Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: Stories by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is clearly an accomplished and, at times, brilliant writer. If it were only a matter of judging his playfulness, innovation, and enthusiasm-sheer energy-it would be hard to imagine him scoring higher. For example, one of his conceits, Datum Centurio, features a hard copy version of a future (2096) dictionary which defines “date.” In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Little, Brown and Company, 288 pages) the innovative “story” mimics the complete typographical layout of a real dictionary and notes to the effect that with “compatible hardware” (e.g., a neural plug) we could get the entire “pentasensory” (i.e., virtual reality) illustrative support. The dictionary definition traces the ancestral origins of date to earlier in the century (i.e., our time) when the term was used as a “euphymym” for “genital interface” between prostitutes and johns. In the interim, we are led to gather from the virtual dictionary entry, the term hard date has developed for virtual reality-assisted sex, with soft date being reserved for state-approved procreative acts. Never mind that aesthetically wise Nabokov said he “detests typographical tricks” (of which this entire story, in a sense, is a great example). John Fante wrote that “failure is more beautiful than success”; Nietzsche said “power makes stupid”-David Foster Wallace is that triple delight-a huge critical and commercial success who is young to boot. But Datum Centurio is, like much of Wallace’s work here, on the border of being too clever to be clever. While he is possessed of Herculean artistic resources, he has come down (or rather up!) with what might (without pulling any punches) be called Updikeitis-1) “the lamentable tendency among wordsmiths of the highest order to have anything important to say.” Wallace enjoys technical virtuosity of the highest order. Indeed, it is so high that, in the best of the anthology’s stories, “Death is Not the End” and, especially, “Forever Overhead,” we forget that we are reading about a) a pot-bellied poet basking in his success by a swimming pool and b) a self-conscious thirteen-year-old boy virgin, again at a pool, braving a dive off the high board. In this rather brilliant, latter story, there is a “SN CK BAR” and you (the story is told in the second person) on the ladder watch “the [older girls’] bottoms…in soft thin cloth, tight nylon stretch. The good bottoms move up the ladder like pendulums in liquid, a gentle uncrackable code. The girls’ legs make you think of deer. Look bored.” That is great writing, and it contrasts greatly with the irritating logorrhea of “The Depressed Person” (an immersion experience into the run-on sentence world and new-age therapies of a depressed person) and “Octet” (presented as a postmodern Pop Quiz, replete with metastasizing Derridean footnotes and revealing self-reflexive references to Johnny Carson’s tendency to laugh at the badness of his own jokes). Technical virtuosity does not alone a great story make, especially when it is spread ad infinitum over the stale wonder bread of a hopeless subject. It is clear Wallace is concerned with the problem of writing honest prose in an age of capitalist appropriations, as well as with social alienation and the need to be liked and recognized-an obvious primary motivating force of many writers, and perhaps all celebrities. But again these are themes are relatively minor compared to Wallace’s talent, and thus should be ditched, as well as his overindulgence of his tendency for mannerist prose. Writers must live, too-and, in this volume anyway, Foster Wallace’s productions seem largely stillborn, the strange fruit of academic incubation, mutated into disturbing, if fascinating shapes, by intrauterine exposure to (I’m guessing!) methamphetamine sulfate. “Signifying Nothing” (like his novel “Infinite Jest,” another title derived from Shakespeare, who Wallace nonetheless says in an interview he likes only parts of) is a story about a son who confronts his father in a truck with his memory of his father wagging his limp penis in his face, which the father denies. Please. The title story, which runs as a refrain interspersed in four sections throughout the book, is as annoyingly sexist as its ultimately trite subject matter (what guys blather on about girls) and is hampered by the saminess (despite the author’s attempts to capture vernacular variety) of the too-mannered, too cryptically intellectual male voices. The effect is of viewing Brett Eaton Ellis’s subject matter (depraved L.A. humanity) through a geographically wider, intellectual, and postmodern parodic lens. Who cares? Why hold a mirror up to nature, no matter how gilded and exquisite the mirror, if the reflection is of an unmitigated [material]? One [sic] reads Bukowski because there is a great soul there, not because we get a nice impressionist description of how tanning lotion stings when used as a lubricant. I do think Wallace is a great talent, and I look forward to his forthcoming work on Cantor and infinity, which seems like a worthy match for his interests and ability.

