Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

by David Foster Wallace

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1835

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.

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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 stories in the collection. Here, a dying man begs not for his son’s forgiveness or love. Rather, he vents his full hostility for a son whose very birth disgusted him and whose upbringing was, in the early years, a revolting chore and, in the later years, a significant distraction.

In this story, Wallace suggests that fathers are always alienated figures, because children come from the womb of the mother and are, despite the snipping of the umbilical cord, always attached to her. They suckle at her breasts, while the father lurks in the shadows, forever separated from the stranger who has emerged amid pain, blood, and afterbirth from the body of the mother who has brought them into the world. He applies a unique scrutiny to the sacred protocols of parenting and of family cohesiveness, which is viewed here with a realism that shocks but makes readers reevaluate some of their most cherished beliefs. The deathbed scene will evoke astonishment from many readers, although it bespeaks a truth unfettered by the learned emotions and reactions that society imposes upon most people from infancy.

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Wallace revels in imbuing his writing with such specialized technical jargon as one finds in this story: “ophthalmorrhagia,” “dextrocular orbit,” “ileostomy pouch,” and “dyspena.” In his mastery of the technical terms and concepts, a comprehension of which is necessary to his writing, he displays a thoroughness similar to that of Richard Powers in such novels as Galatea 2.2 (1995) and Gain (1998).

Although Wallace occasionally uses names in this book, they refer to ancillary rather than to central characters in most of the stories. One exception is “Church Not Made With Hands,” in which some of the names are allegorical. Among his most interesting and well-developed stories, “The Depressed Person” features a woman suffering from clinical depression that she attributes to her divorced parents who fought over who would pay for her orthodontics when she was an adolescent. This attribution reminds one of Edward Albee’s lament about his adoptive parents: “They bought me. They paid $133.30.” “The Depressed Person” is remarkable in many ways. To begin, its footnotes 3, 4, 5, and 6 occupy almost nine pages of the twenty-seven-page story. Wallace loves footnotes, as he demonstrated by adding several hundred pages of them to Infinite Jest.

In “The Depressed Person,” which unfolds in the third-person singular, the central figure is referred to repeatedly as “the depressed person,” thereby introducing a clinical detachment and impersonality to the story and demonstrating exactly what the depressed person’s fundamental problem is and, possibly, that of the human condition in postindustrial society. The theme of this story, abandonment, is well sustained. Not only does the depressed person suffer the feelings of abandonment that affect many children when their parents divorce, but she also feels abandoned by many of her friends, whom she actually drives away, and, perhaps more crucially, by her psychoanalyst, whose death, while ruled accidental, was clearly a suicide.

The depressed person’s relationship with her therapist was not a happy one because it recalled her trauma regarding who would pay for her orthodontics:

[S]he was now, as an adult, in the position of having to pay a therapist $90 an hour to listen patiently to her and respond honestly and empathetically; i.e., it felt demeaning and pathetic to feel forced to buypatience and empathy, the depressed person had confessed to her therapist.

The clinical approach of this and other stories in the collection is pervasive. Occasionally, the author makes a significant departure from anything he has done elsewhere in the book or, indeed, from anything anyone, no matter how experimental, has previously published. The nineteen pages of “Adult World (1)” are followed by the six pages of “Adult World (II),” in which Wallace presents little more than cryptic notes that he might have made prior to writing a finished story. Initials are used rather than names, although a few names, Jeni O. Roberts, for example, surface. Spellings are abbreviated, such as “trmndsly” for tremendously or “dsprtly” for desperately. This story is interesting for the narcissism of Jeni O. Roberts, who, unlike her secretive husband, masturbates quite openly. Her masturbation fantasy is of a male who loves “J. O. R.” but cannot have her, which causes him to spurn all other women and to masturbate to fantasies of making love to J. O. R. Such convolutions are characteristic of Wallace who, as someone formally schooled in philosophy, enjoys the kind of mindplay that accompanies them.

The hideous men of Wallace’s title talk mostly about sex. They are boastful but, in the end, unconvincing as the sex engines they purport to be. They go into graphic detail about how to pleasure a woman, but they also reflect the difficulty men have in understanding women, particularly when sex becomes a part of the relationship. In the interview labeled “B.I. #72 08-98 North Miami Beach FL,” the interviewee notes that women are filled with contradictions but concludes that they introduce these contradictions themselves and are driven to distraction by them.

Throughout the book, Wallace frequently refers either obliquely or directly to the roles of women in society. He himself seems bewildered by the changing status of women and essentially takes an old-fashioned and conservative stand on the subject. The interviews Wallace presents are not arranged sequentially in the book, but if they are rearranged sequentially, a much more connected view of what is being revealed emerges, clarifying his view of women substantially.

Women are central to the interviews, but they are presented largely from the points of view of libidinous men who mostly articulate their thoughts and desires indirectly. Feminist interpretations of this collection are inevitable and should prove interesting. Much in the stories will ignite feminist ire because Wallace’s women so frequently seem, at least at first glance, sex objects and little more.

Wallace is one of a breed of postmodern writers which, most prominently, includes William Vollman and Powers, though Wallace is probably the most experimental of the three. He is most frequently compared with literary predecessors William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon, although several critics have also pointed out similarities with Samuel Beckett, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Jorge Luis Borges. One thing is certain: David Foster Wallace presents the sort of literary challenges that will result in his being not only read but carefully studied by those interested in how the literary mind functions.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (May 1, 1999): 1580.

Library Journal 124 (May 1, 1999): 116.

The Nation 269 (July 19, 1999): 31.

The New York Times, June 1, 1999, p. E8.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (June 20, 1999): 8.

Publishers Weekly 246 (March 29, 1999): 87.

The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 1999, p. W8.

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