Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men I suppose can be considered a collection of short stories, but most of its contents are weird David Foster Wallace postmodern things that aren’t really “stories.” Short “writings” perhaps?

I’ll refer to them as “stories” or “chapters” or whatever below, with the understanding that no term really fully fits.

The book starts off unconventional in form with its first “story,” A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life, which I would say is more of an epigraph than anything. It’s two short paragraphs long, and identifies pragmatic reasons people do and say what they do. Given the title, is the implication that people today—at least in the more advanced, “postindustrial” countries—are more strategic and inauthentic in their interactions than in the past?

Actually another way the book is unconventional in form is the page numbering. There is a convention that page numbers always start with an odd number on the right. It’s not always 1, since sometimes unnumbered title pages and such are implicitly counted so that the first explicitly number page is 7 or 11 or whatever, but it’s always an odd number, and then of course it follows that from that point on all the left hand pages will be numbered with an even number (if they are numbered at all) and all the right hand pages with an odd number. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, though, has its first “story”—A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life—on Page 0, on the right, making all the subsequent pages “off” in that the odd numbers are on the left and the even numbers on the right.

I take it this is just an instance of Wallace being “postmodern” in a playful sense, reminding us that much that we take for granted in books really is just convention, and that just because no one does otherwise doesn’t mean that one couldn’t or shouldn’t do otherwise. So it violates a norm in order to call our attention to it. An utterly innocuous such norm is chosen here to make it clear that it’s not being violated because it is somehow objectionable; it is its conventionality—and optionality—that is being highlighted, not its objectionableness.

Or maybe there’s something more significant to the numbering than I’m picking up on. A lot of reading Wallace is puzzling out why he does various weird things in his writing. It’s something I find mildly interesting at times, but probably more often something I’m inclined to dismiss with a masturbatory gesture.

Indeed, at times Wallace’s writing has more the characteristics of poetry than prose, which puts me at a severe disadvantage since I almost never can make heads or tails out of poems.

The second entry, Death is Not the End, is about three pages long (which sounds short, but at least is vastly longer than the 79 words of A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life). It is all one paragraph, about 75% of which is one sentence. It’s a detailed description of a very accomplished poet—of his precise physical self and current physical circumstances, intermixed with information about his career and the honors he’s received and such.

OK, but what does that have to do with “Death is Not the End”? (What does it have to do with anything, for that matter?) I’ll take a stab at it, but with the understanding that the title could well be some random thing like a Nostradamus quatrain that people imagine has some specific meaning when really it’s just nonsense.

Maybe Wallace is contrasting a person’s physical self—which does end with death—with his achievements and fame and such, which at least for a time are still known and talked about and written about after his death.

Even if by some wild chance that is correct—don’t worry, I’m sure it’s not—what would be the point of making the contrast? That it’s worth trying to do things that will be remembered since that gives you a kind of immortality? That it’s futile to seek immortality that way because any such fame will be temporary—in Ozymandias fashion—and so ultimately you’ll be just as dead and forgotten as everyone else? I haven’t the foggiest idea.

Forever Overhead is an interesting account (with a less inscrutable title) of a 13 year old boy at a public swimming pool on his birthday, going off the high diving board for the first time. It nicely captures how hyperaware one becomes of one’s surroundings in a situation of anxiety like that, and how time seems to slow down the closer one comes to the big moment.

Dostoyevsky described this same phenomenon in connection with a man anticipating his execution in The Idiot. Wallace is a big Dostoyevsky fan, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he had that passage in mind when he wrote Forever Overhead.

There are four different chapters entitled, like the book itself, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. (There are also three entitled Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders—though these are differentiated with Roman numerals—and two entitled The Devil Is a Busy Man). Each consists of multiple vignettes written in dialogue form. Most, but not all, are one-sided conversations where we read what is being said by one person (male—a “hideous man” presumably), with the other person’s remarks being replaced by the letter Q. (Maybe short for “Question,” but insofar as we can infer roughly what that second person is saying it’s not always a question.) Most, but not all, of these one-sided dialogues seem to be in some kind of therapy context, where the male is a patient or someone under observation in an institution, and the “Q” person is some kind of mental health professional.

My favorite of this first set is one of the exceptions. It’s written in that one-sided dialogue form but appears not to be between a patient and therapist, but between a man breaking off a relationship and the woman he’s leaving. (There are obvious parallels between a romantic relationship and the relationship between a patient and therapist, so for a time I thought it might not be an exception after all, but ultimately there’s too much that doesn’t make sense if it’s supposed to be a patient and a therapist.)

