David Foster Wallace

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James Rother (essay date summer 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9406

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 rediscovering the wheeling, if not the dealing, attendant upon plying the psychological dimension in their fiction. This explains why the narrativities of the title story “Girl with Curious Hair,” in their determination to find a way out of the seeing-round-corners narcopathology of the story's narrator, shift the fulcrum of self-consciousness away from the sun-stricken heliotrope, Sick Puppy. It also makes plain why the monologics—phase spaced-out to the max—of John Billy, who, in the story bearing his name, implodes a responsibility to “tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nunn Junior done wronged the man that wronged him and fleen to parts unguessed” (“GCH” [“Girl with Curious Hair”] 121) into a shrinking universe-as-tall-tale that miniserially parallels the nebulous expansiveness of a McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. Similarly, with the catechistic dissymmetrics (dedicated to K. Gödel) proffered by the connubially stalled respondent in “Here and There”—and others deserving of broader mention than can be made of them there.

At any rate, the atomic “facts” comprising Wallace's molecular narratives can be made to seem unatomizably factual in context only if, as with reflection principles, they aid in convincing us that they indeed provide valid ways of arriving at what for the piece in question is a correspondence theory of virtual truth linking the story's “axiom system” with the “rules of procedure” that govern its discursivities narratologically. In fact, it was a sense of deprivation over Wittgenstein's having doublelocked the door to a reconciliation (which only he could have effected) between the dark inner space of solipsism and the deprivatized shadowplay of endless noon in Plato's Cave that gave rise to Wallace's belief that the second and more famous half of the Viennese thinker's career, the post-Tractatus revisionist period of logical atom smashing in the Philosophical Investigations (1945-49; pub. 1953), represents a catastrophic loss to philosophy. All that the later works managed to do was to trade the only real bullion ever secured in post-Cartesian philosophy for the inflated paper of language games and psycho-logical atomism. (For Wallace's thoughts on Wittgenstein's “tragic fall,” see the interview with McCaffery above.)

Thus, the narrative game being played in the works under discussion revolves around the problem of creating a private fictional world (theoretically corresponding, more or less, to the truths dictated by God, were He a logical atomist, which, despite quibbles that might arise within the hermeneutics of conjectural atheism, He could well be) without at the same time creating a private language of the sort anathematized by the Wittgenstein of the Investigations and which eventually denied the Joyce of Finnegans Wake a gold medal in the only Olympics that matters. In the RCF interview Wallace contends that membership within hermeneutical circles can result in knowledge only of what it is like to experience being within the bounds of such a community itself, and never of the larger reality whose immanentizing center the knowledge community is. The world “outside” will always remain the “world” outside, no matter how “communicative” relations within that community become.

Consider the basic concatenation of events that, far from just populating a Wallace story with data, actually make up that story. The paronomasia is crucial: nowhere in any of the pieces mentioned so far is the motor of self-determination ever allowed to idle in any particular character's conative driveway. For instance, Barry Dingle's passion for Myrnaloy Trask is in one sense an erotomania fueled by runaway hormones, but in a different sense—one, say, involving an erotomane able to step outside his erotomania and view it non-erotomaniacally—it is anything but such an erotomania. This sort of Turingesque two-step brings to mind Gödel's theorem, in which the truth or falsity of arithmetical propositions cannot be wrung out of a self-describability lodged within a system of description itself incapable of assimilating self into any coordinating predicate. But it also sets spinning the peculiarly Boolean mysticism of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, in which atomic facts head up a treatise in which luck is as absent as any trace of a diverting conundrum: “The riddle does not exist,” tractates the Logico-Philosophicus.

“Order and Flux” begins under an injunction to supply enough atomic facts or “Trask-data” to put Barry Dingle's “immoderate love” for Myrnaloy up on the big screen. These data are further rounded out with dossier fodder documenting Barry's impairment at the hands of his macrophobic mother. This has doomed him to the “position of a man able to want without the disturbing option of ever truly being able to have” (“OFN” 91, 96). Nor does the same factitiousness that afflicts Barry's search for sexual peace fail to enfold Sick Puppy of “Girl” up to his proverbials, since the brute and stubborn mindlessness by which his existence, a triumph of luck and Reaganomics, has so far been maintained is nothing but a vacuum left by the facts of a sustainable life in departing a causeless loss. Much of that mindlessness reaches critical mass only through sexual jumpstarting, a conscription of orality into the anaesthetized essays of genital intercourse:

Unfortunately, even though I am one handsome dude and desirable on the part of many girls throughout my school and life, my penis declines to become erect when they want to commit the sexual act, and will only be erect if they fellate me, and if they fellate me I wish to burn them with matches or my lighter very much and most women dislike this event and are unhappy when burned and thus are chicken to fellate me and only wish to commit the sexual act.

(“GCH” 72)

As William H. Gass once wrote in commenting on an especially well-turned Barthelmean period, “it is impossible to overpraise such a sentence.” The mix here of Rolling Stone interview jargon and schizoid parataxis (common to serial killers speaking viva voce and mob figures mouthing dialogue in films like Bugsy and Hoffa) constitutes an edgy leadin to a historically original neo-trash phenomenon. It also alchemizes fact in such a way as to provide a Sick Puppy too stoned to philosophize with a means of turning sex hassles of the “stump Dr. Ruth” variety from heavy metal cliché into base gold.

So, too, in the realm of Dinglemania, where factologies lie like glaciers on an emotional tundra landlocked by sea change and roiling with stasis. That such Wittgensteinian reefs remain unnavigable by the port-leaning ship of fools so improbably beached in “Order and Flux” amounts to Wallace's point as well as his counterpoint. Having been invaded by a homunculoid love, Barry Dingle “is, as it were, beside himself, in a state of utter emotional flux whereby up and down, good and bad are as indistinguishable as right and left” (“OFN” 96). A Dingle-an-sich in hot pursuit of the Dingle-ling-an-sich he pines for completion by another; but this masks a fact at least as crucial to the story's support system as the Gödelian umbilical linking the affictive quo est of Barry's toe to the inflictive quod est of his homunculoid love. Within Wallace's Wittgensteinian schematic this dominating (because most particularized) atomic fact is that “cross-eyed Barry's” pining is fundamentally “duplicitous” due to his unauthorized version of second sight; this redoubled vision has, from 15 June 1961 (the day in Troy, New York, when his two eyes, which had flirted with disaster like star-crossed lovers from childhood on, finally and forever came together), consistently provided him with a synoptic gospel whose good news parallax routinely deconstructs and whose eight-eyed orthogonals he is determined to transcend via a liebes-toed contusion of cur (his) and bitch (hers) at the feet of his very own beloved Iseult-of-the-“delicate white hands” on the mayday aforementioned, 15 June 1983 (“OFN” 102). This last date assumes importance because (as any attentive reader will instantly grasp) it is the twenty-second anniversary of Barry's blindsiding at the hands of fate and the twentieth of his having first laid eyes (albeit in a doubly triangulated stare: see below) on Myrnaloy Trask. But it is also a mere calendar's tick from June 16th or Bloomsday, that singular diurnal interval in 1904 during which a certain Dingle-like Dubliner by the name of Bloom wanders like Tristan (a major backup myth in “Order and Flux”) from one Celticity to another, faithfully (or almost so) temporizing the faithlessness (only skin deep) of his wife, the Myrnaloy Trask-like Molly, whose rendezvous that afternoon with his sexual rival, the Don Megalaesque Blazes Boylan, has brought him to focus his Odyssean wiles on the awful moment of his moment's force: the desire to reclaim his riteful home and wrongful bed, to yang, yet again, his well-worn yin in Ithaca.

This town is not, it should be noted, the one in New York state, which, like Barry Dingle's and Myrnaloy Trask's Northampton, is a college town, which, though unlike it, is closer to Troy, a town less given to gown and not all that much further from Homer's Ithaca than is once towering Ilium, where Ulysses made war, from the seat of his kingdom, where he made love. As far, perhaps, as the Troy of Barry's youth, where the cross he now bears was first hoisted onto his shoulders in the form of “thick angled lenses that catch and reorganize the disordered doubleness of things into a unity that fuses at a focused point several yards in front of Barry's own ruined apparatus,” is from the Northampton where he now resides and whose objects “appear always twice as far away as they in fact are. Smaller and more distant. … So that,” the story's mediated voice goes on to descant, “Dingle has chosen … between doubleness and distance, between there being, for him, exactly twice or exactly half as much as there really is” (“OFN” 96). (Hence Barry's long, doubly triangulated stare, “as only the cross-eyed can stare,” two years earlier when, on 15 June 1981, while at work the Michelson-Morleyed image of Myrnaloy Trask was bounced back at him from off the window of a Northampton Public Transit Authority bus onto the colored glass of the storefront of The Whole Thing Health Food Emporium which he happened to be looking through [“OFN” 92].)

A similar doubling and shrink-wrap redistancing may be noted in Wallace's deliberate use of Ulyssean parallels and his sedulous aping of the sort of pedantic overfastidiousness with which Stuart Gilbert's guide to Joyce's masterbook has long been associated. Don Megala, the Mortimer Adler of dissertations-in-progress, is said to have “at least one” copy of this graduate student classic “under his arm” (“OFN” 105), and Wallace's point in flashing this reference is to keep his story's Joycean refractions on the beam. Consider, for example, the brief scene in the Collective Copy, which from Dingle's point of view and ours, doubles as the Xeroxing establishment that employs Myrnaloy Trask and as a hotbed of Aeolian circulation, “full of the dry chemical wind of roaring copier and rattling automatic collator” (“OFN” 104). Here, the eye of the narrative, damping its aperture down to a binocular anopticity nearly enough in sync with Dingle's own to make double or nothing a redundancy, piggybacks on a flatbed of metalepsis to its own dim view of things, in this case how the “Cave of Winds” segment of Ulysses acquires an eigenvalue relative to the eigenvector of the Collective Copy, one among many such eigenvectors, the sum of which comprises the “observable,” or the eigenbasis of the observable (an eigenbasis being a set of vectors, such that any arbitrary vector can be represented as a linear combination of those in the set).

This meta-Ulyssean mock-up thus assumes—in keeping with its protagonist's shrunken vision field of folk—the qualities of the very antithesis of “an observable,” becoming in fact (and by paronomasial flatlining) anobservable. Indeed, Wallace's tale of erotic whoa tends to downplay sharpness of visual detail to the low anoptic hum of a verbal diagram, almost as if its purpose was to give a sense of how little the ableptical Joyce really saw when writing Ulysses from 1914 to 1922. Wallace's power to make his reader see is evident everywhere in Girl with Curious Hair, so there's no doubt that, for him at least, Pound's metaphrasial homage to the poet of the Odyssey in his Cantos as “blind, blind as a bat” triangulates the ophthalmalogocentricity of Joyce's Homer in much the way Myrnaloy Trask's image is described as having caromed off two blindsiding mirrors smack into the corner pocket of Barry's peripheralized vision.

Thus, Wallace's tale (in which love is not the issue) reenacts the story by which other lovers and their obsessions avoid being incarcerated in narratives that would otherwise assure their deaths, were not the sole condition of their mortality foreclosed by myths proclaiming their infinite empowerment to die in prophetic retellings of Love prophesies foretold. How else explain the gathering at the end of the story of synchronicities eigenstacked like cord wood and yet knotted in love within the interval 11:50 to 11:57 A.M. EDT, 15 June 1983, which, we are informed, “finds a tiny percentage of the planet's persons involved in a tiny percentage of the planet's various and ineluctably modal situations” (“OFN” 115)? (Even the sodomistic daisy chain of gang rape perpetrated on Dean Paul Doyle by the Eskew brothers, Ronnie and Boone, on the floor of a crowded dormitory in Cell Block D, Arizona State Correctional Facility, Florence, AZ, constitutes a loveknot of sorts. Which only goes to prove what all the catalog rolling and calculated heartlessness tricked out at the end of the story confirm, namely that when vice is versa-ed, one man's poison can all too often (and unfairly) become another man's meat.) Or, how account for the loveknot of other, antecedent tales only seemingly intercalated at random with the Barry-Myrnaloy original and which may be seen as dependently Dingle-dangle, catenary-style, from this lei of interrupted lays? And even when the dispositional and predispositional paronomastics point the other way—that is, toward the very mythos of the observable with which Wallace's story is every which way preoccupied, it matters little to the human propositions locked inside its phase space of spacey phases.

If the world is indeed “everything that is the case,” it necessarily looks endlessly down the barrel of its own self-delimiting Dasein; likewise, it disposes of events with astonishing diffidence by disposing of them wherever atomic facts go to die. For between the persistence of Wittgenstein's “picture theory of meaning” (“Picture this” or its equivalent is an injunction which the reader of “Order and Flux” is not infrequently put under by its narrator) and the insistence of its logical framing metabolism that regulates sentences internally according to the laws governing propositions such as those that led the Wittgenstein of the pre-Tractatus Notebooks to declare that “‘aRa’ must make sense if ‘aRb’ makes sense”—between these two abnegational extremes falls the shadow of the arti-factual, whose field of dominance is the there and then, as opposed to the here and now. In “Flux” 's Northampton, “John Billy” 's Minogue, Oklahoma, and “Girl” 's Irvine, California, no less than in the Dresden, Chicago, or even Tralfamadore of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (1969), past is never prologue, but in a turnabout that hardly plays fair, prologue ends up as past, thrust, as in a world of metafictional and polymath-physics it must be, into a time warp of dissembling presence whose simulacra mock for all eternity the recurrence of eternal recurrence. Or, to put somewhat less of a spin on it, prologue appears as a past whose energies remain frozen within the very same parenthetical frames as earlier enclosed Slothropian metanarratives hungover with the Spenglerian pt's and all such screamings across the sky.

