Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

The scope and depth of the work of David Foster Wallace, while not unmatched by contemporaries such as William Vollmann and Richard Powers, is distinguished by the extent to which the achievement matches the ambition; witness the success of his long and exhilarating  Infinite Jest from 1996. Despite certain whines to the contrary, the readability quotient here and in his essays and story collection Girl With Curious Hair resides in the stratosphere; Wallace's prose possesses what he once attributed to the rhythms of Don DeLillo's work--it has the click.  Rarely has analytical power, as evidenced in the essay on TV in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, been matched by such a sharp ear for the natural rhythms and nowspeak of our culture.

Which is why it's discouraging to see the onset of the ankle-nipping literary housedogs upon the publication of his second story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.  Wallace's penchant for fringe dwellers has never had the longing rabidness of Vollmann, but he can mine the territory profitably, seeking the Hideous Men across the gamut of social status--men whose facade disguises the darkness of their intent toward the weaker denizens among us.

Case in point is The New York Times review of June 1, 1999, "Calling Them Misogynists Would Be Too Kind."  As though the admission that characters like herein actually exist functions as a kind of key to let them out of the dungeon to assault our precious ears, whereas merely keeping quiet would suffice to hold them at bay.  The reviewer takes Wallace to task, it seems, because he did not write Infinite Jest again and change the names a little and sell it to us all over.  Also kind of strange to level the criticism that the pieces are too long, in the light of Jest's plenitude of pages.

Because there is an attempt to explore in depth the baser motivations which result in victimization, we are to understand that Wallace has suffered "a sharp falling off in ambitiion, nuance and vision."  The representation of victims calls attention to the fact that victims exist, and therefore victims are created by that representation rather than left in the somewhere-never-to-occur should we just not mention them.

Huh?  We don't get it.  We wish to go on record that this collection, and the novel-of-sorts formed by the various Brief Interview sections reflects nuances we don't find elsewhere in the current hip-lit scene.  That the descriptions herein circle in upon themselves and cross so many times that they begin to mimic the tangled weavings of our own consciousnesses, and that to read them just a spiral or two down from the top rather than ten or twelve, is to do the work an injustice.  (See in particular the hall-of-mirrors effect erected by the reasonings in "The Depressed Person.")

Mardi preceded Moby Dick.  It may be too hopeful to wish for a like order to arrive upon us here--especially given whatever motivation lies behind Wallace's  recent willingness to pose among pretenders in the last New Yorker fiction special.  But--from this perspective at least, and despite the bravery of Vollmann, Powers and Jonathan Franzen, there appear no greater spoutings on the horizon at this time.

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