The guy breaking off the relationship is leaving because the woman hasn’t trusted his many assurances that he won’t leave, that his love for her is not feigned or transient but is something she can depend on. She sees his behavior—we can infer—as contradicting his words and proving she was right not to trust him. He sees it instead as a self-fulfilling prophecy—that he was in fact speaking the truth and was worthy of being trusted, but that her not trusting him altered the situation to bring about just what she feared.

Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (XI), less than two pages long, is about a man (come to think of it, I don’t think it specifies it’s a man, though it does specify that it’s someone with a girlfriend) who regularly dreams he’s blind, which he finds very upsetting, and which causes him the whole next day to be extremely grateful that he’s not blind in real life.

The Depressed Person is one of those Wallace writings that it’s hard to read now without connecting it with his own depression and suicide. This is an account of a woman suffering from severe depression, frustrated by her inability to convey what it feels like and so limited to discussing the “context” of it (i.e., the possible causes, but she doesn’t want to say “causes” because then it sounds like she’s making excuses or blaming others). It describes the various therapies and drugs she tries. It may be taken by some, and for that matter may have been intended in part, as a humorous sendup of the ineffectiveness and clichés of therapy, though I read it more straightforwardly as a sad account of a suffering person.

The first of the stories entitled The Devil Is a Busy Man, which is only between one and two pages long, is about a guy who learns that if he offers something for free people are too suspicious to take it, whereas if he offers to sell it for a really low price they’re happy to get a good deal. I don’t know what the point is. I suppose you could find things in relationships to analogize to, but that’s a stretch. I think you’d be bringing that to the story yourself rather than finding something in it that’s already there. (Nor could I even hazard a guess as to what it has to do with the Devil being a busy man.)

Think, another of the shorter offerings, is about a guy cheating on his wife. The woman he is cheating with knows just how to act in this kind of situation, mostly due to having absorbed enough in pop culture to be familiar with what’s expected, but as soon as he behaves in a way that movies and TV and such have given her no exposure to—he drops to his knees and starts praying right when you’d think they’d start having sex—her confidence and smoothness disappear and she’s clueless how to respond.

Signifying Nothing is about a 19 year old guy who suddenly “remembers” that when he was little his father confronted him when he was alone and menacingly waved his dick in his face. There’s absolutely nothing else in the father’s character or his behavior before or after that fits this, but he’s positive he’s not imagining it. He questions he father about it; the father’s only response is an incredulous look.

If the incident happened at all, it was so random and inexplicable as to be absurd in the sense of Camus’s The Stranger. Is that kind of existential absurdity what Wallace had in mind when he wrote this?

The second of the pieces entitled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is the longest chapter in the book, and is of the same form as the other chapters with this title. Just as an example of its contents, the first of its vignettes is about a guy bragging about how he has learned how to use his physical disability as a way to manipulate women into having sex with him by putting them in a position where not giving in to him would make them feel guilty that they were rejecting him due to his disability.

Datum Centurio is an excerpt from some sort of computerized dictionary-type thing from 2096. The form and terminology are obscure, but the gist is that it’s defining and analyzing the word “date,” noting among other things that in the distant past of the late 20th century it was a term that gave rise to much misunderstanding due to women understanding it to mean a social interaction designed to provide evidence as to whether two people were compatible for a long term committed relationship, and men understanding it to mean a social interaction designed to provide an opportunity for sex.

Octet is one of the oddest of the chapters, but one that I sort of enjoyed. Wallace presents a series of scenarios and then asks moral questions about them (the scenarios and questions constituting what he calls “Pop Quizzes”). They’re not straightforward like you might see in a philosophy book, and not purely intended as humor or satire (I don’t think), but are somewhere in between. He then has a whole long section talking about his writing of this chapter, what he’s trying to do, how he has failed, etc., which is all very postmodern and, again, is probably intended neither completely seriously nor completely non-seriously.

Adult World (I) and Adult World (II) are indeed closely related, which in one sense you’d expect from the titles, but given that this is postmodern writing really there should be no expectation. They are also among the most understandable of the stories—despite, as usual, having an unconventional narrative structure—and therefore among my favorites. (I have a strong preference for not being totally baffled by what I read.)

The first part is about a newlywed wife and her self-doubt about her sexual abilities. She becomes increasingly panicky as she overanalyzes everything and finds ways to interpret each new piece of evidence to fit the hypothesis that she is not satisfying her husband in bed and that he is too nice to say so.

The second part consists of notes on how the remainder of the story could be written—what happens next, how it should be worded, what its meaning is, etc. I particularly liked this “behind the scenes” take on writing a story.

The second chapter entitled The Devil Is a Busy Man is another short one. It’s a first person account by a guy who says he did a good deed but that it won’t count as being morally worthwhile if he says enough about it to reveal that he was the one who did it. He keeps letting more and more little details out about it, both to the reader and to a person he’s interacting with in the story itself, until ultimately he’s convinced he has screwed up and said enough to identify him and thus render his good deed not properly motivated.