This might be a good moment to stop and ask just what Wallace is proposing as an alternative to Pynchonics and the sort of density matrix the author of Gravity's Rainbow was able to field in that unbelievably dense mother of a book. A density matrix may be defined as a complex system in which many quantum states are taken together to represent reality. When Pynchon employs such a world processor in projecting a novel he has not left the realm of mythmaking behind him; he has merely modulated its Joycean and Mannian proclivities to another, more mathematically distant plane of abstraction. Wallace rejects this as the pyramid scheme that it is and always has been. He seems to feel that it's better to internalize the density matrices of the original postmodernists and remetabolize them as both subject matter and object lesson. As suggested earlier, Pynchon-prosaics are everywhere in evidence in “Order and Flux,” but subtly absorbed into an ophthalmologos in which the spectacle of Pynchonics moving its slow thighs across the page is more likely to trouble the sight than seriously affect the vision. Filtered as it is through a mere twenty-seven pages of text, “Flux” is accommodated by a matrix of complex systems sufficiently compacted to pass, if not for an infinitely hot and dense dot, then certainly for a planisphere with multiple bearings visible at all times. If its pinions of fact and struts of conjecture avoid the sort of continuum rupture that Pynchon's later work dotes on, it is because Wallace's propositional calculus deftly escapes being thrown for a loop by feedback from its own theory.

Indeed, it seems never to have occurred to Pynchon to wonder in spite of quantum mechanics whether his particular take on the postmodern take on fiction, with its self-discounting silences, might not finally be incommensurate with its dark-sided twin, the world of physics—especially postmodern physics, where contiguous Hilbertized envelopes bump upendlessly against one another and linguistic opacities like “unsolvable,” “density,” “parallel,” and “serial” become impenetrable barriers rather than windows on that ulterior world. Any choice of discourse risks entropicalization whenever language contracts into a space whose flickering topologies wax figurative or wanly wane. Which notation system will be of most use is a matter not of truth but of whose noughtical inscriptions are in force and under what particular whether watch. Also involved are force fields of a different nature: those that determine whether the systems of language and sign or the systems of formula and design will ultimately prevail. Of course, this is not anything novelists or physicists can decide, for themselves or for others. What if all fields, conceptual or representational, merely misrepresent one another's “border writing” without realizing it?

Which, finally, in point of a subsequence of recorsi, lands us back at W. H. Gass's original question: What would a literary physics be?

What it would not be is a literature of or about physics, either in the direct way of a discourse on the history or ideas of physics, or the interworkings of physicists, whether singly or collaboratively, effecting historic trajectories of explanation, prediction, and control. Neither could it be a physics of literature, which would be an absurdity on its face. As a dangling plethora of misapplied linearities and functions such a hybrid would inevitably con-script a dysfunctionality in dire contradiction to the correspondence (necessary to any science) between reflected truth and the truth of reflection. This leaves, it seems, only one conceivable alternative—the one which, as I have been suggesting, Wallace has selected on occasion: physics in the form of a form of writing radiant with an idealized clarity once thought synonymous with the sort of sciencespeak that Houyhnhnms like the Huxleys, Aldous and Julian, spoke and wrote, but now viewed, this time by Yahoos, as runoff from a stream of consciousness beset by theory and by a praxis capable only fitfully of being its own subject. As Wittgenstein surely recognized when tracking thoughts he would later run to ground in the Tractatus, to write in this form of a form is to court hubris. It entails being aware of the “complete unclarity” of all the sentences that tend to gather (like the crush of oil, oozed) at the mind's tip whenever anyone attempts to talk what is the case down from its ledge of quanta and back into a cage of words.

Joseph Liouville, the unacknowledged legislator of narratological physics, proposed a theorem according to which phase-space volume does not change with time-evolution. In the formulized formalisms of literary physics this means that no matter how long the time span of a novel might be (whether measured in terms of textual action or of active text), the phasespace within which the work elaborates its own actantial algorithmics—in synaptic contradistinction to Euclidean dottiness on the matter of points, the novel's “counter-point” having magnitude but no location—remains constant. Postmodern fictional space—broadly considered—is phase space; but the space in which Wallace and the younger post-postmodernists choose to have fiction become operational is sentence space—a space that is, in every sense of the word, Hilbert space. Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind (Oxford University Press, 1989) provides the basis for this when he describes single points in phase and Hilbert space as follows: “A single point of phase space would be used to represent the (classical) state of an entire physical system. In the quantum theory, the appropriate analogous concept is that of Hilbert space. A single point of Hilbert space now represents the quantum state of an entire system.” And because “[the] most fundamental property of a Hilbert space is that it is what is called a vector space—in fact, a complex vector space,” that being one in which “we are allowed to add together any two elements of the space and obtain another such element” (ENM 257; italics the author's), it may not be stretching things too far to imagine the semantico-grammatical elements of a sentence as operating within a kind of complex vector space. To put it more succinctly: first- and second-generation postmodernists build, whether in a novel or a story, a fictional structure in phase space whose parts are only configurable in terms of their inclusion in a whole; whereas third-generation writers like Wallace work in sentence or Hilbert space, wherein the entire notion of overarching fictional structure is meaningless except in terms of sentences whose “genetic material” must encode the DNA molecularity of the fiction as a whole.

Yet, it must also be kept in mind that the dynamics at work in Wallace's stories are not the only Hilbertian dynamics propinquitous to literary sentencing. When, for example, in the story “Little Expressionless Animals” Wallace has an associate of the TV showtalk magnate Merv Griffin register character by plainly—or not so plainly—speaking out of it, what is projected is not only splendid neo-Heideggerian parody, it is Hilbert spaceyness pure and simple. The remark the Griffin aide-de-Camp makes to the story's co-protagonist Faye Goddard—“The mystery of total data, that mystery made a sort of antic, ontic self-perpetuation. We're talking fact sustaining feeling, right through the change that inevitably attends all feeling, Faye” (GCH 28)—eigenvaluatively Hilbertizes phase space as though it were Wittgensteinian logical space, while at the same time opening the possibility of the entire story being metonymized by this transmutation of sententiousness.

The gag here is, at least in part, built around having Merv Griffin phenomenologize droppings like “ontic” which, while vaguely suggestive of “antic,” a term to which it is not in any way homologous, still somehow manages to be congruent with it on a free-associational level. Throughout all his writing Wallace enjoys being free with those associations found milling around the hub of the ontological. In “Order and Flux in Northampton” there is mention made of “miraculous manipulations of primal human ontemes too primal and too human even to be contemplated” (“OFN” 94), an “onteme” being presumably a unit of emitted being. Likewise, Merv Griffin himself, here frontloaded as a “character font” with the freedom to enter and leave the story's narrativity frame (as well as determining the fate of its “typecasts”), proves that in this text at least il n'y a pas de hors-Merv Griffin. But in his own person he also proves something else. As a point of Hilbert space representing ad finitum the “quantum state” of an entire narrative system, his indeterminacy is then indistinguishable from the causeless effect and the effectless cause of that state, which is now a story that has Merv Griffin in it but which determines how it shall be read, from a point outside it, his ever shifting cachet as a performance artist in late capitalist showbiz. (Though it is tempting to adduce the same power to mediate an end run around the means of cultural production to the other “real-life” characters in “Little Expressionless Animals,” such as the TV hosts of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak, their use in the story is in every sense “fair” and merely reprivatizes what is already within the public domain.)

Such raids on Nouveau Kitsch by gimcrack “technicals” franchised by E. M. Doctorow and Max Apple over a quarter of a century ago are scarcely new. Indeed, David Letterman appears as a character in another Wallace story, “My Appearance,” from Girl with Curious Hair. But differences between the frames broken by these two particular outtakes, though indistinguishable in context from the surface of things fictional, are hardly superficial. “I'm always stumped when critics regard references to popular culture in serious fiction as some sort of avant-garde stratagem,” Wallace confesses in his interview with McCaffery. “In terms of the world I live in and try to write about, it's inescapable. Avoiding any reference to the pop would mean either being retrograde about what's ‘permissible’ in serious art or else writing about some other world.” Postmodern irony having “become our environment,” why not use real names when adverting to the world of commerce and the media instead of stooping to the sort of campy logo-centricity that Updike and other older writers engage in whereby certain fast-food restaurants get called “Burger Bliss” rather than “Burger King.”

Why not, indeed. The obvious answer is that the canvas of proto-reality, having become indistinguishable from the frame that contains it, is no longer able to prevent fiction from reconfiguring the collage of icons that is itself indistinguishable—postmodern irony having become our environment—from the circumambient culture that sustains it. This iconic speculum also doubles as the medium that permits us to view that no less factitious world whose endlessly recycled representations include made-for-TV images of ourselves being watched as we watch them, thus providing an echo chamber for our least negotiable narcissisms. Escaping from this paralysis of irony and narcissism is one of the main problems Wallace has found himself having to face as a writer: how to spacewalk in the vergeless virtual totally unpunctuated Hilbert space of the new post-scientific sensibility.


Yes—if by the term is meant collaborative rather than unicellular-heroic, transempirical rather than Popperesque, cumulo-enactive rather than linear-descriptive. “No longer devoted exclusively to knowing, knowledge, or know-how” might be one way to encapsulate the post-scientific in opposition to both Feyerabendistic (against method) and anti-Feyerabendistic (against Against Method) mindsets. Nor is it in any way to be confused or conflated with postmodernism or poststructuralism. These two no-longer-quite-so-trendy dyslexicologies once carved out insubstantial niches for themselves by furnishing ways and means (though not necessarily the ways and means) by which what is—or more often, what is not—might be reconscripted into an army of metaphors and metonymies at least as mobile (and certainly newer) than the one half-excoriated and half-embraced by Nietzsche in “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1873). As fully self-conscious theorias they clearly set out to debug the collective pleroma of sociotronic mass intermediation with literary-philosophical sounding kits somewhere between the reflex tester (again, proposed by Nietzsche, in Twilight of the Idols, or, How One Philosophizes with a Hammer [1888]) and the armamentarium of program protectors with which computer virologists come equipped. Postmodern science begins from the point of recognizing the need, as Stephen Toulmin writes in The Return to Cosmology (1982), “to reinsert humanity into nature.” The post-scientific, on the other hand, involves a far different approach to bricolage than the vision of either a Paul Feyerabend or a Gregory Bateson allows for. It requires a hands-on algorithmics for actually doing reality in a sense akin to the old sixties cachet of “doing drugs,” but it also combines a counterintuitive reserve with an open field commitment to what the pianist David Sudnow calls “ways of the hand” or “organization of improvised conduct,” instead of settling for well worn Taosing rods urging us to play reality by ear.

How, then, might “Girl” 's fractalizations of Sick Puppy's discombobulating mind in a prose as sweatlessly unconscionable as it is unconscionably sweatless properly—or even improperly—speaking, be considered “post-scientific”? Or, for that matter, the emergency room narrativistics of “Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR”? Or the Dinglemania so fractally ophthalmologized by Wallace in “Order and Flux in Northampton”? And why should such a cumbersome new concept, laid on the culture like an enormous mustard plaster, be of any interest to literary theory already up to its canines in dogs that won't hunt?

Let me attempt to answer that by deproblematizing the issues involved. Post-scientific writing no longer accepts either the single-author theory of literary conspiracy or the conspiratorial model of “non-subjective” impersonal authorship favored by poststructuralists, post-Marxists, postmodernists, and post-post- all of the above. It bathes (rather than frames) the act of writing in the light of a wholly collaborative dissolution of alterities and the culture wars they have historically given rise to. The aim of the scientific has always been to control those parameters that are indispensable to the exercise of domination. Science as we know it has thrived because it has co-opted all responsibly envisionable canons of authority and the perquisites of legitimacy that go with them. Post-scientific writing releases the literary from its longstanding obligation to oppose the scientific, to play “pseudo-” to its overarching power to collapse all articulative distinctions between “state” as a noun and “state” as a verb. It overturns the traditionally imposed hegemony of the temporal over the spatial and returns writing (after long exile) to its dream of fields—open rather than closed (as along the Flaubert-Joyce-Beckett axis); fractal rather than linear-dynamic; integrative rather than discontinuous and catabolic. Though superficially comparable with the plush upholsteries of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and related congeries, post-scientific writing may perhaps best be understood as “discourse art” grated on to a root stock of chaos theory and Nietzschean “somantics,” which is a spinoff from semantics and cognitive science, having been filtered through some recent and highly innovative thinking about “the body in the mind.”

To suggest where this leaves postmodern fiction it is necessary to review what such fiction has been thought to be by the industry that has marketed consensus regarding the value of its products with the untempered enthusiasm of a Honda Corporation touting the merits of a very different type of accord during the last twenty years or so. This accord is nearly always referred back to the same few appraisers of the “postmodern condition”—Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Jameson jump to mind—who view postmodern writers generally as opting to problematize reality in their works rather than settling for an illusionistic consensus of what it is.

But of course it could be asked, When has fiction not “problematized” reality? Even “novelists of manners” from Austen to Waugh (keeping to just the Anglo- in Anglo-American writing) have fictionalized their problematizations of it by appending to their testaments to will the empowering codicils of proprietary subjectivity without which any “reality” is but a rationalist's forgery or an irrationalist's fraud. “A mourning process has now been completed,” Jean-François Lyotard opined sunnily in The Post-modern Condition. “Most people have lost the nostalgia for the lost narrative.” That was warmly aired in 1984, an auspicious year for singleminded ascensions into doublethink. Five years before the collapse of the Great Wall of communism in central and eastern Europe; eight years before the resurgence of “post-Marxist” socialism in the same countries that had only recently rhapsodized about the promise of “post-socialist politics.” One grand narrative that turned out less lost than just misplaced by the likes of Lyotard and others eager to hop on the garishly painted wagon of postmodernism was, of all things, modernism. Not the Enlightenment modernism of a Jürgen Habermas, but the aesthetic modernism of an Erich Auerbach, whose final chapters in Mimesis (1953) conceive narrative as a crucible in which even so discontinuous and fragmentary a subjective experience as Proust's can be reconstituted by “analogy” (Proust's term) into a unity.

