Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

Rambling

David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men isn’t a book I’d normally pick up.  Honestly, I hadn’t any plans to read Wallace at all in the near future.  I mentioned before that hearing about David Foster Wallace is like hearing a group of friends talk about another friend (who you haven’t met) that is just soooo funny and clever; the more you hear these friends glorify this guy, the more you’re sure you’ll hate him.  That was how I felt about David Foster Wallace.

Then, a few months ago, the Mister convinced me to read a commencement speech given by Wallace.  And it was actually pretty darn good.

“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line – maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible – it just depends on what you want to consider.”

The speech might have actually improved my life a wee bit for the couple of weeks that I kept it in mind.  But I easily convinced myself that, while the guy was obviously a decent public speaker, he was probably still a pretentious hack of a writer.  I don’t know where I got the idea; it was just a natural inclination against whoever everyone else happens to be worshipping – a holdover from my teenage rebel days.

Finally, the president of my book group (whose favorite book is Infinite Jest) convinced the majority of us to vote for Brief Interviews With Hideous Men as our next read.  It was the first book group meeting I’ve missed, and I felt this might have been payback.  Grudgingly, I downloaded the sample of it to my nook, assuming that I’d read the sample, be disappointed enough to be able to justify not actually getting the book, and still be able to explain that I made a honest-ish effort.  (I recognize that I might sound like a terrible person, but this goes to show the extent of my determination not to like Wallace.)

I read the sample: The first story.. “bleh”;  the second story.. “Hmm, okay”; the third story.. “Wow, this is brilliant.”

That third story, I had a definite visceral reaction to.  I felt like I was actually a 13-year-old boy.  I was hooked.  I scoured all the nearby libraries until I emerged, triumphantly, book in hand.

David Foster WallaceReview

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is a book of shorts.  They aren’t necessarily stories, but often just a few pages in which Wallace (and you) explores an emotion, an idea – an introspective exploration of a brief, but important moment of someone’s life.  One goodreads reviewer accurately described the stories as “word paintings – unconnected and layered and taxing.” 

They often don’t have proper beginnings or endings.  Mostly, it’s first-person monologue.  Dialogue – which is where Wallace excels.  Wallace has obviously listened to a lot of people talk.  These aren’t tidy little stories, revised and wrapped up for presentation.  All of the speaker’s have clear, unique voices, but they’re authentic.  They repeat themselves, backtrack, interrupt themselves, contradict themselves, excuse themselves, fiddle with things while they’re talking, and just generally make all the mistakes, have all the nuances of actual people telling their stories.

Wallace’s writing is experimental.  He uses repetition to get his point across; in “Adult World” he writes half the story properly, then offers his short-hand notes for the remainder (allowing the reader to see how much thought goes into each word of a story); in the interviews, he leaves out the questions.  Sometimes his experiments are successful; other times, they alienate the reader.

The Good

Forever Overhead” –  Nine pages of a 13-year-old boy trying to jump off of a diving board for the first time.  In second person point-of-view.  That’s right.. Wallace makes you a pubescent boy, puts you into a very scary situation, and elaborates.  But by the third paragraph, I had bought into it.  I was a young boy, mind all scrambled by puberty, aware that today, on my 13th birthday, it was time for me to grow up.  And to do that, I had to jump off the diving board.  Wallace pulls it off masterfully.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men – B.I. #42” – Only four pages, a man describes his father’s career working as an attendant in a 5-star hotel men’s room, standing there for 8 hours a day, offering men towels, cleaning up their messes, listening to their .. sounds.  It was disgusting, like many of Wallace’s stories, but it definitely left an impression.  Many of the stories have a unifying theme: that oftentimes people don’t see people as.. people;  they’re objects, obstacles, there to serve us or get in our way; that they have senses, desires, dreams, and self-value.  This theme is brilliantly explored in this story and in B.I. #20.

“Adult World (I)” and “Adult World (II)” – A self-conscious young wife’s lengthy exploration of why she feels she can’t please her husband in bed.  There wasn’t any particular theme that made this one stand out, but again, the writing was amazing.  The way Wallace can get into a character’s head and really find the exact words they would use to describe a situation or themselves show true talent.  His experimental part two, showing the shorthand notes for the rest of the story rather than writing it out, really highlights this.  Whether the notes are fabricated or are actual notes that he, at one time, planned to use.. they show just how much consideration he gives each word and perspective.

The Bad

“Datum Centurio” – A failed experiment that I can’t even give a synopsis of because I have no idea what is going on it it.  A story(?) told through various, overly technical definitions of the word date. There was certainly no reader immersion.

Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar To Ecko” – The only one I didn’t finish.  At 19 pages, it was one of the longest stories in the book.  Apparently, he’s telling the story of a modern Narcissus (I think?), complete with plastic surgery and corporate battles.  But the writing style makes it almost completely inaccessible, unless I wanted to pore over the story for hours trying to figure out just what he was trying to say.  I didn’t.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I’d give this book 3 stars out of 5.  There was some brilliant material in it, and often Wallace’s mastery of language allows the reader to become fully immersed.  The guy had talent.  Some of the pieces were inaccessable, and some fell flat.  Many will stick with me; others, I hardly recall even now.  It is a book to be read over a few weeks, taken one story at time rather than read with a deadline.  I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t enjoy experimental writing or dislikes graphic, adult language and imagery.  I’d recommend it to writers, to monologue lovers, and to anyone who wants a glimpse of the unpleasant side of real life.  Wallace supposedly said that he wanted to write “stuff about what it feels like to live instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live.”  That, I think, he does quite well.

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