In a David Foster Wallace collection of short stories like this, with his various playful and experimental unconventional narrative structures, some stories will always be a lot more comprehensible than others, though I’m sure which are which varies from reader to reader. I mentioned Adult World as one that I pretty much could make sense of. At the opposite end is Church Not Made with Hands.

This one really lost me. I think it’s about a couple of guys who do art therapy, making house calls to people with mental illnesses and such to work with them in creating art. But a lot of it seems to be dreams or imagination or descriptions of paintings as if what’s in the paintings is really happening, etc.

Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (VI) is a one page dialogue about a married couple breaking up, using their child as a pawn in the process. (The child is a supporting character in an earlier story: The Depressed Person, where we learn that he grew up to be a conflict resolution specialist who works with couples going through divorce.)

The third installment of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men consists of still more vignettes of men describing their dating, relationships, and sex lives. In the longest of them, a man recounts how he became obsessed as a boy with making his favorite masturbatory fantasy—wherein he granted himself a supernatural power—coherent so as to avoid its having implications beyond the intended sexual ones. He describes how he failed, and suffered a breakdown as a result. It’s certainly an imaginative, and mildly funny, tale.

Tri-Stan: I Told Sissee Nar to Ecko is a purely humor piece. Well, I think it is anyway, though it may be an effort to also make some more important points through satire.

It is an account of an absurd series of events involving a TV executive and his impossibly—and artificially—attractive daughter, and the success of a new genre of TV show—campy dramatizations of ancient myths. It is written in a faux futuristic style of gobbledygook as an historical account.

It’s not very funny at all (to me), and the writing style just makes it a slog to get through. I did get one good laugh out of the piece, though, and that was the description of the TV series roughly eighty as “a thirtysomething knockoff about flappers & hepcats struggling to find both themselves & sustained continence in a modern nursing-care context.”

(My guess is that Wallace and hardcore Wallace fans would regard this as one of their least favorite lines in the story, a moment when he weakened and included a simplistic gag in an otherwise highbrow work of humor.)

On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon is one of the more interesting pieces in its way. It is a father’s confession of how much he loathes his son.

He is a father who somehow is able to abstract from what he knows one is supposed to feel and supposed to say about one’s child, and instead to judge the situation of having a child as if the impact the child has on one’s life came from a stranger, a stranger fully responsible for what he does and its consequences.

He is utterly appalled by everything about his son from the beginning. “The insane expense of pastel plastic things. The cloacal reek of the nursery. The endless laundry. The odors and constant noise. The disruption of any possible schedule. The slobber and terror and piercing shrieks.”

It goes on in pretty much this same vein for almost thirty pages, which feels overlong but maybe is justified in terms of enabling the bizarreness of it to sink in. The father’s justification of his hatred for his son is kind of funny, kind of sad, kind of outrageous, kind of refreshingly outside the box.

This strikes me as postmodern more in substance than in style (which is not to say it’s written in a completely straightforward, conventional style). Not just “how can I say this in a bizarre way that will violate readers’ expectations of form?” but “what bizarre thing can I say that will violate an aspect of most readers’ worldview that they typically never think to question?”

Suicide as a Sort of Present is the one story from this collection that I was already familiar with, having come across a YouTube audio of Wallace himself reading it.

It’s a sad, disturbing story, without a lot of postmodern games and riddles. Like the preceding chapter, it concerns a parent hating a child, but whereas On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon has enough outrageousness to give it a small element of humor or playful shock value, Suicide as a Sort of Present strikes me as being intended deadly seriously.

A girl grows up making herself miserable by holding herself up to extraordinary standards and, in her mind, consistently failing to live up to them. To outside observers she is very impressive, which is to say she surpasses reasonable standards in most areas of life, but that still leaves her well short of her self-imposed ideals. Authority figures such as her parents occasionally give her permission, in effect, to loosen up and not strive so hard, but always with an implied approval of precisely this element of her character that on the surface they’re telling her is OK to compromise.

When she grows up and has a son, she requires herself to be a perfect parent just as she expects herself to be perfect in all areas of life. She sees every flaw in her child as reflecting her failure to achieve such perfection, which drives her into a deeper and deeper state of self-loathing. Because the child is a constant reminder to her of what a failure she is in carrying out the most important responsibility of life, she comes to hate him as well. But she forces herself to act toward him with apparent unconditional love, forgiving everything, never blaming him, never disciplining him.