At least some of Wallace's shorter fiction can be seen as exemplary acts of post-scientific writing because they erase the factitious dualism that has plagued the modernism/postmodernism chimera by abolishing the pain in the neck that is traceable to the “pineal connection” underlying its disembodied and mindless interdifferentiality. Wallace's “Flux,” for example, is a tale of Love Syntagmaticized that takes a grammar of lore and energizes it to drive a syntax of eigenvectors only dimly contingent upon such signifying chains as socioreality/rhizomatics (Guattari), economimesis/différence (Derrida), or chronotopicality/dialogics (Bakhtin). The linkage system “interseparating” Barry Dingle, Myrnaloy Trask, and Don Megala (not to mention the host of named and unnamed supernumeraries who inhabit the Berkeleyan/Berkeleyan pleroma of Northampton/Amherst, Massachusetts) exceeds reality without transcending it because it offers no megalomaniacal “grand narrative” of the sort that Don Megala hoped to find in Stuart Gilbert's misguided tour of Ulysses. Fiction in the age of science (coincidental with the novel's maximum solvency) has always posted “the world according to …” in a ledger of double entry transfers of knowledge from the carnal to the ever expanding database that, in direct succession from Samuel Richardson to his less-talented postmodern epigone John Irving, has rendered “real life” accessible through an essentially Garped economy of means. Like the underheated economy that is present-day America's discontent, such fiction has flourished on a regimen of borrow and spend, ignoring with singleminded determination the mounting deficit of relevance and belief it could no longer bank or bank upon. Northampton's ancestral kvetch, Solomon Stoddard, set the tone for this screaming beneath the sky well back in the eighteenth century, when, as the narratormentor to the reader doing “Order and Flux” reports, the dentist/theologian and deliverer of some stemwinding Great-Awakening jeremiads in the years 1711-17 “foretold the world's cold and imminent end, characterizing that end as a kind of grim entropic stasis already harbinged by, among other portents: poor nutrition and its attendant moral and dental decay; the increasing infertility of modern woman; the rise of the novel; the Great Awakening itself” (OFN 94).

The example of Thomas Pynchon provides a useful contrast to Wallace's post-scientific approach. Pynchon, of course, is still very much alive, but remains very much a horseman of this chiropractical apocalypse; which is also to say that by now it's impossible to come upon the word entropic without recalling just whose gold lies buried at the foot of gravity's rainbow. Yet, for all its postmodern panache and skill at inventorying the century's paranoid inventions, no shimmer of the post-scientific gleams from the pages of this encyclopedic master. His Vineland is not all that removed from the sort of world that can be pieced together from Rev. Stoddard's X rays of the mouth of Hell.

But not so the recent writings of his inheritor and not-so secret sharer of influenza's anxiety, David Foster Wallace. In several of his best stories modernism and postmodernism are underwritten with a currency that projects a semblance of solvency, even while its value continues to drain away behind the scenes of its own commercially staged renascence. If all that Wallace has set a-shimmer doesn't yet gleam, his work nevertheless proves the writing on the wall for any number of his glitzier contemporaries. This wall has been waiting patiently to receive such writings—and those of his post-postmodern contemporaries—if and when what is still wanting in it weighs in with the balanced fullness of its findings, and ours.


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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.

Bharat Tandon (review date 26 December 1997)

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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 parodic voices Wallace creates, a reader approaches the everyday events and objects of which they speak with a feeling of rediscovery—aptly enough for a writer so concerned with the effects of electronic media on the perceptions. The collection's title-story, for example, offers a convincingly perverse narrator, and emerges as the most accomplished piece in the book. In the seven years since the first appearance of these stories, it has become a tiresome staple of so-called “Generation X” writing to feature narrators fashioned from disaffection, self-pity and grunge, to the point where even Douglas Coupland reads like a send-up. Wallace's “Girl with Curious Hair” neatly sidesteps such traps by offering its observations on youth culture in the baroque tones of Sick Puppy, a far-right Republican slumming it with a group of punks:

The manner in which the little melodies were linked was arranged by Keith Jarrett's subconscious, stated Cheese, thus his concerts were linear, Keith Jarrett's piano performance was a line instead of a composed and round circle. The line was like a little life story of the Negro's special experiences and feelings. I informed Cheese that I did not know that Negroes had subconsciousness but enjoyed the sound of the music a great deal, and Cheese frowned.

The only recent work to which the story is comparable is Bret Easton Ellis's overrated slasher comedy, American Psycho, and “Girl with Curious Hair” has the better of the comparison by the simple expedient of being genuinely funny. Wallace's sadistic ingénu, by the very sharpness of his portrayal, manages to point up the dangerous overlap between fashionable nihilism and patrician decadence.

One strength of the comic short story is that it can work like a performed sketch or routine; a set-piece or comic motif can be taken to its natural conclusion, without the larger structural demands of a long novel. Infinite Jest's shortcoming (for want of a better word) is that its often hilarious set pieces don't add up. The early stories are not burdened by this obligation, and can sound all the more sprightly for it. Aside from the title-story, “My Appearance” anticipates many of the monster novel's treatments of characters obsessed with their real and virtual images. A television actress is signed up to appear on the David Letterman chat show, only to find herself—in a sick parody of Erving Goffman—taking direction through a hidden earpiece, in order to sound more “spontaneous”:

“Let's be honest”, I said. The audience was quiet, “I just had a very traumatic birthday, and I've been shedding illusions right and left. You're now looking at a woman with no illusions, David.”

Letterman seemed to perk up at this. He cleared his throat. My earplug hissed a direction never to use the word “illusions”.

It is when depicting the pathology of self-consciousness that Wallace truly sounds in his element; indeed, it is hard to think of another contemporary American who can sound disturbing on the subject.

There are those who write blithely, even gleefully, of the essentially “fictive” and inexpressible nature of all human communication, whether in novels or in daily life—though it is hard to imagine how such characters might fare on a date. Wallace is not of this order; he is not a strict anti-realist; rather, he dramatizes characters' anxieties about how much reality they have available to them any more. He is rare among tricksy novelists in that he does not banish emotional resonance and pain from his field of vision (although nothing in his work is as genuinely poignant as the end of Pynchon's magisterial Mason & Dixon). Even so, the last story in Girl with Curious Hair, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, taking up a third of the book's 373 pages, points more ominously to the wilful prolixity of Infinite Jest. Taking its cue explicitly from John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, the story sends up some familiar meta-fictional games, but finishes by colluding with them; for instance, it relies on the technique of serial interruption, which Sterne employs in the “King of Bohemia” episode of Tristram Shandy, and which isn't that funny to begin with. Wallace offers some sharp jokes at the expense of post-modernism, but isn't far enough from his object for it to sound wholly comfortable:

… she actually went around calling herself a post-modernist. No matter where you are, you Don't Do This. By convention it's seen as pompous and dumb. She made a big deal of flouting convention, but there was little to love about her convention-flouting. …

When he hits home, Wallace is simply too talented a writer to need to swim with these stylistic sharks. There is enough in Girl with Curious Hair and the recent work to suggest that he could become a great satirist of the new technologies; however, the finite jests in these stories also lend weight to the argument that, as in so many other areas of life, being short can have its benefits.

Principal Works

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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

Daniel Orozco (review date 16 May 1999)

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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 fragmented quality reflects a vigorous, restless imagination and an impatience with the conventions of storytelling. But it is not merely a compendium of experimental fiction. For while his methods of narrative run the gamut—at times annoyingly so—Wallace's vision of the human character is constant.

The people in his stories are a flawed and deluded lot who rarely earn the epiphanies granted characters in other fictions, and Wallace shines high beams on them so sharp and unflinching that we have to laugh—or cringe—in recognition.

Consider the title story. “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” is a series of tape transcripts, interviews with 20 men talking to an unseen interviewer about their obsessions, fetishes and fantasies.

They lecture and harangue and justify, and their talk is mostly about women—as conquests, as demons, as receptacles, as anything but human beings. One subject, known as B.I. No. 40 (none of the men are named), explains his successful technique for seducing women, which relies on the exploitation of his deformed arm, “a itty tiny little flipper,” which he nicknames “the Asset.”

B.I. No. 31 professes his disdain for men who are good lovers: “What they're into is a woman's pleasure and giving her pleasure. That's this whole type's trip.”

He elaborates later—“They think they're generous in bed. No, but the catch is they're selfish about being generous”—then launches into his defense of bad lovers everywhere. The conceit here is the dramatic monologue, and Wallace is masterful at it.

These men are predatory, deceitful, angry. But what is hideous about them is how utterly mundane they are, wholly human in the sublimation of their fears of women, intimacy and love.

Fearfulness of another sort is at the heart of “The Depressed Person,” a savagely ironic story about the over-examined life, narrated with a deadpan, “objective” precision:

“Her therapist gently but repeatedly shared with the depressed per son her (i.e., the therapist's) belief that the very best medicine for her (i.e., the depressed person's) endogenous depression was the cultivation and regular use of a Support System the depressed person felt she could reach out to share with and lean on for unconditional caring and support.”

Both the story and title character are mired in the discourse of self- help. There is the need for Quiet Time and the avoidance of the “Blame Game.” There is even an Inner-Child-Focused Experiential Therapy Retreat Weekend.

This is a beautifully modulated story, funny, unrelenting and ultimately tragic as it tracks the diagnostic industry's victimization of one woman.

More than half of Wallace's stories here run to six pages or less. A young woman attempts a clumsy seduction; a famous poet sits in the sun, thumbing through a magazine; a man reassesses an act of generosity; another recounts a recurring dream of blindness; a boy gets a haircut in a warm kitchen.

Deceptively simple to summarize, these situations unfold as complex emotional dramas, ending on startling moments of revelation sometimes not fully grasped by the characters—or the reader.

Wallace is the best kind of show- off, a writer who is not complacent with his writerly gifts; he risks, and thus—necessarily and inevitably—stumbles. Such is the case when he dabbles in metafiction, that most risky and alienating of narrative modes. “Adult World,” for instance, is a bifurcated tale about Jeni, a woman obsessed with pleasing her sexually distracted husband. But just when the reader gets hooked into the drama, the story shifts into an author's outline: “1c. Flat narr description of J.'s sudden pallor & inability to hold decaf steady as J. undergoes sddn blndng realization.”

Wallace's point is clear—stories are artifice and characters mere constructs—but that doesn't keep “Adult World” from devolving into a simple demo of a narrative principle.

And then there's “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko,” a painfully silly pastiche of Greek myths set in the Los Angeles television industry, with characters named Ovid the Obtuse and Agon M. Nar and Herm (“Afro”) Deight, M.D., the latter a plastic surgeon. But just look at the magnificent “Forever Overhead,” a boy in a pool in Tucson, Ariz., decides on his 13th birthday to jump off the high board: “Happy Birthday. It is a big day, big as the roof of the whole southwest sky. You have thought it over. There is the high board. … Climb out and do the thing.”

The details here are lovingly precise, creating an evocative public- poolside tableau: “a cyclone fence the color of pewter, decorated with a bright tangle of locked bicycles”; the SN CK BAR sign; men with backs like the humps of whales and the “smell of bleach's special flower.” This is a perfectly nuanced story of a moment suspended in time.

That it and other magnificent stories in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men sit next to some maddeningly goofy and indulgent exercises may be a perverse tribute to Wallace as a writer.

He risks maybe too much, maybe too often. But he can risk magnificently, and when he succeeds, the result is startling, visionary fiction.

Adam Begley (review date 24 May 1999)

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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, “apostrophe-heavy” religion. By “focus,” she means a kind of prayerful soul-to-soul connection that involves “intense concentration further sharpened and intensified to a single sharp point … a kind of needle of concentrated attention whose extreme thinness and fragility were also … its capacity to penetrate.” (This in a story about rape.)

In most of Brief Interviews [Brief Interviews With Hideous Men], Mr. Wallace uses his “focus” to penetrate the souls of hideous men. It's painful and often funny and very often hugely impressive and achieves, amazingly, exactly what the granola-crunching young woman promised: Piercing layers of irony, self-consciousness, fear, hostility, neurosis and plain old stupidity—piercing, in short, the “insoluble flux” of the conscious self (what Wallace Stevens called “the evilly compounded, vital I”), Mr. Wallace touches “the beauty and nobility of the generic human soul,” a quick glimpse of common humanity in every grotesque. When he parrots new age nostrums, he's indulging his fascination with jargon; it's not a sign of insincerity. What he wants to get at is “some sort of weird ambient sameness in different kinds of human relationships”—sounds better, doesn't it, in his own edgy, pop pedant voice? He lets us know, in meta-mode, that he feels a “queer urgency” about all this. It's catching.

There are all manner of stories in this collection: a footnote-heavy, maddening descent into the hall-of-mirrors unhappiness of a woman obsessed with her mental health (“The Depressed Person”); an elliptical, arty tone-poem (“Church Not Made with Hands”); an aborted “cycle of very short belletristic pieces,” transformed, mid-cycle, into a metafictional meditation on the difficulty of what “you, the fiction writer” are trying to achieve (“Octet”). Tying it all together are the “Brief Interviews” themselves, 18 encounters parceled out in four sections, each encounter carefully labeled and dated (“B.I. #72 08-98, North Miami Beach, FL,” for example), as though they'd been plucked from a vast archive.

Hideous men come in all colors: physically deformed, psychologically deformed, brutish, smug, arch, conspiratorial. Some stoke subterranean violence. Each reveals himself in his own voice; each registers as real, a bad dream or even a nightmare, and pinching yourself is no escape. A vestigial “Q.” is all that's left of the questions asked by an anonymous interviewer. The reader sees only the response, which is always performative. The interviewee is conscious of an audience—i.e., the questioner—and thus self-conscious (a state of mind Mr. Wallace has made his specialty), and yet also unconsciously revealing himself. It's a tough format to work with, which means that every success looks like a tour de force.

Exactly what you think of “B.I. #42 06-97, Peoria Heights, IL,” a son's cruel exposure of his father's “career” as a washroom attendant in a grand Midwestern hotel, “the single finest men's room between the two coasts, surely.” The son dwells obsessively, graphically on the sounds and odors in an “opulent and echoing” space equipped with eight toilets, six urinals and 16 sinks, the room where his father has stood, dressed in “Good-Humor white,” nine hours a day, six days a week, for more than 25 years. The descriptions are minute, unbearably vivid and precise: “The damp lisp of buttocks shifting on padded seats. … The urinal's ceaseless purl and trickle.” Mr. Wallace makes sure your nostrils are assaulted by the “difference in some men's odors, the sameness in all men's odors.”

You soon realize that the hotel washroom (“that miasma”) haunts the son. He hasn't seen his father in decades but he's nonetheless scarred by the shame he still feels at the indignity of his father's work. He's scarred also by his father's emotional absence. Hideousness, in this case, begins with an awful occupation: “He showered thrice daily and scrubbed himself raw but the job still followed him.” Followed him home, in fact: “The face he wore in the men's room. He couldn't take it off.” Whence (we deduce) the son's appalling condition—fitting punishment, perhaps, for having turned his back on the afflicted paterfamilias. Now the son is condemned to hear in his head a concert of “flatus and tussis and meaty splats.” But remember: In back of this inherited hideousness is our biological “sameness,” the human inevitability of excrement. The son, desperate to detach himself from the father, draws closer. “The door tells the whole story. MEN.

