David Foster Wallace Wallace, David Foster (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

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

James Rother (essay date summer 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 that contemporary fiction that is America. Its consequence has been a much anticipated but little heralded turning away not only from mytholepsy and the sort of Spenglerian Untergangbang that became the hallmark of postmodernism's first generation, the Pynchon-Coover-Barth axis of the sixties and seventies, but also from the later capitalizing on empty signifiers that became the stock in trade of the movement's second generation, the minimalists, in the eighties. Now, well into the nineties, a third generation has sprung up whose quiet revolution in the realm of fictional technique has scrapped deadpan irony in favor of passive-aggressive role modeling in conceptual plasticene (note Mark Leyner's My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist); loss of affect in favor of affectation, suitably randomized, of loss (viz. Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless); and density of texture in favor of density matrices whose historical decompressions of the indigenous reenergize the master-slave dialectic in wholly new and de-Hegelianized ways (for example, William T. Vollmann's cycle of novels-in-progress on the loss-leader role assigned American Indian culture in the discounting of America). Consider, for example, the most recent work of David Foster Wallace, a true third generationist and author—so far—of a novel, The Broom of the System (1987), structured around the prinzip of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) that all fission of atomic facts begins and ends at ground zero-degree; a collection of fictional pieces both long and short, titled Girl with Curious Hair (1989); a book on African-American street music done in collaboration with Mark Costello, Signifying Rappers (1990); and some as-yet uncollected stories, including the different and really quite remarkable “Order and Flux in Northampton,” published in Bradford Morrow's Conjunctions in its tenth anniversary issue in 1991 (no. 17, pp. 91-118).

This essay will focus on several samples of Wallace's recent fiction from Girl with Curious Hair and pay particular attention to “Order and Flux in Northampton” because it so thoroughly exemplifies qualities found in the newest writing in what I choose to call the post-scientific mode. I propose to illustrate the differences between Wallace and his postmodernist predecessors by examining the epistemology masquerading as indeterminacy physics that so often undergirds the master topoi of classic first-generation metafictional works, as well as its transfigurations in certain third-generation, on-the-way-to-becoming-classic post-metafictional, or post-scientific, texts. Now, post-scientific fiction, as I see it, counters such specious epistemologizing by altering not only how the game of fiction is played but its nature and rationale as well. If the postmodernists of the sixties and seventies were content to smoke out the mirrors secreted in civilization's high-toned myths, the fact could not be ignored that those myths were from the start intent on blurring the distinction between the innocence of loss and the loss of innocence, whether they were a solution dreamed up by Scheherazade to keep a knife from her throat, or a problem dreamed up for Achilles, Ulysses, or Aeneas to keep him from reflecting too long or too hard on how holding the mirror up to self-reflection can leave any masterpiece open to having its bones jumped someday by a Barthelme or a Barth. These and other writers sought to veil with multiple ironies (or to infinitize ad ironiam) Bedeutung's undignified retreat from Sinn all across the spectrum of twentieth-century culture, believing that, under a barrage of superhip gags and snickers, readers would be at a loss to say whether what they were being treated to was an extravaganza piped into a lounge pretending to be The Big Room or a small satyric revue in a big room pretending to be The Lounge.

Wallace, Leyner, or Vollmann, however, divest their fiction of the games multiple ironists play by outering the hidden schematics with which the guidance systems of stories had hitherto been programmed and scrupulously reinscribing them in an idiom not unlike a blueprint's with its filigree of specs but somehow charged with a capability to render character and nuance, as postmodernist coolness seldom was, with a topologist's love of contour and tactility (though the spirit of place is often “being there-ed” at the cost of there's being). Their stories also display a lay(er)ing on of topos-less narrative by a method that musical formalists from Ezra Pound to Pierre Boulez have designated pli selon pli or “fold over fold.” Rather than folding in with the basic elements of his story grand narratives (ostensibilized as vast cryptogrammata done up in the style of modernism's—and postmodernism's—great mythophiliacs from Joyce to Gaddis) like ingredients in a batter, Wallace instead contrives something intriguingly different. He folds over layers of text until they intercalate each other's strata, thus simulating a version of hyperspace utterly removed from either the discontinuities of Burroughs's montage linguistics or the Einsteinian cut-ups of Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. These layers act as software for what might be called the Wallace story's programmatic control center or Wittgensteinian database of “atomic facts” by which “everything that is the case” is subtended. Initially, finally: it makes no difference—in that philosopher's Stonehenge of the obvious, the Tractatus, time is as epochal or bracketable in the Husserlian sense as it would be in any spreadsheet universe where only insistencies, duly numbered, ever reach printout. This re-envisioning of fiction as the endlessly reconstitutable core reactor by which reality is broken down into its various unifying fields and not nucleated conscriptively into gross metastases of metaphor and metonymy—engrossing though they might be—as the original groundbreaking works of a Pynchon or a Coover now seem to third-generational eyes to have been.

