Sunday, July 25, 2010

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

Brief Interviews is a difficult book to even describe, let alone review. Ostensibly a collection of short—usually very short—stories, it nevertheless defies this easy categorization. The stories, although they could probably stand alone, are linked thematically and sometimes by recurring characters. The themes? Sex, connection, sex, communication, sex, self delusion/discovery, sex, and footnotes. So the point is, there’s a lot of sex in this book. Consensual, non-consensual, loving, hateful, normal (occasionally), perverse, etc. With all the interest in sex, however, Brief Interviews is never prurient, although it does manage to be profoundly unsettling without being offensive, at least to me. That’s not to say it wouldn’t offend others—indeed, of all the DFW I’ve read, Brief Interviews is the one I’m least likely to recommend to others.

It’s not just the subject matter that’s daunting either. In addition to tackling some extremely tricky topics, it’s all over the place structurally. Wallace’s fondness for footnotes is well-known, but in Brief Interviews, he pulls out every postmodern trick he can think of: Complex structural conceits, like a short story told in the form of a futuristic dictionary entry, or one written in truncated outline form; Long stream-of-consciousness rambles; A long section in the middle presented in Question and Answer format; and so on. It’s a testament to Wallace’s skill that this rarely seems pretentious, although, aware that it might, the Q&A section closes out with Wallace confessing that the conceit didn’t work as well as he’d anticipated, and urging the author (who is you—it is a Q&A after all) to confess and just be honest for a moment, instead of hiding behind postmodern conceits.

It’s kind of a mess, but while some sections don’t work as well—and here I’m thinking of a story about the rise of television and mass media written in the form of one of Ovid’s myths, complete with Greek gods as stand-ins for the technology—it’s mostly remarkably coherent, and, as always, there are some transcendent moments. The last full-length story in the book is the best, and possibly the most grueling. It tells, in interview form, the story of a (hideous) man who, trying cynically to hook up with a spacey, new-agey sort of girl, falls in love with her when she tells him about the rape and near-murder she experienced a year back. The setup is brilliant, with the interviewer appearing only as a “Q” before each answer, eliminating the context the questions themselves would have given us. Secondly, the story the man is telling is two levels removed from what happened—the girl tells him, he tells the interviewer—and the story itself is both grim and sort of beautiful, as the girl describes tells what happened. She is hitchhiking and picked up by a man who soon reveals himself to be a psycho. At first she is terrified, but then, realizing she’ll likely be killed, decides to try and empathize/connect with the rapist, in hopes that this connection will make it harder for him to kill her:

I’m well aware that what she is about to describe is but a variant of the old Love Conquers All bromide but for the moment bracket whatever contempt you must feel and try to see the more concrete ramifications of—in this situation in terms of what she has the courage and apparent conviction to actually attempt here, because she says she believes that sufficient love and focus can penetrate even psychosis and evil and establish a quote soul connection, unquote, and that if the mulatto can be brought to feel even a minim of this alleged soul-connection there is some chance he won’t be able to follow through actually killing her.

She survives, in a passage that manages to be extremely moving inspite of its grisly subject matter, and the interviewee finally concludes, disturbingly, that the connection the girl formed with her attacker was deeper and more meaningful than any he’d been able to form with anyone. The story ends on a depressing note as he severs any connection he may have formed with the interviewer herself by releasing a string of shocking invective and restating his love for the lost hippie girl, love born out of the story of her rape. Like I said, difficult stuff.

This is the sort of thing Brief Interviews is about: connections, usually filtered through sexual situations, the ability/inability of people to connect on a meaningful level and the poor substitutes they settle for. It’s a draining work, not very funny in spite of the cover blurbs proclaiming otherwise, and complex. I think it was worth it—Wallace connects with me more consistently than virtually any other author I’ve ever read—but for those starting out, I’d recommend one of his essay collections or even Infinite Jest.


Christopher said...

This sounds the most interesting of all the of DFW works I know about. The writing in that excerpt seems a bit of a slog, though.

Brent Waggoner said...

The writing varies a lot thoughout. Honestly, this isn't nearly as good as IJ, but it's a lot shorter.