The boy in “Forever Overhead” is not yet a man, though “hard curled hairs” have sprouted around his “privates.” It is his 13th birthday, and at a public pool just west of Tucson, Ariz., he screws up his courage, gets in line and climbs to the top of the tower for the high dive. That's it. That's the story: Mr. Wallace leaves him up there on the board, clenched by fear. It sounds slight but it isn't. The surface shimmer is gorgeous, a shocking accuracy of detail; the suspense, brief and unresolved, had me suffering vertigo; and the resonance (this comes after several readings) compels respect.

Once the boy has decided to jump, he joins a procession of people who climb; “the line … has no reverse gear.” He's stuck, and you're with him, climbing every rung on the tower's ladder. “The rungs are very thin. It's unexpected. Thin round iron rungs laced in slick wet Safe-T felt.” Pause to admire, please, the echoing beauty of that last sentence. Here's how it is at the top, for him, and for you: “The rough white stuff of the board is wet. And cold. Your feet are hurt from the thin rungs and have a great ability to feel. They feel your weight.” He is most disturbed (you both are) by the two “dirty spots” at the end of the board: “They are from all the people who've gone before you. … They are skin abraded from feet by the violence of the disappearance of people with real weight. … The weight and abrasion of their disappearance leaves little bits of soft tender feet behind, bits and shards and curls of skin that dirty and darken and tan as they lie tiny and smeared in the sun at the end of the board.” And below? “The square tank is a cold blue sheet. Cold is just a kind of hard.”

Happy birthday. And welcome to adulthood, the one-way climb to abrasion and disappearance. If you want reassurance, consider what happens each time a diver's body hits the “cold blue sheet”: The tank “heals itself.” After each fall a splash, “a great fizzing. Then the silent sound of the tank healing to new blue all over again.”

Well. Now we know he can write short. Let's just hope he writes for a long, long time.

Further Reading

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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.

Additional coverage of Wallace's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 10; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 50; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 132; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 59; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 50, 114; Discovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2.

Vince Passaro (review date 28 May 1999)

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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 looks in public as if he'd prefer to be wearing a full mask but makes do with a scarf over his head. He also happens to be one of the most ambitious and talented writers of his generation. His work is bitingly funny and remarkably, even wildly, imaginative; at the same time he aims for very large psychological, emotional and social issues, issues of how we live or fail to live, love and fail to love, survive or destroy ourselves.

Judging by his demeanor as well as his prose, Wallace has what appears to be a nicely productive case of chronic depression—you can see that sore and haunted look around the eyes. Apparently he tried drugs for a short time—a sensible experiment given his personality—but didn't react well to them. Now he writes a lot.

What makes Wallace such a good/bad talk show guest and profile subject is that he attempts to answer fully and in nuanced ways the questions he's asked. The publicity machine can artfully photograph around him, they can catch the near-blondness while largely obscuring the monastic agonies and fanatical intensity marking his face, but they have trouble with the quotes. On “Charlie Rose,” Wallace was like a giant combine moving through a field of wheat when he was supposed to be posing with a cute donkey and an old leather plow in front of the family barn. In the midst of long answers that continually posed an impossible series of new questions, moving over the humps of the host's simplistic assumptions with a clatter and bang, he stopped and asked Charlie, ‘I assume all this will be edited out, right?’ Each new inquiry seemed to make Wallace seethe, and his obvious awareness that he'd better try to answer in a way appropriate to a television show only made him squirm deeper into the nest of implications he created. Charlie seemed dazed.

I thought it was a splendid display, but I also thought I detected the sound of WNET producers screaming all the way from midtown. Authors are not supposed to behave and talk like actual authors when they're given the golden seat on the talk show. They are supposed to entertain, to stick to mild and conventional wisdom or similarly mild and conventional provocations. Just give us that air of authorial expertise, that touch of benign loftiness that we can easily grasp, so that we feel neither inferior nor ignorant but perfectly capable and well-informed. Watch Skip Gates, or Ken Auletta, and get it right next time.

An appropriate thought because the next time has just rolled around. Wallace publishes a new work of fiction this month, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, a collection of stories that, like his earlier collection, Girl With Curious Hair, as well as Infinite Jest, is filled with desperation, loneliness and addiction.

Early reviewers from the likes of Publishers Weekly and Kirkus seem baffled by this book. Its formal innovations, its ironic play across the plain of ideas in addition to character, make it a difficult book for average readers to pin down. “Opaque” one review called it. In fact, 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. Wallace's selections of voices are in the best sense theatrical and historically nimble: in Girl With Curious Hair, for instance, his characters included an unstoppable lesbian contestant on “Jeopardy,” a skinhead girl, an actress making an appearance on “Letterman.” Here, he takes up figures possibly more obscure, less pop-cult than sub-cult: a murkily identified refugee of central Europe or the unnamed individual at the center of the story “The Depressed Person.” They all speak in a language subtly undergirded by their own appropriate historical knowledge. Wallace writes of young boys at the pool, middle-aged men in uncomfortable sexual situations and the aforementioned depressed woman who unbearably narrates her pathologies in the neo-vocabulary of healing and therapy. Perhaps most extraordinary among the collection are the clinical documentary impersonations of certain unpleasant men whose dysfunctional reminiscences—mostly sexual but occasionally otherwise—constitute the series of fragmentary selections Wallace calls Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.

The interviews, which are scattered throughout the book, suggest some sort of endless psychological entrance interview or massive and unbounded sociological study. They are in a question-and-answer format, but the questions are omitted, represented only by a blank line beginning and ending with “Q.” With the questions left blank, we are without the soothing presence of the “normal,” and are left to face the warped reality of late-20th century life in its purest sense, entirely free of context, reduced to language and vocal impersonation, like a rough cut, unnarrated Frederick Wiseman documentary, all sound and no picture.

In one, Wallace presents a highly damaged middle-aged man of what one guesses is East German birth recounting his earliest masturbation fantasies, set at what he calls the State Exercise Facility, where his mother dutifully kept fit and where he, a sickly child, accompanied her and his brother. He watched with the dread and horror of the physically inept as they threw weighted balls at each other and perspired. In his fantasy, stimulated by early viewing of “the American situation comedy ‘Bewitched,’” he was able with a gesture of his hand to freeze all motion in the gymnasium and hold insensate everyone in the large room, while beckoning the woman he desired, the only other animate being in the tableau, to join him for a frenzied liaison in the middle of the gymnasium floor, all the other exercisers, including Mama, standing paralyzed and oblivious around them. His schoolbook English syntax is perfectly formal and incorrect in all the right places, as he explains that the fantasy was not so easy to sustain:

This may appear so outlandish, of course, from the perspective of how little logic is in envisioning a sickly youth causing sexual desire with only a hand's motion. I have really no answer for this. The hand's supernatural power was perhaps the fantasy's First Premise or aksioma, itself unquestioned, from which all then must rationally derive and cohere. Here you must say I think First Premise. And all must cohere from this, for I was the son of a great figure of state science, thus if once a logical inconsistency in the fantasy's setting occurred to me, it demanded a resolution consistent with the enframing logic of the hand's powers, and I was responsible for this. If not, I found myself distracted by nagging thoughts of the inconsistency, and was unable to masturbate. This is following for you? By this I am saying, what began only as a childish fantasy of unlimited power became a series of problems, complications, inconsistencies, and the responsibilities to erect working, internally consistent solutions to these. It was these responsibilities which quickly expanded to become too insupportable even within fantasy to permit me ever to exercise again true power of any type, hence placing me in the circumstances which you see all too plainly here.

Note the sharp, nearly unconscious doubling of meanings here in “erect,” and “exercise.” Other interviews include what seems to be an overheard conversation between two lecherous traveling salesmen, and one subject's reminiscence of his father's life as a men's room attendant in a fancy hotel. You might call these pieces tours de force, but you might also as easily see them as entirely new ways of creating fiction.

Wallace, among his other talents, blends the languages of modern philosophy, sexual angst and suburban psychological breakdown in a way that manages both to be thoroughly new in literary terms, and yet still evoke in the reader that state of mind that all great literature evokes, that sense of encounter with phenomena long familiar and suddenly, perfectly identified.

Wallace is a third-person writer in a first-person age. As a result, he appropriates first-person forms and uses them to give himself and us a third-person perspective. Instead of fiction's usual series of self-assertive paragraphs he prefers to employ the most obnoxious, or annoying, or mundane narrative formats of our time like a hermit crab inhabiting discarded shells. In Brief Interviews [Brief Interviews With Hideous Men], these include the questionnaire, the Q & A, the structured notes that approach but do not achieve the level of a story, plus footnotes galore (many running to three pages or more), futuristic dictionary entries and, in a story called “Octet,” the pop quiz:

Pop Quiz # 4

Two late-stage terminal drug addicts sat up against an alley's wall with nothing to inject and no means and nowhere to go or be. Only one had a coat. It was cold, and one of the terminal drug addicts' teeth chattered and he sweated and shook with fever. He seemed gravely ill. He smelled very bad. He sat up against the wall with his head on his knees.

This took place in Cambridge MA in an alley behind the Commonwealth Aluminum Can Redemption Center on Massachusetts Avenue in the early hours of 12 January 1993. The terminal drug addict with the coat took off the coat and scooted over up close to the gravely ill terminal drug addict and took and spread the coat as far as it would go over the both of them and then scooted over some more and got himself pressed right up against him and put his arm around him and let him be sick on his arm, and they stayed like that up against the wall together all through the night.

Q.: Which one lived.

Redemption Center indeed. In this passage, as in all of Wallace's work, the hope of redemption, redemption of the most significant kind, flickers through the text like a weak but still present flame, and what comes through of him as a writer and mind are his sense of profound irony, his intellectual scope and something too of his well-handled, almost talismanic pain. Wallace has planted himself firmly as the American writer of his generation to watch, to match and, most urgently, to read.

Greg Johnson (review date 6 June 1999)

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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.

By the late 1980s, the neo-realists had taken the field, with a Hemingway- inspired minimalist aesthetic and a television-era innocence of ideas. The postmodernist experiments of Barthelme and company, for all their zany brilliance and technical flash, had come to seem dated if not quite irrelevant, still holding their places in fiction anthologies but tolerated rather than welcomed, like eccentric uncles at a family gathering. Whereas proponents of metafiction had once celebrated the death of the novel, now it seemed that experimental fiction itself had gone on life support.

Then along came a twentysomething writer named David Foster Wallace, whose first novel (The Broom of the System) and first story collection (The Girl With the Curious Hair) earned him the necessary bona fides for an authentic postmodernist heir apparent: Critics raved about the books and almost nobody read them. Then came his second novel, the 1,079-page Infinite Jest, whose epic boldness and exuberant technical inventiveness earned the now 33-year- old author the feverish adulation of highbrow critics (but no embarrassing prizes), a large readership (but no embarrassing appearances on the best seller lists) and a media spotlight as the sudden “it boy” of contemporary fiction.

Wallace's new collection of stories [Brief Interviews with Hideous Men] features many of the same eccentricities of style and structure that made his celebrated novel either an exhilarating deconstruction of fictional artifice or a pretentious, self- indulgent pile of verbiage (depending on the reader).

Here are narratives studded with lengthy “footnotes” of riffing, self- referential commentary on prose passages that could themselves be described as riffing, self-referential commentary. Here are tales focused on such contemporary obsessions as self-help (“The Depressed Person”), sexual functioning (“Adult World II”) and pop culture (“Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko”). But most brilliantly or boringly, depending, there is a wildly experimental approach to fiction that blends the postmodernist high jinks of Barthelme (it was a Barthelme story, Wallace once confessed, that inspired him to begin writing fiction) with the moral earnestness of Updike (even while savaging an Updike novel in a now notorious review, Wallace admitted that he'd read 25 Updike books and admired his descriptive prose) with the self-mocking, self-erasing ironic stance of a late-'90s literary hipster (in an interview, he followed one particularly orotund proclamation with the plea, “If you quote that, I'd really like you to quote that I acknowledge it sounds banal and cliched”).

The title stories—for there are “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” interspersed through the volume—include self-explanations, some of them not very brief, by such “hideous” figures as a rapist-murderer, a man who used his deformed arm to seduce women, a son obsessed with his dead father's career as a men's room attendant: “The soft plopping sounds. The slight gassy sounds. The little involuntary grunts. The special sign of an older man at a urinal, the way he establishes himself there and sets his feet. … This was his environment.”

One story is all dialogue; others have no dialogue. One offers not a story but the haphazard (or are they?) notes for a story. One has the heft of a novella; another is six lines long. Others deconstruct such established forms as the dramatic monologue, the dictionary entry, the pop quiz. These experiments more than fulfill the author's role as Barthelme's heir, but in some passages Wallace tosses up a descriptive nugget that even Updike might envy, such as the suburban public swimming pool surrounded by “a cyclone fence the color of pewter, decorated with a bright tangle of locked bicycles,” or the effect of a boring lecturer on his audience: “Well-barbered heads turn obliquely to see the angle of the clock's flashing hands.”

Most readers should take this collection slowly, perhaps skipping either the most bizarrely experimental or the most accessible stories (depending). Few will close the book, however, without the awareness that Wallace is a prodigiously inventive, hugely funny writer whose best work challenges and reinvents the art of fiction.

Vincent D. Balitas (essay date 18 July 1999)

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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 the usual wails of the intelligentsia into a reasonable argument for serious fiction to recapture the public's attention.

One shouldn't overlook Mr. Wallace's raucous, insightful, at times sarcastic and condescending “Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All,” his account of a visit to the Illinois State Fair. Reading along, one begins to feel the oppressive heat, the coma-inducing sweets and cholestrol-raising fried foods, the beverages and rare breeze shifts that bring the animals being judged for size and shape, though not decorum, nearer.

In his nonfiction, Mr. Wallace is able to evoke a time and a place, and to shape a viable position better than most of his peers.

Once one has come to terms with Mr. Wallace's delight in language and imagery, it is time to tackle his first collection of short stories, Girl With Curious Hair in which some of his best fiction appears. The major influences on his writing are apparent: Robert Coover, John Barth and, of course, Thomas Pynchon. In these fictions Mr. Wallace tests several postmodern approaches to fiction, including metafiction, in which the act and art of writing itself is the story. The title piece combines dark humor, parody and an overall irony that not only produces an exquisite probe into what fiction is, or might be, but also a darn good story.