He sees that no matter how badly he behaves she will still love him and be totally supportive of him, and instead of this being a source of strength or improved self-esteem for him, he feels puzzled and increasingly guilty that he has such a superhumanly loving and kind mother, since he has done nothing to deserve it. So the self-loathing passes to another generation, and his behavior just gets worse and worse, which results in their both cycling down into greater and greater self-blaming and self-loathing.

Like I say, it’s a decidedly sad and disturbing read. The only reason it’s not even more sad and disturbing is that I really don’t know how psychologically insightful it is. Is this the kind of thing that typically happens—or at least can happen—when a person is really perfectionist and others don’t dissuade her from that path when she’s young, or when a person is raised with an unconditional love and lack of discipline and disapproval? Or is this just some fanciful armchair psychology that doesn’t reflect how real people are affected by these kinds of relationships and situations?

Also, as I mentioned in connection with The Depressed Person, it’s hard to read a story like this without wondering how it might relate to the author’s own life. Did the depressed and ultimately suicidal Wallace see himself in the woman? In the son? Did he see his own parents in the woman? In her parents?

The fourth and final piece entitled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men follows the pattern of the earlier three, except instead of multiple vignettes or dialogues there is just one long one. Again it includes the statements of only one party to the dialogue—a man—and whatever the other person says is replaced by a “Q.”

I found this to be the most powerful of the “Brief Interviews.” It feels like as the book draws to a close Wallace is settling in and getting more serious, focusing less on postmodernist disruption and provocation and more on actually saying something with depth.

The “interviewee” of this piece recounts his successful pick-up of a New Age bimbo (wherein he articulates a key insight of the successful pick-up artist: “a deep need for anything from other people makes us easy pickings”). She then profoundly and unexpectedly touches him and teaches him with the purity of her sincerity and with a story she tells him wherein she dealt with a situation of horrific violence and danger with remarkable love and empathy.

I was probably more caught up in this story than any preceding one, and found the ending especially hard hitting. The ending is ambiguous, but what (I think) it implies is a shocker. Not just in a superficial emotional sense, but in a thought-provoking, disturbing sense.

The book closes with the third chapter entitled Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (XXIV), which, like the first two, is very short.

Very abstract and symbolic, it’s much more poem than prose. And since poems almost always go over my head, it’s no surprise that I didn’t get this story.

On the other hand, I feel like I’m closer to getting it than I am to most poems or poem-like stories. It’s not like it’s just random words on a page (which is how I experience many, probably most, poems). I have a vague sense of some of what Wallace might be trying to say here. It’s the kind of thing that if I read it multiple times and really thought about it, and especially if I then read what others have written about it or talked to others about it, I’d have a pretty good idea how to interpret it and might well find it interesting and important. It’s something having to do with being genuine or not, striking a pose for others or not, going into a shell or not, etc. In any case, it doesn’t strike me as just some bullshit riddle or wordplay.

My overall assessment of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—and this of course is utterly subjective, just a description of how I experienced the book—is that Wallace was a person of extraordinary intellect and moral seriousness, and that it’s arguable whether his decision to express himself mostly through postmodernist writing was the right one.

I remember in his review of a biography of Dostoyevsky he wrote with great admiration about Dostoyevsky but also a certain envy that he had lived at a time when one could write in a very morally serious way without inviting eye-rolling and ridicule. It’s as if Wallace decided that the only way nowadays to explore deep philosophical and moral Dostoyevskian themes and be taken seriously was to package it in an attention-grabbing, startling, and sufficiently unfamiliar form so that readers couldn’t dismiss it as “the same old same old” or think they could understand it if they just read it through quickly, but would have to slow down and properly pay attention to it.

But I wonder if that was a product of his spending so much time in certain rarefied or fringe circles, like graduate creative writing programs. Has the world as a whole, or have readers as a whole, really moved on from serious but conventional Dostoyevsky-style literature, or is it just the people he tended to interact with who rolled their eyes at it and craved only irony, self-conscious cleverness, intentional obscurity, fractured narratives, and the like?

Certainly I’m not dismissing everything that’s unconventional about his style. There are times that the high number of footnotes, the addressing of the reader directly, the thinking-outside-the-box-stuff in general works for me, enhances what I’m reading. Not to mention if I were to be a complete stickler for addressing philosophical and moral issues only in the most straightforward, understandable, literal, logical manner, I’d have to dismiss fiction in general, since that’s already one step removed from reality compared to a nonfiction essay.

But—again for me—the postmodernist shenanigans get in the way more often than they enhance. I think Wallace should have written like Dostoyevsky if he wanted to write like Dostoyevsky, rather than allowing literary fashion and the expected reactions of fellow “serious” writers deflect him into postmodernist impenetrability. Or for that matter done even more nonfiction writing than he did.

That’s when I feel most connected to him, though by no means do I get nothing out of his more experimental, postmodern fiction.

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