For this and other reasons (contingent upon Wallace's newer even more engaging “gridworking” and “netlocking in” of facts) it has become necessary to devote to the as yet uncollected “Order and Flux in Northampton” the amount of commentary space usually accorded more easily accessed works, such as, in this case, his 1989 collection Girl with Curious Hair. Though several of the stories from that collection—“Girl” [“Girl with Curious Hair”] and “John Billy” particularly—screw the potential for weaving in hypertext beyond the first-order permutables that have long been the stock-in-trade of Coover and other older postmodernists to an even further sticking point, “Order and Flux” [“Order and Flux in Northampton”] highlights a recent tropism still very much in progress in both his approach to narration and the crafting of sentences that if not directly attributable to Wittgenstein (as were many sentences in Broom), are certainly of the sort he would have relished getting deep inside of. Thus, some of the stories in Girl [Girl with Curious Hair], and especially the longer ones like “Little Expressionless Animals,” “Lyndon,” and the novella-length Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, hark back to what now seems a more retrograde stage of Wallace's transition from a writer obsessed with the decline of postmodernism to one heralding the advent of an auspicious shift toward the post-scientific in fiction, as is discernible in “Order and Flux.” It is hardly accidental that Wallace closed out Girl with Curious Hair with Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, a story that launched into orbit a satellite of Barth's 1968 medley of metafictional ditties, Lost in the Funhouse, and most notably its title piece, in the form of a sendup-cum-homage that is nearly six times as long as its source text. Indeed, Wallace closes a magic circle of first-generation postmodernism by recalcifying—with Lettermaniacal irreverence—the now quaint manner of Barth's 1968-isme, with its “For whom is the Funhouse fun?” sedimentation of ironies into a petrifactualism that goes the poet Auden one better in praising the limestone he himself has quarried for the occasion. This effect is further enhanced by having D. L., the story's ingenue, present her copy of Lost in the Funhouse for autographing to its parergonic auteur, Professor Ambrose, in whose writing workshop she labors, in an arch reprise of metafiction's “the way we were,” to give birth to herself as a postmodernist.

Though along the way Girl and “Order and Flux” might re-Cooverize a descanted pricksong or two, Wallace's more mature work no longer understudies the Rubik's cubism of pieces like “Quenby and Ola, Swede and Carl.” On the contrary, in stories like “Say Never,” “John Billy,” and “Here and There” Wallace transcends the generics of homage by reinscribing the setups that let Coover be Coover within story grids that work to provoke character instead of just being characteristically provocative. Gone, or at least forcefully reined in, are the obligatory algorithmics of the Coover style, that tendency to view fiction as a quickstep of likelihoods high-stepped by fortuity and desire, the slavish imitation of which has left many of today's younger writers awash in paregoric of Cooverismo. In fact, Wallace's sendups of life lived in the shadow of Jeopardy (“Little Expressionless Animals”) or The David Letterman Show (“My Appearance”) are every bit as distant from Coover's meltdowns of Casablanca and The Gold Rush in works like A Night at the Movies, or, You Must Remember This as Coover's fictions are from the pummelings to low, middle, and high culture administered by R. Crumb twenty-five years ago in the pages of Zap Comics, which they superficially resemble. More often than not, the Coover method is to nominate a slate of cubistically pretzelized actantcies out of a field of potential developments whose mutant derivation from an Ur-mythos (such as spanking the maid or leaving a child alone with a baby-sitter) denies any of them precedence within the schema of that particular fiction.

For Wallace, however, commandeering myths in order to play ironic games within the interstices of determinisms imposed by their structures is not at all the same thing as demythicizing myths by invading their structures and commandeering their control centers. A timely analogue from virology helps bring into focus the difference between first-generation postmodernism's debunking of myths indispensable to the modernist project and the third generation's debunking of their debunking of myth so as to reconstitute the mythical as an esemplast having already internalized advanced technology and virtual environments. While books like Barth's Chimera and Barthelme's The Dead Father invaded the cells of myth in order to replicate en abîme the multiple ironies of their own self-reproduction, the fictions of Wallace, Vollmann, and the Richard Powers of The Gold Bug Variations effect penetration in order to transmute the very genetic material of the myths themselves. They recognize that myth in our time is not the panoplied derangement of an Achilles's tent or Circe's isle but rather the Jonah-fication of whaling exemplified by the TV shows beamed, spelunker-like, into the Plato's Cave of the global village.