Mr. Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System, is another fine introduction to his work. A characteristically postmodern work, “Broom” sweeps (sorry) through some of the idiosyncratic givens of recent fiction, including outlandish monikers worthy of Mr. Pynchon, a mingling of genres (science fiction, detection), impossible characters such as a rather gifted cockatiel, aptly named Vlad the Impaler, that speaks in tongues and becomes a star on a television evangelist's show.

In 1996 Mr. Wallace's second novel, The Infinite Jest, appeared to mixed reviews. A massive book of 1,079 pages, 96 of which are devoted to “Notes and Errata,” the novel seems to want to challenge books like Gravity's Rainbow, originally called, according to most accounts, “Mindless Pleasures,” or “Giles Goat-Boy.” But whereas Mr. Pynchon and Mr. Barth were able to tell wonderful stories while experimenting with fiction's always movable frontiers, Mr. Wallace, at least in this novel, appears caught up in the process itself, letting a readable story flounder along the way. His “broom” obviously hadn't swept away what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence.”

Which brings me to Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, Mr. Wallace's foray into a type of minimalism that demands the reader's full cooperation in apprehending a story. An eeriness envelopes many of the pieces in this difficult collection. Few characters have names, footnotes and acronyms abound. People in the stories grope their ways through landscapes both familiar and yet strangely frightening.

There is more than a whiff of the late master of such spaces, John Hawkes, here. In fact, many of the voices that inhabit these almost surreal worlds could be mistaken for puppets awaiting a reader's manipulations. Parodies of plot, dialogue and character are often overwhelming, now and then self-defeating.

Consider the story “Forever Overhead,” a riff on the traditional coming-of-age plot involving a boy, a high-diving board, and a 13th birthday. Any reader with an ounce of imagination left can create a story from these three elements. It is so obvious a situation that one feels it has been encountered many times before. Only Mr. Wallace's attention to detail saves this piece from being a mere exercise like ones assigned in a creative writing class. However, when considered as only one piece of the entire collection, the story assumes a central position if only because it appears as out of place.

All of Interviews [Brief Interviews With Hideous Men] requires a reader's full commitment. But if Mr. Wallace's explorations of dysfunctionalism, of media and cultural manipulation, of alienation and ennui and of spirits deadend by passivity really seemed too much on the edge, his readership might remain small. However, this latest collection confirms him as a major player in contemporary writing. It is in the “Interviews” of the title, scattered throughout the book, that Mr. Wallace shines.

These “serious” interviews with egotistical losers (or victims, if you are so inclined), most identified only by a stark professional documentation (number of interview, date and place), force one to order and put them altogether to create a full tapestry. The interviewer is represented by Q., and there are no questions. As in a a perverse round of “Jeopardy,” the reader must attempt to imagine questions based on self-serving answers.

Tricky, yes, but a story emerges. The shallowness of the interviewees, their inability to interact, especially with women, and their reactions to the questioner are revealed as symptomatic of the times. Each interview is a short story in the making, a direct challenge to readers to slough off the force-feeding administered by much fiction published today and engage as a junior partner in a creative act of imagination.

Finally, while the earlier caveat remains in place, one will be doing oneself a disservice by not getting to know David Foster Wallace's work and not taking the time to grapple with his subtle mind, his intense vocabulary and, yes, his games.

Tom LeClair (review date 19 July 1999)

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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 desperate people are formed by multiple, often interlocking cultural contexts. The class differences between his elite tennis academy and neighboring halfway house reflect the politics of a United States that dumps its waste in Canada. In Wallace's late late capitalist future, American years are sponsored by consumer products, and most Americans are addicted to visual entertainment, drugs or both. In a culture of image and a society of physical beauty, misfits belong to the “Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed.” The merely grotesque find help in the sentimental platitudes of AA.

Infinite Jest is monstrous, willfully hypertrophied, deformed to model the gigantic delusions within it. “Radical realism,” says a character who resembles the author. I agree and think Infinite Jest belongs on the A-list of ample art with books by Wallace's progenitors—Gaddis and Pynchon—and with large novels by “new rebels” whom Wallace has praised: William Vollmann and Richard Powers. The title of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men implies that Wallace is continuing a rebellious realism, but much of this collection works off the B-list, the brief works of Borges and Beckett, Barth and Barthelme. As an undergraduate, Wallace studied philosophy and mathematics, and he seems attracted to the “thought experiment” fiction of the B-writers, the way a premise can generate its logical contradiction or create an exhausting regress.

Wallace updates Borges's “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in “Datum Centurio,” a future dictionary's entry on “date,” and he restages the final soliloquy of Beckett's Endgame in “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright's Father Begs a Boon.” “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko” retells Barth's retelling of Narcissus and Echo (herself a “reteller”) in Lost in the Funhouse. “Octet,” a series of pop quizzes for the reader, extends to a meta-dimension the questionnaire in Barthelme's Snow White. Wallace also recycles himself: “Adult World (I)” tells a story; “Adult World (II)” offers a writer's notebook revision or recursion.

These fictions and others like them do not “eschew self-consciousness,” but they're also not “fatigued.” Challenging himself to play B-games, to advance (or regress) the art unto the third generation, Wallace is frequently inventive, often witty and always demanding—rather than “pleasing,” like television and its imitators.

The highly cooked fictions alternate with “raw” stories in four sections titled “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.” The eighteen transcripts range in length from one paragraph to twenty-six pages, and most have the authenticity of voice-solecisms and colloquialisms, pedantic instruction or rhetorical urgency. Two “Interviews” are “overheard” dialogues; the rest are first-person monologues rarely affected by questions that Wallace never states, only implies, with a “Q.”

Almost all the “Interviews” are about women, seduction, sex or romantic relationships. Several are about parent-child dynamics. As a character says of a group, the stories are “Inward Bound.” One of the few references to politics comes when a narrator explains that he suffers from something like coprolalia: He yells, for no reason he can understand, “Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom” when he ejaculates. Another interviewee says, “If there wasn't a Holocaust there wouldn't be a Man's Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. In the “Interviews,” bondage is more common than liberation, denial more likely than meaning.

But, in the terms Wallace used to characterize the work of “new rebels,” melodrama, sentimentality, softness and overcredulity abound—at least in the narrators' voices. All four qualities unite in the final and longest “Interview,” in which a man tells a woman about seducing a soft “Granola Cruncher” and then falling in love with her after she tells him the melodramatic and emotionally cliched story of her rape by a man who threatened to kill her. Is the narrator sincere and trying to redeem himself after his initial manipulation of the Granola Cruncher? Is he hideously using, maybe even making up, the story to seduce his suspicious—or credulousauditor?

There's another question too. Is this narrator, who remarks on “flaccid abstractions” like his own and speaks of “consciousness of self-consciousness,” a front man for the author, who uses—rather than risks—violence, sentimentality and direct address to seduce the reader? Maybe yes, maybe no, and in these maybes lies the fascinating “creepiness” (a favorite Wallace word) of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.

The collection's best story is an “Interview” that combines a speaker's creepy obsession, the authorial inventiveness displayed in the B-fictions and a world outside the psyche. As a boy, the Russian narrator was able to watch American television because his mathematician father worked on nuclear weapons. A fan of Bewitched, the boy uses Elizabeth Montgomery, her ability to freeze action around her while she did what she wanted, as a masturbation fantasy, but soon he realizes that his “bewitching” of an erotic scene can be interrupted by motion elsewhere. He tries to imagine Russia, the planet and then the cosmos frozen still so he can masturbate, but he can never rid his fantasy of Godelian “inconsistencies” and incompleteness. Finally, he renounces sex altogether and speaks from an “Institute for Continuing Care.”

The narrator wants to be “liked,” a word Wallace examines in and after his brief prologue, “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”: “When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. They each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.” “He” and “she” get to go home. Wallace's other characters also want to be liked but are imprisoned, literally, in correctional facilities; figuratively, in hospitals, in a toilet or in their homes; in relationships with partners, parents or a therapist; in dreams, paradoxes, conundrums or obsessive-compulsive disorders. Unliked, characters are ashamed.

“The Depressed Person,” first published in Harper's, is a radically extended history of this shame and blame. The young female protagonist is first depressed about her childhood, then doubly depressed by lack of interest from her support group, then triply depressed by her therapist's suicide, so depressed and caged within herself that she shamelessly expects a terminally ill friend to comfort her. Told in the third person (perhaps because the first person is too depressed to say so), the story is initially humorous, parodic. But as it goes on and on and on to “tiresome length” in a therapeutic language never interrupted by dialogue, the reader feels imprisoned in a thoroughly unlikable story.

“Interview” narrators confess to being “annoying” or “trite.” Like the form of Infinite Jest, they are instructively monstrous, postindustrial narcissists, privateers of private life, their desires inhibited and repeated in ways analyzed by Foucault and Lacan, who are mentioned in one “Interview.” But when the pathological firstperson voice oozes into and takes over third-person stories such as “The Depressed Person,” Wallace deprives himself of the outside world that gave Infinite Jest its purchase. When the cooked sound like the raw, the reader remembers that “transcripts” are as artificial as the B-inventions.

The lengthy notes in Brief Interviews [Brief Interviews With Hideous Men] like those in Infinite Jest and in some of Wallace's journalism, imply that his imagination is constricted by any form but especially by essays and stories. In places, this collection appears to be a para- or proto-novel, very small parts and large sections struggling to cohere, to complete a larger pattern. “Octet,” which has only five parts, may be an internal model of the book. Along with two versions of “Adult World,” Wallace includes two two-page pieces titled “The Devil Is a Busy Man” and three equally short numbered pieces with the title “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders.” The borders between sections are porous. Stories not in the “Interviews” are about hideous men, and one story is narrated by the most shameful person in the collection, a man who, on his deathbed, reviles his son for being his son.

The eighteen “Interviews” may also be secretly linked—if they have been conducted by the same interviewer. They are dated and numbered but presented out of both sequences. If rearranged chronologically, the “Interviews” tell a unified though episodic story of a woman (Q) who, after being abandoned by her lover, travels America trying to understand what men want, what they like and perhaps whether or not they like her. The last “Interview” ends with “oh no not again behind you look out!” so the story may have a hideous, possibly violent end for “Q.”

Like the sequenced “Interviews” or like Barth's Mobius-stripped Lost in the Funhouse and Fibonacci-patterned Chimera, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men could have an intricate design, perhaps generated by a “stochastic” mathematics or conforming to a new paradigm that will be revealed on the Internet at the millennium by Wallace or someone who has read the collection thirty times.

Twice was enough for me: once to be both amused and displeased, once to understand why and respect Wallace's willingness to attract and repel, to employ as fictional method the “double bind” to which he refers and from which many of his characters suffer. Despite Wallace's warning about a “sham-honesty that's designed to get you to like … another manipulative pseudopomo Bullshit Artist,” I almost like this book. 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. And this suspicion brings me back to the first A-list writer I mentioned, William Gaddis. He sacrificed the high-Modernist style of The Recognitions to “record” in long-playing later works the simulacra, banalities and noise of televisual culture. Now that Gaddis is gone, we probably need Wallace's unlovely, unlikable hideousness. I give him a “B” for bullshit and bravery.

Robert L. McLaughlin (review date fall 1999)

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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 have it mean something.” The second problem is where human identity resides, someplace inside, where we know ourselves, or someplace on the outside, where others see us. This ambiguity can be paralyzing, as in the title character of “The Depressed Person,” who becomes obsessed with not appearing to others as she fears she might, or despicable, as in the various hideous men, who self-consciously develop personae in order to manipulate women's reactions to them. In both cases the result is dehumanizing. The third problem is how to develop a post-postmodern literature so as to write about these problems in a meaningful way. Wallace returns here to concerns he first dealt with explicitly in his novella Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way: the self-conscious fiction of the high postmodernists has been popularized into a cheap cynicism, a celebration of surface and the denial of depth, and a tendency to label any assertion about anything as hopelessly naive; fiction needs to build on the technical and thematic innovations of postmodern literature and find a way to break through the cynicism and the superficiality of contemporary society so as to say something true about being human. “Octet,” a series of pop quizzes, ends as a powerful challenge to writers and readers to remake fiction and its purposes. A fourth problem is interwoven with these three: language's ability to express the truth about the self or the world. Like Infinite Jest these pieces suggest contradictory attitudes toward language: on the one hand, a Jamesian desire to describe more and more obsessively, as if creating a lasso of language to ensnare the ineffable; on the other hand, a recognition of the cliched state of language, so overfamiliar that meaning can be telegraphed (“Foxholes and atheists and so on”). This conflict is illustrated in “Adult World,” where the first half of the story is narrated obsessively and the second half presented as the author's outline.

The mood of these pieces is generally grim, and the book is less frequently laugh-out-loud funny than Wallace's others. But in its form, narration, language, and ideas, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is a virtuoso display that builds on the achievement of Infinite Jest and points the way to the future of fiction.

Lawrence Norfolk (review date 14 January 2000)

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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 buck-passing. We look to American writers for the real America, or at least for a critique of the fake. What if they are not looking at each other? If contemporary American fiction is about itself—if there is no “out there” there—then where is the real US? Where did it go? How do we recognize it? How do we get it back? These questions press on both the readers and writers of contemporary American fiction, most of whom at present seem unaware or powerless in face of their existence. David Foster Wallace is pre-eminent among a small group of writers, almost unknown on this side of the Atlantic, whose work recognizes and attempts to address them.

The terms of his attempt were set out in an essay he wrote in 1993 for an issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction devoted to his work. Entitled “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US fiction”, it took the statistic that United States citizens watch an average of six hours of television a day, and asked why, and to what effect? The elaborate answer involved Wallace in a survey of postmodern fiction's habitual idioms and the consequences of this, a comprehensive trashing of one of his peers (Mark Leyner), and a tentative prescription for future action. A summary of the essay might read: Television's placid support for the domestic status quo in the 1960s and 70s (images of happy nuclear families against a reality which included Vietnam and Watergate) was exposed by “cool” ironic commentaries in postmodern novels by Thomas Pynchon, Joseph McElroy, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis and others. Television appropriated and institutionalized that ironic idiom, and thereby found the perfect means to suppress the various contradictions in its appeal to the viewer (briefly, television's propensity to mock, subvert and refer to itself being presented as an in-joke for the “sophisticated” individual viewer, who can then pretend he is not one of the herd). From being critical and transformative, postmodern irony became oppressive. Contemporary American fiction writers, having inherited their defining (transgressive) idiom from the preceding generation, now find themselves locked in it, unable to erase the possibility that whatever they may write, they might actually be meaning its opposite. Now, to be “cool” and ironic is to play the game; writers should be rewriting the rules, if not blowing up the stadium.

