty and always demanding.”]
After the success of Infinite Jest in 1996, David Foster Wallace took a vacation from fiction and, perhaps, from fans' expectations with A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. He reported—a trip to the Caribbean on a cruise ship, to the Illinois State Fair, a David Lynch set, a Canadian tennis tournament—and he reviewed: his childhood tennis career, a book of literary theory and novels by his contemporaries. In “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Wallace scolded young writers of “Image Fiction,” who copy television's will to entertain, who relentlessly attempt “to wow, to ensure that the reader is pleased and continues to read.” He called for “new literary rebels” who will “eschew selfconsciousness and hip fatigue,” who will “risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.”
Although Infinite Jest wows every couple of pages and includes almost a hundred pages of self-conscious endnotes, it depicts characters in such emotional distress that only melodramatic actions seem appropriate. Wallace's achievement is showing how his...
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SOURCE: McLaughlin, Robert L. Review of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace. Review of Contemporary Fiction 19, no. 3 (fall 1999): 158-59.
[In the following review, McLaughlin lauds Brief Interviews with Hideous Men as a “virtuoso display” and a fine literary achievement.]
In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men David Foster Wallace collects twenty-three pieces of fiction, most written since the publication of Infinite Jest in 1996. Few of these are stories in the conventional sense. Rather, the book makes into fiction many other forms: the title interviews, which provide the structure of the book; monologues; a play; pop quizzes; an outline; and harder-to-define nonnarrative snapshots of various characters and their lives. The results are both familiar, as we recognize techniques and themes from Wallace's earlier work, and surprising, as we see Wallace taking his post-big-novel work in new directions.
The various pieces here work together to explore three interconnected problems. The first is how to be human in a contemporary society that prefers to see us as things, in which we are encouraged to see others as things and to think of ourselves as things. As one of the hideous men says, “it's possible to be just a thing but … minute by minute if you want you can choose to be more if you want, you can choose to be a human being and...
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SOURCE: Norfolk, Lawrence. “Closing Time in the Fun-House.” Times Literary Supplement (14 January 2000): 25-6.
[In the following review, Norfolk places Wallace within the tradition of contemporary American authors and views him as one of the few American writers who addresses quintessentially American themes and questions.]
The radical problem besetting contemporary American fiction at present is that the United States corresponds almost exactly with its image in popular culture, but not quite. Scrappy fragments of the real United States may fly about the crisp outlines of its televisual simulacrum but, within the mediated frame of our United Kingdom-based perception, such discrepancies are minor disruptions. It is easier to edit them out than act on the suspicions they arouse. The image sharpens and becomes more convincing and, in consequence, the mediated US grows familiar and conventional, more realistic than the Real, its lurid and alluring affects more compelling.
We are, accordingly, compelled, and doubly so because the same perceptual confusion obtains within the United States. Those art-forms (among which I include literary fiction) on which we, at our transatlantic remove, rely for a critical view of the discrepancy between the real and mediated “Americas” are succumbing to the same collapse in distinctions and becoming caught up in the same whirl of ontological...
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SOURCE: Potts, Robert. “They'll Do Anything to Get You into Bed.” The Observer (23 January 2000).
[In the following positive assessment, Potts delineates the moral purpose of the stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.]
David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest, which a friend of mine nicknamed ‘Infinite Book’, weighed in at 981 pages, with a further 97 pages of footnotes. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is, well, briefer, being a collection of, short stories or, more accurately, as Wallace himself puts it, ‘not vignettes or scenarios or allegories or fables, exactly, though neither are they really qualifiable as short stories (not even as those upscale microbrewed Flash Fictions that have become so popular in recent years—even though these belletristic pieces are really short, they just don't work like Flash Fictions are supposed to).’ That is the problem, or maybe the delight, of this book; there is almost nothing to say about it that isn't already said, or acknowledged, within the work itself.
And yet, that might suggest it is part of (Wallace again) ‘the tired old “Hey-look-at-me-looking-at-you-looking-at-me” agenda of tired old S.O.P. metafiction’. Which it isn't. Wallace can work within the apparent form of such games, and even write about such games or (by extension, inevitably), write about writing about such games. Yet he also writes...
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SOURCE: Scott, A. O. “The Panic of Influence.” The New York Review of Books 47, no. 2 (10 February 2000): 39-43.
[In the following review, Scott explores the defining characteristics of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and discusses its relationship with his earlier novel Infinite Jest.]
David Foster Wallace's most recent book presents itself as a collection of stories, but you don't have to read very far to discover that conventional notions of “story” don't exactly apply. The first piece is called “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,” and it consists, in its entirety, of the following two paragraphs:
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.
This “history” is printed on page zero. On page 159, in a story called “Adult World (II),” the reader encounters the following passage:
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SOURCE: Merritt, Stephanie. “The Good, The Bad. …” The Observer (28 January 2001).
[In the following review, Merritt praises the humorous and insightful stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.]
Long before Dave Eggers attracted critical attention for the tongue-in-cheek metafictional self-deconstructing style in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, David Foster Wallace (who generously gave Eggers a cover quote) had been honing that particular voice to perfection.
These stories [in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men] are difficult to categorise, roaming wilfully across the boundaries of genres and inventing new ones, a fact that Wallace appears to be self-mockingly acknowledging in ‘Octet’: ‘You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer. You are attempting a cycle of very short belletristic pieces, pieces which as it happens are not contes philosophiques and not vignettes or scenarios or allegories or fables, exactly, though neither are they really qualifiable as “short stories” …’
The brief interviews of the title are interspersed with the other stories and form a series of overheard conversations transcribed as if from tape. One of Wallace's eminent talents is his ability to juxtapose pseudo-academic discourse with unerring recreations of modern American vernacular, and the variety of voices, from the blue-collar to the would-be...
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Abramovich, Alex. “Fear and Loathing.” The Village Voice 44, no. no 23 (15 June 1999): 154-55.
Deems Brief Interviews with Hideous Men a “tormented, heroic book.”
Burkman, Greg. “‘Hideous Men’: The Title of This Sorry Collection Really Does Say It All.” The Seattle Times (20 June 1999).
Derides the “disagreeable subject matter” and the “endless obsessive discourse” of the characters in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.
Goodheart, Adam. “Phrase Your Answer in the Form of a Question.” New York Times Book Review (20 June 1999):.
Contends that Brief Interviews with Hideous Men seems possessed “by a vandalizing spirit, one that exults in tearing up, stripping down and breaking apart everything it can get its hands on.”
Harsanyi, David. “‘Hideous Men’ Is Attractive Short-Story Collection.” The Associated Press (9 August 1999):.
Laudatory assessment of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.
Lezard, Nicholas. “Digging for Story Bones.” The Guardian (19 February 2000).
Debates the question of whether Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is a masterpiece or a collection of crafty, self-conscious stories.
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