In “Order and Flux in Northampton” the basic “plot” downloads much of what is new about Wallace's most recent fictionalizing into a stylistics whose hard copy has moved far beyond the Cooverismics, Barthematics, and Pynchonics of first-generation postmodernisme. Unlike the setups of his more narrowly focused pieces such as the title story of Girl and “Luckily the Account Executive Knew CPR,” “Order and Flux” is fielded through a schema that owes less to plot than to a marriage of paradigm and syntagm. Within the plasmic folds of a kind of supercoordinate Hilbert space, Wallace choreographs a dance of distentions (not all of which appear as characters) that are for purposes of the dance indistinguishable from the envelope of fatality with whose topological surface they interface and from whose curvature and parallax they fail to deduce their imprisonment in a paint-by-number Las Meninas that seems drawn to scale by the Logico-Tractator himself. Set on or about June 1983, “Flux” 's [“Order and Flux in Northampton”] Hilbertized world of quantum-Massachusetts folds out to include virtually every other vector for which a dimension is assignable as direction or momentum, and so is able to create a chain of Lorenzian attractors in such diverse locales as Rock Springs, Wyoming, Troy, New York, Florence, Arizona, and Fullerton, California—all “places” where life is eerily universalized in parallel to the erroneous comedy unfolding on the Northampton main stage. As a paradigm/syntagm it poignantly triangulates the exasperations of one Barry Dingle, thirty-five-year-old man-on-the-ground of a “spotlessly managed franchise, The Whole Thing Health Food Emporium … located directly next to Collective Copy on Northampton's arterial Great Awakening Avenue” (“OFN” [“Order and Flux in Northhampton”] 91). Of course the juxtaposition of these two commercial enterprises so near the jugular of today's post-hippie and unde-Reaganized over-the-counterculture is hardly fortuitous. As with Wallace's literary predecessors Joyce, Barth, Pynchon, and Coover, no detail in his fiction is ever fortuitous.

Employed at Collective Copy, next door to where Barry Dingle, “purveyor of bean sprouts,” does his thing, is Myrnaloy Trask, “for whom Dingle harbors … an immoderate love.” Trask is variously described as a “trained Reproduction Technician, unmarried woman, vegetarian, flower-child tinged faintly with wither, overseer and editor of Announcement and Response at the ten-foot-by-ten-foot communicative hub of a dizzying wheel of leftist low-sodium aesthetes, a woman politically correct, active in relevant causes, slatternly but not unerotic. …” Completing the triangle is Barry's rival, Don Megala, the man Myrnaloy Trask “has eyes only for,” a “middle-aged liberal” and “professional student” and “presently at work on his seventh and potentially finest unfinished dissertation, an exhaustive study of Stephen Dedalus's sublimated oedipal necrophelia vis à vis Mrs. D. in Ulysses, an essay tentatively titled ‘The Ineluctable Modality of the Ineluctably Modal.’” Which serves to explain at least in part why Myrnaloy “has only the sketchiest intuition that Barry Dingle even exists, next door” (“OFN” 91).

On top of this, we are asked to imagine a further triangulation, bordering on parallax, beyond the mere human triangle whose sides have just been outlined, establishing its outlying points esemplastically within a continuum of texts coextensive with, but not contingent upon, the core text of Barry/Myrnaloy/Don (which, if so desired, can be read linearly, though this is not necessarily recommended). And, as suggested earlier, we are encouraged to conceive this triangulation as being disposed within unpredisposable space—a space which no topology dominates or molds dimensions to its particular shape or vectoral agenda—indeed, a space wholly congenial to the one-act play of facts Wallace has mounted on a grammaturgical stage fitted a-scenically, in arena style, with three blind sides. It is these facts, one should hasten to point out, that both figure on and configurationally activate the loom of coincidence on which Wallace's narratological woofs warp and his equivocating back-and-forths shuttle.

What facts? Why, those whose incontrovertibility, non-negotiability, and unconvertibility Wittgenstein serves up within the connectable dots of his “picture theory of meaning” and which figure so prominently in his Tractatus as “atomic facts.” This atomic factician asserts that a picture, insofar as it is also a fact, is therefore “a model of reality” and “like a scale applied to reality.” Further, given that “a picture depicts reality by representing a possibility of the existence and non-existence of atomic facts,” it must necessarily contain “the possibility of the state of affairs which it represents.” And finally, the all-important proviso that “We could present spatially an atomic fact which contradicted the laws of physics, but not one which contradicted the laws of geometry.” Why are these facts so important? Because facts are modal, and that modality is synonymous with the conditions language imposes on that reality constructed according to pictures which meaning assembles out of those same facts that make up the atomic structure of the only world we know. Wallace likes this view of things because in mirroring the tradeoffs at the heart of Wittgen-stein's own philosophical career it splits the problem of the solipsistic down the middle by salvaging knowledge at the expense of a Cartesian knower and by denying private languages the role of spoiler ceded them by the later, more mistycal Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations.