Wallace's essay is collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1998), and it is the most trenchant short account available of what television does to its consumers and cultural rivals, and how it does it. The debate aroused in the United States this year by Jedediah Purdy's For Common Things, a gauche but heartfelt book about irony's (destructive) effects on civic responsibility which drags a broader brush over the same area of concern, testifies to Wallace's prescience, but the essay's salient feature is perhaps the level of its author's anxiety.

In Wallace's analysis, however quickly American fiction writers reach for the real, their hands grasp imagery first. Television imagery, which is to say ironized imagery, and the habit of ironic mockery it both instils and needs. For Wallace's generation, who grew up reading the writing on the wall in Pynchon, Barth, Coover and (above all) DeLillo, institutionalized irony is now the air the writer breathes. There is no choice, short of holding one's breath. Wallace's anxiety is a displaced reaction to his own cultural environment. He knows he is breathing poison.

I think that readers (and writers) in the United Kingdom misread a certain kind of ironic-cool voice and certain kinds of formal experimentation in American fiction as a style, in the way that Tom Wolfe's work evinces a style, and John Updike's work a different style, and so on. But this is wrong. The voice and the kinds of experimentation in the work of, say, Jonathan Franzen, A. M. Home, Ken Kalfus, Mark Leyner, Wallace himself, and all the other grandchildren of the DeLillo of White Noise, do not comprise a style but an awareness of and a response to the condition out of which fiction is produced. The ironic voice signals that an institutionalized pop culture is not only the object of literature's inquiry, but the hopelessly compromised means of that inquiry too. How to break out of this self-defeating hermeneutic circle?

In his 1993 essay, having concluded that the ironic sneer of American television culture could not be out-cooled and that its reflexive backflips would always out-flex those of fiction, however experimental, Wallace ended his piece on a tentative note:

The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.

The essay is important, because Wallace, after more than 27,000 words of dense argument and detailed example, clears enough space to make this honest unironical statement honestly and unironically. For a couple of wobbly paragraphs, he is outside the ironic aura, even though, when the quotation above was written, it was presumably the only possible example of the literature it invoked. Wallace's anxiety and his perpetual sense of physical discomfort (which runs throughout his work) both grow out of a heightened understanding of the ubiquitous ironizing aura in which contemporary American fiction (his own included) finds itself unable to mean what it says, however earnestly it tries to say it, because earnestness now just sounds wrong. America's acoustics have changed. To put it another way, hip postmodern irony gets under Wallace's skin. And because Wallace thinks with his skin, this awareness is omnipresent in his work. Almost alone among those writers with something worth saying and the skill to say it, Wallace appears able to exist in ironically rendered America and write without resorting to its terms.

His fiction includes: The Broom of the System (a novel, 1987), Girl with Curious Hair (1989—short stories, the last of which, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, a novel-length act of patricide on the novelist John Barth, has been forcefully disowned by Wallace), Infinite Jest (a very long novel, with footnotes, 1996), and now Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. He has also produced a lot of journalism, mostly reportage with a strong analytical bent covering such diverse subjects as the Luxury Cruise phenomenon, tennis, The Illinois State Fair, and the sociology of a David Lynch film set. A report entitled “Neither Adult Nor Entertainment”, on the Adult Video Awards ceremony in Las Vegas in January 1998, which appeared under the byline of “Willem R. DeGroot and Matt Rundlet” in the September 1998 issue of Premiere magazine, may plausibly also be attributed to Wallace. The presence of numerous lengthy footnotes, the authors' (author's?) habit of cataloguing, enumerating and analysing everything in sight, and insistence on fully disclosing the exact (flawed) terms of their (his?) remit, urge an identification with the Wallace of his more conventional journalism. That piece compares the “the whole sardonic postmodern deal” of the Oscars ceremony with its porn industry equivalent, to the detriment of both, noting that “the whole mainstream celebrity culture is rushing to cash in. The whole thing seems to suck.”

If “Neither Adult Nor Entertainment” is not by Wallace, then it cannot have informed “Adult World, Parts I and II”, in Brief Interviews [Brief Interviews With Hideous Men] which is about “a young couple experiencing sexual difficulties” according to the blurb. The husband is a secret porn-user, compulsive masturbator and currency dealer. His wife worries about their sex life, consults a former boyfriend, and discovers her husband's secret. In Part II, written as a schema for the continuation Wallace saw no point in writing, she exchanges her “Dildo” (furtively purchased to practise her oral sex technique) for several dildos (brazenly purchased to masturbate with, and “now not captlzd”, Wallace notes). The couple think about having children.

The skimpy narrative exists primarily to register movements in the subtext which moves teasingly beneath it, just as pornographic language does beneath conventional language. The prose enacts this explicitly, flashing a glimpse of the “spanked pink” of the husband's “thingie”, for instance, in the “spanked pinks and slapped reds” of emergency vehicle lights reflecting off a wet freeway later in the story. The care with which Wallace renders the surface of Part I becomes a sort of poignant joke, given its subsequent casual trashing for the exigencies of Part II, where the pornography's bones are laid bare.

“Adult World” makes some brutal trades between the integrity of its rhetorical position and any pretension to aesthetic pleasure. It is difficult for fiction to be this honest about its own procedures, and a lot of this difficulty gets passed straight to the reader. One of the more conventional stories in the collection is called “The Depressed Person”. It won an O. Henry award. A depressed woman calls the members of what she calls her “Support System” to talk about her problems, hating herself for doing so but unable to stop as she makes ever more exorbitant claims on their (and our) attention, time and sympathy. The lower she sinks, the more irritating she becomes (the story is exclusively from her point of view), but the more deserving of the very help she so irritatingly demands also, and so on, via her own pitiless self-analyses, into the depths of self-loathing. …

A possible reading is supplied by the opening sentence of “Pop Quiz 9” from the story-series “Octet”: it begins, “You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer.” “Octet” is, if not the maddest, certainly the most maddening of the stories here, presenting itself as an abortive attempt to present intractably convoluted moral problems in terms of a parlour game. The last (numbered 9, actually the fifth of a projected but never-completed eight) spins itself into reflexive knots via text and footnotes, but then somehow keeps spinning and spinning around, as if some impossibly gifted Houdini of narrative had been misinformed: the trick was not to break free but actually to get progressively more tied up. I have no idea how many readers will follow Wallace as he confesses his successive misgivings about this project in ever more abstruse footnotes, but, just at the point of the story's disappearance over the last horizon of readerly patience and its own long-overdue collapse, a signal thought strikes. Wallace means it. These are not ironic reflexive gestures meant to distance the writer from the imminent implosion of his own artefact. They are Wallace's own, sincere misgivings.

In the light of this, much of the collection's strangeness becomes meaningful. Its “out there” forms and weird choices of subject are eccentric only if the centre is defined by precisely the hip, flip postmodern irony whose shadow Wallace is sneaking out from under. If he means it, then the collection's title story, a discontinuous series of interviews from which the female interviewer's questions have been erased, turns from being a juvenile exercise in épater les bourgeois into a series of psychological traps. Certainly, these men are hideous. But they are funny too, now and again. One can sympathize with them, just about. And then it dawns on you (as it did not on any of the American reviewers of this book) that almost all of them are, one way or another, rapists. Now keep laughing.

The perverse choices Wallace makes are disturbing and serious. He treats subject matter normally considered unfit for fiction. There is very little parody in the book and what there is would look broad even in a pantomime. “Tri-Stan I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko” is a reimagining of the Tristan and Isolde and Echo and Narcissus legends set in a futurized “medieval” California. The bardic narrator (“Ovid the Obtuse”) laments, “Alas, we no longer get to say ‘alas’ with a straight face, but ‘alas’ used, according to legend, to be what you said in great stoic sorrow over tragedies ineluctable. ‘Hic barbarus ego sum, quia non intellegor ulli’.”

A piece of doggerel included in Westward the Course of Empire … ten years ago asked for whom the fun-house was fun? The answer is, “Everyone!”, until that is, it isn't. Escaping it is to leave behind not only the ironic funsters but also their ironic idea of fun. That is, the idea of fun culturally dominant at the moment, which is the moment upon which Wallace calls time in this collection. As a result these stories are not easy to read. Several fail. The best is “Church Not Made With Hands”, which presents a series of verbal tableaux concerning the loss of a child, the recession of perspective and quality of light in the paintings of Vermeer, and the sadnesses consequent upon both. Wallace argues mutedly that they are the same at root.

That story could not have been written in the fun-house, because a sad story must, finally, be sincere, and because the fun-house's cipher of sincerity, sadness and all that makes one sad is “Outside”. The piece of doggerel quoted above went on to ask for whom was the fun-house a house? Not for Wallace's characters or their stories which are written out in the “out there”, in the real United States. They are consequently, according to our current idea of fun, rough, awkward and difficult. The most urgent justifications for their thorniness are, for the moment, North American preoccupations. The annulling and pervasive habit of unthinking irony Wallace diagnoses in contemporary popular culture and seeks to correct by example does not (yet) bite so hard in Britain. This does not make the stories any easier. Yet if one accepts that the proper remit of contemporary American fiction is to deal with America as it is, and the habits of mind which make it so, then Wallace—not Jay McInerney, nor Bret Easton Ellis, inter alia—is the most significant writer of his generation.

David Foster Wallace's magnum opus remains Infinite Jest, which is a book about how one's exterior environment (or world) persuades one's interior environment (or self) that the latter cannot live without the former: addiction, in the broadest possible sense. It was serious and unironic as only a novel of 981 pages of densely inventive prose and ninety-six pages of minutely printed notes can be. The stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men can be read as long-range forays launched from that project. They operate at the limit of the range of the short story and under self-imposed conditions of the utmost stringency. The unmediated terrain they seek is very distant from US fiction's current habitual haunts: some of these stories never find it and others never make it back. Those that do bring news of a rare and real America.

Robert Potts (essay date 23 January 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1148

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 fictions—plausible, or detailed, or insanely detailed, or sad or disturbing fictions—that seem, eerily, to centre on the same concerns about communication that those metafictional, postmodern, wearily ironic games do; which is to say these short fictions are, in short, about how we can't or don't talk to each other. And though they are very very funny, they are also deadly serious.

The first piece, on page zero, establishes the ground of the collection (as that pagination suggests). Entitled ‘A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life’, it reads:

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely loudly, 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 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, did one now did one now did one.

The double- or triple-bind of the situation—that infinite, spiralling recession in those final words—is the dilemma of any ‘relationship’: that there is a hideous mismatch between how we try to appear to others (to please them, to appear cool, because you never know, do you now?) and how we are, or perceive ourselves to be; and if they are doing this to us (and they are, because, after all, we are anxious to preserve good relations), then we are in a pickle.

A very similar pickle, of course, to the knots and tangles of metafiction and postmodern irony, but a much more serious pickle because metafiction, after all, is just a game, a slick, knowing, trying-to-be-cool game. Wallace plays on the problem from different angles, in different styles and formats, with different characters. ‘The Depressed Person’, which won an O. Henry award, painstakingly follows the loops and spirals of depressive self-obsession and self-loathing, twinned with the depressive's awareness of how repulsive such self-absorption is, and how manipulative it can appear, which feeds back into further depression and self-loathing, and so on; by turns the story inspires dark laughter, pity, and real irritation; but it describes with punishing accuracy the cruel way in which depression consumes its victims and their friends.

Self-absorption, one way or another, afflicts all the interviewees in the book, who range from men who manipulate women into bed by lies, strategies and even, at their most manipulative, an attempt to flatter by a sham-honesty about how manipulative they are. The stories are funny, clever, often disturbing; and what makes them still more so is the fact that some of these ‘hideous men’ are employing feminist critiques to affirm the very misogyny those critiques were supposed to have exposed.

There is a moral tone to the work that belies its facility with the tricksiness of postmodernism. In the two pieces titled ‘The Devil Is A Busy Man’, two anecdotes treat a similar problem from different angles; is altruism possible, given how suspicious we are of each other's—and even our own—motivation? ‘Signifying Nothing’ is a bold piece which could be about child abuse, or repressed memory, or power relations in a family. The fact that it is impossible to say for sure, and the terrible multiplicity of meanings that could attach themselves to that title, represents the dilemmas and uncertainties of all such cases. The question of how much honesty is possible or appropriate in relationships pervades the volume.

Yet the most ‘literary’ and least ‘realist’ pieces address these questions with just as much passion and bravery. ‘Tri-Stan Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko’ is a futuristic account of television entertainment executives rendered as mythic Gods and characters; thus enacting its own target, which is the appropriation of classic myths for cheap entertainment. Along the way there are some pertinent shots at how unoriginal this sort of playfulness is, and how it does not flatter an audience to point out to them the artificiality of art. Wallace's loathing of the speed with which popular entertainment can appropriate criticism and repackage it as yet more entertainment recurs in his work, but seems particularly venomous here, beneath some rather neat jokes.

He could, of course, be accused of merely colluding with the vapidities of a modern culture where everything is put into inverted commas. (One of Wallace's characters insistently puts in those inverted commas as he speaks, a gesture punctuating the text as ‘f.f.’, or ‘[flexion of upraised fingers]’, a staggeringly annoying gesture which one sees all too often and is nicely observed here.) But when one reads ‘Octet’, a virtuoso piece of imploding metafiction, one doubts it. Wallace comes as close as is possible to asking for trust, offering sincerity, dealing with empathy and the writer-reader relationship.

Indeed, at one point he says: ‘None of that was very clearly put and might well ought to get cut. It may be that none of this real-narrative-honesty-v.-sham-narrative-honesty stuff can even be talked about up front.’

