This article first appeared in the Philadelphia City Paper Book Quarterly, June 17–24, 1999.

Men Talk

"In terms of the stuff I do," says David Foster Wallace, on the phone from a Los Angeles tour stop, "I’m somebody who ought to be [published by a] small press." Such a pronouncement might seem odd coming from the literary It boy of the last several years. Though the mainstream has embraced the 37-year-old, he still describes his writing as "avant-garde fiction, stuff that’s weird and asks the reader to work."

It was Wallace’s comedic flair as much as the intellectualism of his novel Infinite Jest (1996) and collection of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), which nudged him into the limelight. Still, the literary celebrity is anxious about how he’s perceived and that manifests itself in his writing and persona.

Wallace’s bleak new collection of stories, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Little, Brown and Co.), pokes around the fence that separates conventional narrative from "experimental" writing: One story is a faux dictionary entry, one a fable about Hollywood, and the emblematic "Octet" consists of a series of "pop quizzes" about moral dilemmas, eventually collapsing into a fictive author’s neurotic stream of consciousness. The last piece suggests work by John Barth and Jorge Luis Borges, as well as recalling Wallace’s first collection of short fiction, 1989’s Girl with Curious Hair.

While Wallace acknowledges his debt to Borges and innovators of the ’60s and ’70s (citing Jerzy Kozinski’s Steps as an influence on Brief Interviews’ shape and arrangement), he’s anxious not to appear a slave to style.

"While style is something I think I’m good at and that I enjoy," he says, "I’m also very suspicious of it. It’s very tempting to have that be [the only thing] a story’s got going on."
Despite any appearance of chilly formalism, Brief Interviews is a thoughtful work concerned with, among other things, the misperceptions and emotional misconnections that pervade American culture.

In "Adult World," a young woman who doubts her ability to satisfy her husband rents a porno movie. Hoping to learn technique, she can only see the video in terms of emotional cliché: "the women’s eyes were empty and hard; you could just tell they weren’t experiencing any intimacy or pleasure and didn’t care if their partners were pleased." Her own interior life is dictated by the vocabulary of ersatz self-empowerment, and her ability to use terms like "intimacy" can no more save her marriage than the ability to say "neuroblastoma" can save the therapist of "The Depressed Person" from dying of brain cancer.

In Brief Interviews, communication breakdown often centers on relations between men and women. Wallace says the title piece grew from another, failed story in which a female character conducting interviews "sparked my interest in the idea of an interlocutor who’s utterly effaced and known only by what men say to her." The "Interviews" condemn male self-awareness as merely a sophisticated technique for seduction or, at best, a guise for self-absorption. When blandly summarized, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men might seem to have strayed into "Mars and Venus" territory. But the book acutely confronts contemporary moral dilemmas.

Thanks to Wallace’s wit (and, he admits, his publisher) he is one of the few difficult writers offered the chance to get mainstream readers to take on the real labor of following the convolutions of a prodigious literary mind wrestling prodigious subjects. Still, the writer notes there’s plenty of competition for a reader’s attention: "500 channels on the dish, and great video games and movies." For Wallace, being a viable alternative isn’t easy: "What this kind of fiction needs to do is not just be difficult and weird but to be seductive and kind of fun enough to seduce the reader into doing the weird work."

Brief Interviews, with its dark subject matter and experimental trappings, is not quite beach material, but is curiously timed as a summer release.

"I would say a good 40 percent of readers who pick up this book aren’t gonna like it and are gonna see it as very cold, self-conscious, technical exercises," he says. "In which case my worst nightmare in writing the book comes true."