But Wallace's dog-wagging tale is also about love-objects “invested with all the flected ambiguity that makes Romance itself possible”—an ambiguity that thrives on flux and the humunculoidicities of immoderate love (“OFN” 97), no doubt further Dingle-ized by diffusion, deflection, and distortion of the sort that unpacks the Russian nesting dolls of nightmare that terrorize Mrs. Dingle on the night of 14 June 1983, when she dreams that her husband, the king of Ithaca (played by Nelson Eddy) is dreaming of her demise and that of her son, the “finely sandaled” Barry D. on the night of 14 June 1983 B.C.—a regressus ultimately to be diffused, deflected, and distorted polyphonically into the anoptically “Telemachoid” resplendencies of Ulysses's dream of Joyce in a book (dated 1922) about order and flux in a city called Dublin, the dearness and dirtiness of which, having been “dreamt” in advance almost a millennium ago in a symmetrical inversion involving Northampton, Mass. (in which the “dulcimer-craeftig” Don Megala is cast as the advisor who tells the king of Ithaca that what brought the plague that carried off both Mrs. Dingle and Barry D. was nothing other than the king's dream itself) is grotesquely reprised as if by a Saturday Night Live sketch in which guess who play a Tristan and an Iseult whose dithyring Rambonics, far from bringing death and mortal woe to the pinnacle of taste in this, Denis de Rougemont's and our modern world, merely freeze its eternal antithesis within an instant's burlesque frame. And it concerns parameciae in human saliva that make for the true magnetic north in all their mediated plashings in direct opposition to big toe-seeking inflammations of Eros. Thus, this: a hypertextual space across which parabolas of actantcy can flit but for which no Marvin Minsky-style “default assumptions” can be adduced. Envisioning this is not unlike trying to picture Cartesian tennis being played without so much as a Malebranchian net.

Viewed narratologically, the trajectory of “Order and Flux” seems calibrated at about Middle High Pynchon, but such calls are little more than ballpark estimates. Don Webb, in reviewing Mark Jacobson's new novel Gojiro in American Book Review, is so loath to proscribe the dismantling of originality by up-and-coming writers that in approving self-mantling in Ur-styles considered “classical,” he all but invents writer-response criticism on poststructuralist principles before the reader's very eyes:

For Mr. Jacobson to achieve his paean to life a workable style had to exist. I realize that this speaks against the current call for originality, but books do not need to be original in style. Classical poets always cast their works in the appropriate style, and Pynchon-prose is the appropriate mode for the current epic. It moves between consensus reality and stylized camp reality effortlessly. It leaves the complicated goings-on of the real world whenever a close-up focus is needed—and best of all it can just tell the reader what's going on or spice up the flow with a few jokes.

For first-generation postmodernists like Italo Calvino—himself given to wondering before his untimely death, “Why Read the Classics?”—the subtext of such remarks might seem less a surrender to influence in the form of hero worship than a succumbing to influenza through a contagion of styles. But Wallace is third generation, a fact that clearly emerges in the algorithmic plotting of “Order and Flux,” with its reflectively principled encoding of truths elicited from certain axiom systems and rules of procedure able to elicit further truths unrelated to those systems and procedures. As suggested earlier, in at least some of the stories that make up Girl with Curious Hair he is into quite different things than either the permutations of influence or multiple mises en abîme played on the mind's eye by a shattered mirror. Wallace, Vollmann, and some of their contemporaries are busily...

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Bharat Tandon (review date 26 December 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

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;...

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Daniel Orozco (review date 16 May 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Adam Begley (review date 24 May 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

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....

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Vince Passaro (review date 28 May 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Greg Johnson (review date 6 June 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Vincent D. Balitas (essay date 18 July 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Tom LeClair (review date 19 July 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Robert L. McLaughlin (review date fall 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

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;...

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Lawrence Norfolk (review date 14 January 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Robert Potts (essay date 23 January 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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A. O. Scott (review date 10 February 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

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:...

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Stephanie Merritt (review date 28 January 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 306 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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):.


(The entire section is 210 words.)