That line is more than a joke. It sums up the difficulty tackled by the entire book, in that it asks for a leap of faith that we take it seriously. The alternative is a world of infinitely receding mirrors-in-mirrors, self-mockery, nihilism, of which there is an uncanny image at the end of the book: ‘giving up the ghost entirely for a blank slack gagged mask's mindless stare—unseen and unseeing—into a mirror I could not know or feel myself without. No not ever again.’ This is a book of formidable creative intelligence, and real moral purpose.

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

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6062

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:

3d. Narr intrusion, expo on Jeni Roberts [same flat & pedantic tone as ¶s 3, 4 of ‘A.W.(I)’ PT. 3]: While following F.L.'s teal/aqua Probe down xprswy, J. hadn't ‘changed mind’ about having secret adulterous sex w/F.L., rather merely ‘… realized it was unnecessary.’ Understands that she has had life-changing epiphany, has ‘… bec[o]me a woman as well as a wife’ & c. & c.

3d(1) J. hereafter referred to by narr as ‘Ms. Jeni Orzolek Roberts’; hsbnd referred to as ‘the Secret Compulsive Masturbator.’

Scattered through the volume are three stories with the title “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders”; apparently, there are many more examples, since the entries provided are numbers eleven, six, and twenty-four in a series. There are also four pieces that share the title of the book, and that are themselves divided into nonsequential numbered sections, as though they were culled at random from a vast repository of transcripts. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men also includes a story in the form of a futuristic dictionary entry, a Hollywood pastiche of Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Nibelungen Saga called “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko,” and a great many footnotes.

At first glance, then, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men looks like newfangled fiction of a rather old-fashioned kind—the kind that used to advertise itself, in the 1960s and 1970s, as “experimental.” David Foster Wallace, who was born in 1962 and who published his first novel, The Broom of the System, when he was twenty-five, has been widely hailed since then as the heir to such postmodern old masters as John Barth, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon. But Wallace possesses a high degree of generational self-consciousness, and his relationship to his precursors—to the purveyors of “R & D” (research and development) fiction, as Gore Vidal dubbed them, none too kindly, in these pages a quarter-century ago—is, to say the least, ambivalent. In interviews, in essays, and in his fiction, Wallace has acknowledged his debt to the self-styled renegades whose books had become, by the time he encountered them, staples of the academic curriculum. But like many other Americans who grew up in the wake of the 1960s, he seems haunted by a feeling of belatedness: he came of age in a world in which revolt, to paraphrase the poet Thom Gunn, had once again become a style. And while he admires the radical panache of his literary fathers, Wallace cannot help but regard them with an envious, quasi-Oedipal hostility: “If I have a real enemy,” he once told an interviewer, “a patriarch for my patricide, it's probably Barth and Coover and Burroughs, even Nabokov and Pynchon.”

The fretful embrace and guilty recoil that typify Wallace's relationship with his literary antecedents are classic symptoms of what Harold Bloom has called the anxiety of influence. And Wallace has a bad case: anxiety may not be a strong enough word; panic is more like it. Consider, among many available examples, “Octet,” a frantic, fragmentary story from the new collection: it is made up of four nonconsecutively numbered “Pop Quizzes,” the last and longest of which (number 9, to confuse matters further) begins, “You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer.” “You” find yourself at work on a series of short pieces a lot like the one you are in the middle of reading, and things are not going very well:

You decide to try to salvage the aesthetic disaster of having to stick in the first version of the 6th piece by having that first version be utterly up front about the fact that it falls apart and doesn't work as a ‘Pop Quiz’ and by having the rewrite of the 6th piece start out with some terse unapologetic acknowledgment that it's another ‘try’ at whatever you were trying to palpate into interrogability in the first version. These intranarrative acknowledgments have the additional advantage of slightly diluting the pretentiousness of structuring the little pieces as so-called ‘Quizzes,’ but it also has the disadvantage of flirting with metafictional self-reference—viz. the having ‘This Pop Quiz isn't working’ and ‘Here's another stab at #6’ within the text itself—which in the late 1990s … might come off lame and tired and facile, and also runs the risk of compromising the queer urgency about whatever it is you feel you want the pieces to interrogate in whoever's reading them. This is an urgency that you, the fiction writer, feel very … well, urgently, and want the reader to feel too—which is to say that by no means do you want a reader to come away thinking that the cycle is just a cute formal exercise in interrogative structure and S.O.P. metatext.

However urgent this dilemma, it is one Wallace has dramatized many times before. It's hard to think of another writer of any generation who has written more prolifically about the obstacles to writing, or who has lampooned the self-dramatizing frustrations of the creative process with such inexhaustible, maniacal conviction.

Wallace is deeply suspicious of novelty, even as he scrambles to position himself on the cutting edge. His earlier collection of short fiction, Girl With Curious Hair (1989), concludes with a novella called Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, which is at once a scabrous satire on the academic authority of the ci-devant avant-garde and a virtuoso compendium of tried and true avant-garde techniques. It features authorial intrusions in the manner of John Barth; whimsical collages of wild fabulation and deadpan realism that recall Richard Brautigan, or maybe middle-period Kurt Vonnegut; and long, long sentences in the style of Donald Barthelme. The proceedings are shot through with an air of wild Pynchonian intrigue.

The story's initial setting is a creative writing department on Maryland's Eastern Shore, though it makes its way, for murky allegorical reasons, to the central Illinois township of Collision. Its heroes, more or less, are a group of disaffected graduate students, and the villain, more or less, is a creative writing teacher and literary huckster named Professor Ambrose, a thinly disguised (that is, a blatantly obvious) rendering of Barth, for some years the head of the creative writing program at Johns Hopkins. Ambrose, like Barth, is the author of a legendary, endlessly self-referential work called Lost in the Funhouse, and he is, throughout the story, an object of both veneration and rage—admired and resented not only by his students but also by the narrator, who, at one point, under the heading “A Really Blatant and Intrusive Interruption,” launches into a breathless two-page rant on the state of literary production in the United States. Part of its first sentence is worth quoting in the only way Wallace's prose allows itself to be quoted—at nerve-wracking length:

As mentioned before—and if this were a piece of metafiction, which it's NOT, the exact number of typeset lines between this reference and the prenominate referent would very probably be mentioned, which would be a princely pain in the ass, not to mention cocky, since it would assume that a straightforward and anti-embellished account of a slow and hot and sleep-deprived and basically clotted and frustrating day in the live of three kids, none of whom are all that sympathetic, could actually get published, which these days good luck, but in metafiction it would, nay needs be mentioned, a required postmodern convention aimed at drawing the poor old reader's emotional attention to the fact that the narrative bought and paid for and now under time-consuming scrutiny is not in fact a barely-there window onto a different and truly diverting world, but rather in fact an “artifact,” an object, a plain old this-worldly thing, composed of emulsified wood pulp and horizontal chorus-lines of dye, and conventions, and is thus in a “deep” sense just an opaque forgery of a transfiguring window, not a real window, a gag, and thus in a deep (but intentional, now) sense artificial, which is to say fabricated, false, a fiction, a pretender-to-status, a straw-haired King of Spain—this self-conscious explicitness and deconstructed disclosure supposedly making said metafiction “realer” than a piece of pre-postmodern “Realism” that depends on certain antiquated techniques to create an “illusion” of a windowed access to a “reality” isomorphic with ours but possessed of and yielding up higher truths to which all authentically human persons stand in the relation of applicand—all of which the Resurrection of Realism, the pained product of inglorious minimalist labor in countless obscure graduate writing workshops across the U.S. of A., and called by Field Marshal Lish (who ought to know) the New Realism, promises to show to be utter baloney, this metafictional shit. …

And so on. Wallace soon disavowed Westward [Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way], confessing to an interviewer: “I got trapped … just trying to expose the illusions of metafiction the same way metafiction had tried to expose the illusions of the pseudo-unmediated realist fiction that had come before it. It was a horror show. The stuff's a permanent migraine.”

It is also, to Wallace and his readers, a recurrent one. Wallace's most rigorous attempt to cure his aesthetic headache and wriggle free of the metafictional trap is an essay called “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” originally published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993 and reprinted in a collection of his criticism and reportage called A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997). The essay argues that the critical potential of postmodern fiction has been defused not only by the passage of time but by television, which has transformed postmodernism's trademark irony from an attitude of dissent into a mode of oppression. Television, as it has matured and come to occupy more and more cultural space and personal time (Wallace cites a study that calculates the average American's intake at six hours a day), has become relentlessly self-mocking and preemptively self-critical. It thus neuters and domesticates the wild, insurgent energies of the literary avant-garde, and makes it impossible for young writers to match the achievements of their elders:

… The rebellious irony in the best postmodern fiction wasn't just credible as art; it seemed down-right socially useful in its capacity for what counterculture critics called “a critical negation that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems” [the quote is from music critic Greil Marcus]. Kesey's black parody of asylums suggested that our arbiters of sanity were often crazier than their patients. Pynchon reoriented our view of paranoia from deviant psychic fringe to central thread in the corporobureaucratic weave; DeLillo exploded image, signal, data and tech as agents of spiritual chaos and not social order. Burroughs's icky explorations of American narcosis exploded hypocrisy; Gaddis's exposure of abstract capital as deforming exploded hypocrisy; Coover's repulsive political farces exploded hypocrisy.

But nowadays, Wallace claims, the hypocrisy of television is so overt, its explosions so carefully programmed, that it turns revolt into cynicism. In his account, which borrows from the work of media critics such as Todd Gitlin and Mark Crispin Miller, television has made us into passive, alienated consumers of the very forces that pacify and alienate us. If fiction is to recapture its ethical function—its ability to brush the culture against the grain, rather than merely reaffirm its commonplaces—serious young writers will have to abandon irony in favor of … well now, that's a tough one:

It's entirely possible that my plangent noises about the impossibility of rebelling against an aura that promotes and vitiates all rebellion say more about my residency inside that aura, my own lack of vision, than they do about any exhaustion of US fiction's possibilities. The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in US life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.

These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that'll be the point. Maybe that's why they'll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today's risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.

As cultural history—for that matter, as literary criticism—“E Unibus Pluram” has its weaknesses. For one thing, Wallace's discussion of television is, as discussions of television often are, maddening in its blithe, judgmental generality. “Television” is about as useful a category in the analysis of contemporary life as “print”: at long last, sir, the medium is not the message. What's more, Wallace accepts (or at least appears to accept) a rather melodramatic account of the impact of R & D fiction, which depends on the assumption that the world of letters, to say nothing of the world at large, was until the advent of postmodernism dominated by hypocrisy, naive realism, and widespread credulity about the benevolence of capitalism and the state. In or around 1960, thanks largely to the efforts of a brave cadre of novelists, most of them employed in universities, all of this changed, with enormous and far-reaching (though curiously short-lived) social consequences.

For all the shortcomings of this account, Wallace's anatomy of the predicament facing young writers after postmodernism is in many ways persuasive; if he can't quite capture the grand dialectic of contemporary culture, such as it is, he at least has a feel for its mood swings. He might even be credited with a degree of foresight, both about the ascendance of a certain knowing, allusive, world-weary superciliousness—“E Unibus Pluram” was composed just as Seinfeld began to epitomize the prime-time Zeitgeist—and about the simultaneous emergence of a defiantly plainspoken sensibility ranged against it. The anti-metafictional jeremiad in Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way ends with a paean to the New Realism, which offers “some of the most heartbreaking stuff available at any fine bookseller's anywhere.”

While the designation “New Realism” may already be dated, the steady outpouring in recent years of earnest, heartbreaking memoirs and short, sensitive story collections by ever younger writers might be taken to bear out Wallace's intuitions. The backlash against irony has recently found a spokesman in the person of Jedediah Purdy, a twenty-four-year-old product of Exeter, Harvard, and West Virginia home schooling who, with his ambiguously provincial background and his faintly allegorical name, might have escaped from a David Foster Wallace story. In any case, For Common Things, Purdy's much-discussed manifesto, argues precisely for renewed attention to “old untrendy human troubles” and for the virtues of “reverence and conviction.” (Purdy's book has been greeted, as Wallace might have predicted, with a fair amount of eye-rolling and rib-nudging.)

It is therefore at least arguable that we have lately witnessed the emergence of a group of anti-ironic anti-rebels. But is David Foster Wallace among them? Are his harangues against the tyranny of irony meant to be taken in earnest, or are they artfully constructed simulacra of what a sincere anti-ironist might sound like? Or both? If one way to escape from the blind alley of postmodern self-consciousness is simply to turn around and walk in another direction—which is in effect what Purdy advises, and what a great many very interesting writers, without making a big deal about it, simply do—Wallace prefers to forge ahead in hopes of breaking through to the other side, whatever that may be. For all his impatience with the conventions of anti-realism, he advances a standard postmodern view that “the classical Realist form is soothing, familiar and anesthetic; it drops us right into spectation. It doesn't set up the sort of expectations serious 1990s fiction ought to be setting up in readers.” Wallace, then, is less anti-ironic than (forgive me) meta-ironic. That is, his gambit is to turn irony back on itself, to make his fiction relentlessly conscious of its own self-consciousness, and thus to produce work that will be at once unassailably sophisticated and doggedly down to earth. Janus-faced, he demands to be taken at face value. “Single-entendre principles” is a cleverly tossed off phrase, but Wallace is temperamentally committed to multiplicity—to a quality he has called, with reference to the filmmaker David Lynch, “bothness.” He wants to be at once earnest and ironical, sensitive and cerebral, lisible and scriptible, R & D and R & R, straight man and clown, grifter and mark.


Because of Wallace's manifest interest in philosophical conundrums and language games, it is tempting to judge his ambitions on their logical merits, and to declare that, on theoretical grounds, he can't have it both ways. But since he is, after all, a fiction writer, it may be wiser to judge his output with reference to that hoariest of creative-writing-workshop questions: Does it work? In the case of Infinite Jest (1996), Wallace's longest, boldest fiction so far, the answer is yes, it works; it works too damn hard.

Infinite Jest might be subtitled “A Radically Expanded History of Post-industrial Life.” It takes place in a future meant to represent a logical extension of the present. The trend toward corporate sponsorship, which has in the real world given new names to college bowl games and professional sports stadiums, has, in the novel, colonized time itself: around 1997, it seems, the numerical calendar was scrapped, and chapter headings indicate that action is taking place in the “Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad” or the “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.” (The excremental associations of the products in question—a hemorrhoid medication and an adult diaper, respectively, in case you don't pay attention to the commercials during the evening news—are indicative of one aspect of Wallace's sense of humor.) And the colonization of all aspects of life by the entertainment industry—currently a source of endless handwringing in the journals of opinion—here takes a lethal turn. Infinite Jest is the name both of a lost masterpiece of experimental cinema and a video cartridge that, wired directly into the viewer's nervous system, produces an overpowering, instantly addictive stimulus leading irreversibly to drooling, catatonic paralysis.

Infinite Jest is also, of course, a description of the novel's structure. The book is almost eleven hundred pages long, but it feels even longer, owing in part to several hundred footnotes, which disrupt the reader's attention and send it looping backward and forward in an effort to maintain continuity. Even without the distraction of the footnotes—which sometimes consist of pseudoscholarly apparatus, sometimes of extended narrative tangents, sometimes of humorous asides—the text itself is simultaneously fragmentary and recursive. Story lines alternate wildly; some resume after long digressions, some turn out to be nothing more than digressions themselves, and the connections between the proliferating threads are persistently elusive, and just as persistently hinted at. Infinite Jest is, to my knowledge, the longest novel about tennis ever published. It is also a dystopian political satire set on a North American continent menaced by paraplegic Quebecois terrorists and splintered into new territorial arrangements, the most wildly metaphorical anatomy of drug abuse since William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, and a tender, heartfelt, coming-of-age story.

The novel's Pynchonesque elements—the fact that part of the United States is now a federation called O.N.A.N., the symbiotic relationship between terrorists and law enforcement agencies, the shadowy career of underground filmmaker-turned-tennis-coach James Incandenza—feel rather willed and secondhand. They are impressive in the manner of a precocious child's performance at a dinner party, and, in the same way, ultimately irritating: they seem motivated, mostly, by a desire to show off. And some of the novel's broad satirical intentions—to warn us that corporations control everything and that entertainment is a drug—are familiar bromides decked out in gaudy comic dress.

But along with its fast-fading pyrotechnics, Infinite Jest also offers some genuine illumination. In the two main plotlines, which trace the adolescent travails of tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza and the struggle for survival of Don Gately, who works in a halfway house for recovering addicts, Wallace's relentless intelligence yields some old-fashioned novelistic insights into characters, events, and places. Wallace is blessed with a brilliant ear not only for the noise in his own head—he is surely one of our most gifted self-mimics—but for the harsh polyphonies of contemporary American speech. And in the self-contained vignettes of chemical dependency and clinical depression that punctuate the proliferating subplots, Wallace's style at last finds a substance it can use. In “E Unibus Pluram” he made some sweeping claims about the addictive powers of the entertainment media:

It's tough to see how … having more “control” over the arrangement of high-quality fantasy-bits is going to ease either the dependency that is part of my relation to TV or the impotent irony I must use to pretend that I'm not dependent. … My real dependency here is not on a single show or a few networks any more than the hophead's is on the Turkish florist or the Marseilles refiner.

The strongest parts of Infinite Jest suggest that this observation is less interesting as a statement about television than as a statement about dependency as such. The novel's most serious and sustained conceit is that all-encompassing, self-renewing need is the organizing principle of contemporary culture and the structuring psychopathology of everyday life—that we are, individually and collectively, trapped in endless cycles of compulsion, self-delusion, and denial. What we need is ultimately less important than how we need it. Our daily lives are organized around a repertoire of stratagems designed to feed our habits in the name of breaking them:

This last time, he would smoke the whole 200 grams—120 grams cleaned, destemmed—in four days, over an ounce a day, all in tight heavy economical one-hitters off a quality virgin bong, an incredible, insane amount per day, he'd make it a mission, treating it like a penance and behavior-modification regimen all at once, he'd smoke his way through thirty high-grade grams a day, starting the moment he woke up and used ice water to detach his tongue from the roof of his mouth and took an antacid—averaging out to 200 or 300 heavy bong-hits per day, an insane and deliberately unpleasant amount, and he'd make it a mission to smoke it continuously, even though if the marijuana was as good as the woman claimed he'd do five hits and then not want to take the trouble to load and one-hit any more for at least an hour. But he would force himself to do it anyway. He would smoke it all even if he didn't want it. Even if it started to make him dizzy and ill. He would use discipline and persistence and will and make the whole experience so unpleasant, so debased and debauched and unpleasant, that his behavior would be henceforward modified, he'd never even want to do it again because the memory of the insane four days to come would be so firmly, terribly emblazoned in his memory. He'd cure himself by excess.

This nameless character's doomed, misguided, yet oddly convincing plan to rid himself of his marijuana habit bears an unmistakable resemblance to Wallace's own repeated attempts to cure himself of his interlocking addictions to irony, metafiction, and the other cheap postmodern highs. If I blow my mind on self-consciousness this one last time, Wallace resolves over and over, I'll never go near it again. But he always comes back for more. The addict is like an ineducable rat caught in a cruel behaviorist maze of his own devising, and so, much of the time, is the strung-out post-metafictionist. But in a passage like this one, Wallace happens upon an unexpected exit from the cul de sac of postmodern mannerism—a break-through into something that is not old-fashioned illusionistic realism but that is nonetheless alive with captured reality. And he accomplishes this break-through by applying the spiraling, recursive logic of his own fictional self-examinations to another person, a person who couldn't care less about literary fashion.

One of the critical commonplaces about Pynchon, Gaddis, et al.—a commonplace to which Wallace clearly subscribes—is that their stylistic and formal inventions were created under pressure of lived experience. What made realism untenable for these writers, according to the conventional wisdom Wallace has absorbed, was reality itself: Pynchon's involuted, encrypted sentences. Barth's blatant narrative intrusions. Coover's self-consuming artifacts—all of these were designed to explode the hypocrisies and jar the complacencies of a monstrously complex society whose deepest workings could not be represented by traditional narrative means. But what these writers passed on to their students and followers was, for the most part, the habit of formal and stylistic invention for its own sake, an empty set of quotation marks, a self-consciousness without selves. In my opinion, a lot of Wallace's earlier work, including much of Infinite Jest, slips back toward that abyss—an epistemological black hole as comfortable and familiar as a worn-out couch in a graduate student lounge. And many of the stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which gathers together the shorter fiction Wallace has written over the past ten years, read like bravura classroom performances—footnotes to his earlier annotations of the experimental tradition.

But a handful, most of them composed since the appearance of Infinite Jest, recover some of the squandered and compromised satirical energies of that tradition by suggesting that meta-metafiction, or post-postmodernism, or whatever you want to call it, is a form of realism after all. The feedback loop of irony and sincerity which animates so much of Wallace's writing turns out not to be an artifact of literary R & D, but a fact of human nature, or at least a salient aspect of the way we live now:

Please believe me. The whole reason I'm having us talk about my record and what I get afraid might happen is that I don't want it to happen, see? that I don't want suddenly to reverse thrust and begin trying to extricate myself after you've given up so much and moved out here and now I've—now that we're so involved. I'm praying you'll be able to see that my telling you what always happens is a kind of proof that with you I don't want it to happen. That I don't want to get all testy or hypercritical or pull away and not be around for days at a time or be blatantly unfaithful in a way you're guaranteed to find out about or any of the shitty cowardly ways I've used before to get out of something I'd just spent months of intensive pursuit and effort trying to get the other person to plunge into with me. Does this make any sense? Can you believe that I'm honestly trying to respect you by warning you about me, in a way? That I'm trying to be honest instead of dishonest? That I've decided the best way to head off this pattern where you get hurt and feel abandoned and I feel like shit is to try to be honest for once? Even if I should have done it sooner? Even when I admit it's maybe possible that you might even interpret what I'm saying now as dishonest, as trying somehow to maybe freak you out enough so that you'll move back out and I can get out of this? Which I don't think is what I'm doing, but to be totally honest I can't be a hundred percent sure?

This is from one of the “Brief Interviews” in the current book—an incomplete, shuffled set of seventeen conversations of varying length between a silent, apparently female questioner, represented by the letter “Q,” and her unnamed subjects, some of whom are strangers, some, like this one, lovers. A number of the men have bizarre tics and predilections: one of them involuntarily shouts “Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!” every time he ejaculates; another recounts how an elaborate childhood masturbatory fantasy (highly reminiscent, perhaps inadvertently, of Nicholson Baker's novel The Fermata) became so philosophically vexing that it drove him to a life of celibacy; and still another explains how his grotesquely deformed arm gets him “more pussy than a toilet seat, man. I shit you not.”

But while many reviewers have been captivated by the more outré specimens of hideous manhood, what is most striking about the interview subjects, and what they ultimately have in common, is their slippery, narcissistic ordinariness. Number 11 dumps Q on the pretext that he can no longer tolerate her suspicion that he's about to dump her. Number 31 explains that the best way for a man to please a woman is not to perform oral sex on her (a common misconception, apparently), but to trick her into performing it on him, which is what she really wants. The interviews hold up to hilarious, disturbing scrutiny the endlessly inventive duplicity that animates men's single-minded pursuit of sex. Acknowledging what louts they are becomes another weapon in the arsenal of loutishness.

The most important thing is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made. Wallace's “Interviews” apply Laurence Olivier's cynical show-business truism to the theater of sexual conquest and betrayal. Or, as pop singer Nick Lowe put it a few years back, “All men are liars, and that's the truth.” Wallace's Q, intrepidly documenting this version of the Cretan liar's paradox (the corollary of which is that all men are cretins), seems to have stumbled upon an unnerving Darwinian insight. If, that is, male behavior has evolved through a series of adaptations meant to maximize opportunities for copulation, then the ability to use “honesty” as a strategic form of deceit—an infinitely reusable capacity, at least for some—may have evolved not in the laboratory environment of recent US fiction but in the primordial wild. This, at any rate, is something like what two of Q's interlocutors (identified in interview #78 as “E” and “K”) seem to think:

E——: ‘Plus remember the postfeminist girl now knows that the male sexual paradigm and the female's are fundamentally different—’

K——: ‘Mars and Venus.

E——: ‘Right, exactly, and she knows that as a woman she's naturally programmed to be more highminded and long-term about sex and to be thinking more in relationship terms than just fucking terms, so if she just immediately breaks down and fucks you she's on some level still getting taken advantage of she thinks.’

K——: ‘This, of course, is because today's postfeminist era is also today's postmodern era, in which supposedly everybody now knows everything about what's really going on underneath all the semiotic codes and cultural conventions, and everybody supposedly knows what paradigms everybody is operating out of, and so we're all us individuals held to be far more responsible for our sexuality, since everything we do is now unprecedentedly conscious and informed.’

E——: ‘While at the same time she's still under this incredible sheer biological pressure to find a mate and settle down and nest and breed, for instance go read this thing The Rules and try to explain its popularity any other way.’

K——: ‘The point being that women today are now expected to be responsible both to modernity and to history.’

E——: ‘Not to mention sheer biology.’

K——: ‘Biology's already included in the range of what I mean by history.’

E——: ‘So you're using history more in a Foucaultvian sense.’

K——: ‘I'm talking about a history being a set of conscious intentional responses to a whole range of forces of which biology and evolution are a part.’

E——: ‘The point is it's an intolerable burden on women.’

K——: ‘The real point is that in fact they're just logically incompatible, these two responsibilities.’

E——: ‘Even if modernity itself is a historical phenomenon, Foucault would say.’

K——: ‘I'm just pointing out that nobody can honor two logically incompatible sets of perceived responsibilities. This has nothing to do with history, this is pure logic.’

E——: ‘Personally, I blame the media.’

This is a fine parody of a graduate school bull session—“Foucaultvian” is an especially deft touch. It is also, of course, a knowing self-parody on Wallace's part. The effect, and perhaps the intention, of his habit of turning his jokes around on himself is to short-circuit criticism, much in the way that the hideous men's confessions of their own dishonesty are meant to make them appear, ultimately, sincere. But the effect of this kind of heavily defended discourse—whether metafictional or “real”—is ultimately to prevent communication, just as the impeccably logical seductions and repulsions of the hideous men are designed to protect them from the illogical messiness of genuine human contact.

Wallace, of course, knows this too, and the best story in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men conveys the terrible emptiness that lurks behind our era's rituals of compulsive self-reflection. The story is called “The Depressed Person,” and it describes, in the flat, clinical language of psychotherapy, the life of a woman whose unhappiness is not so much the result of any particular trauma as the wellspring of her identity. She is depressed because she is the Depressed Person, and vice versa. The joke of the story is that the woman is sent into paroxysms of navel-gazing agony by trivialities—by the memory of her pampered childhood or her parents' relatively harmonious divorce, or as a result of overhearing an insensitive remark about a woman she barely knows—while her therapist and the friends she refers to as her “support network” fall victim to tragedy, disease, and death. Which makes her feel even worse—about herself:

At this point in the sharing, the depressed person took a time-out to solemnly swear to her long-distance, gravely ill, frequently retching but still caring and intimate friend that there was no toxic or pathetically manipulative self-excoriation here in what she (i.e., the depressed person) was reaching out and opening up and confessing, only profound and unprecedented fear: the depressed person was frightened for herself, for as it were “[her]self”—i.e. for her own so-called “character” or “spirit” or as it were “soul” i.e. for her own capacity for basic human empathy and compassion and caring—she told the supportive friend with the neuroblastoma. She was asking sincerely, the depressed person said, honestly, desperately: what kind of person could seem to feel nothing—“nothing,” she emphasized—for anyone but herself? Maybe not ever?

This story is the most brilliant dissection I have seen of what Christopher Lasch once called “the banality of pseudo-self-awareness.” And there is probably no writer whose work makes a stronger case, twenty years after Lasch wrote the book on it, that we still inhabit a culture of narcissism. Does Wallace's work represent an unusually trenchant critique of that culture or one of its most florid and exotic symptoms? Of course, there can only be one answer: it's both.

Stephanie Merritt (review date 28 January 2001)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

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 intellectual, add up to a comically unappealing and disconcertingly vivid portrait of the American male and his view of women.

Some of the stories are dense with footnotes and ironic self-reference to the point where they defeat their own purpose as stories (which is probably the whole point), but the majority are ingeniously funny and conceal surprisingly wise insights into the quirks and self-deceptions of consumer society, and particularly the oddities of the ways in which the sexes view each other.

Wallace remains the most influential voice of the new generation of US writers that includes the likes of George Saunders and Jonathan Lethem, and this collection is stunning.

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Wallace, David Foster (Contemporary Literary Criticism)