Too clever by 49.999 ad infinitum percent.

Dorion Sagan, author of The Devil’s Comic (2000) and co-author of Pack of Lies (forthcoming).


The fifty-six-year-old American poet, a Nobel Laureate, a poet known in American literary circles as ‘the poet’s poet’ or sometimes simply ‘the Poet,’ lay outside on the deck, bare-chested, moderately overweight, in a partially reclined deck chair, in the sun, reading, half supine, moderately but not severely overweight, winner of two National Book Awards, a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Lamont Prize, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Prix de Rome, a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, a MacDowell Medal, and a Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a president emeritus of PEN, a poet two separate American generations have hailed as the voice of their generation, now fifty-six, lying in an unwet XL Speedo-brand swimsuit in an incrementally reclinable canvas deck chair on the tile deck beside the home’s pool, a poet who was among the first ten Americans to receive a ‘Genius Grant’ from the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of only three American recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature now living, 5’8”, 181 lbs., brown/brown, hairline unevenly recessed because of the inconsistent acceptance/rejection of various Hair Augmentation Systems—brand transplants, he sat, or lay—or perhaps most accurately just ‘reclined’—in a black Speedo swimsuit by the home’s kidney-shaped pool, on the pool’s tile deck, in a portable deck chair whose back was now reclined four clicks to an angle of 350 w/r/t the deck’s mosaic tile, at 10:20 a.m. on 15 May 1995, the fourth most anthologized poet in the history of American belles lettres, near an umbrella but not in the actual shade of the umbrella, reading Newsweek magazine, using the modest swell of his abdomen as an angled support for the magazine, also wearing thongs, one hand behind his head, the other hand out to the side and trailing on the dun-and-ochre filigree of the deck’s expensive Spanish ceramic tile, occasionally wetting a finger to turn the page, wearing prescription sunglasses whose lenses were chemically treated to darken in fractional proportion to the luminous intensity of the light to which they were exposed, wearing on the trailing hand a wristwatch of middling quality and expense, simulated-rubber thongs on his feet, legs crossed at the ankle and knees slightly spread, the sky cloudless and brightening as the morning’s sun moved up and right, wetting a finger not with saliva or perspiration but with the condensation on the slender frosted glass of iced tea that rested now just on the border of his body’s shadow to the chair’s upper left and would have to be moved to remain in that cool shadow, tracing a finger idly down the glass’s side before bringing the moist finger idly up to the page, occasionally turning the pages of the 19 September 1994 edition of Newsweek magazine, reading about American health-care reform and about USAir’s tragic Flight 427, reading a summary and favorable review of the popular nonfiction volumes Hot Zone and The Coming Plague, sometimes turning several pages in succession, skimming certain articles and summaries, an eminent American poet now four months short of his fifty-seventh birthday, a poet whom Newsweek magazine’s chief competitor, Time, had once rather absurdly called ‘the closest thing to a genuine literary immortal now living,’ his shins nearly hairless, the open umbrella’s elliptic shadow tightening slightly, the thongs’ simulated rubber pebbled on both sides of the sole, the poet’s forehead dotted with perspiration, his tan deep and rich, the insides of his upper legs nearly hairless, his penis curled tightly on itself inside the tight swimsuit, his Vandyke neatly trimmed, an ashtray on the iron table, not drinking his iced tea, occasionally clearing his throat, at intervals shifting slightly in the pastel deck chair to scratch idly at the instep of one foot with the big toe of the other foot without removing his thongs or looking at either foot, seemingly intent on the magazine, the blue pool to his right and the home’s thick glass sliding rear door to his oblique left, between himself and the pool a round table of white woven iron impaled at the center by a large beach umbrella whose shadow now no longer touches the pool, an indisputably accomplished poet, reading his magazine in his chair on his deck by his pool behind his home. The home’s pool and deck area is surrounded on three sides by trees and shrubbery. The trees and shrubbery, installed years before, are densely interwoven and tangled and serve the same essential function as a redwood privacy fence or a wall of fine stone. It is the height of spring, and the trees and shrubbery are in full leaf and are intensely green and still, and are complexly shadowed, and the sky is wholly blue and still, so that the whole enclosed tableau of pool and deck and poet and chair and table and trees and home’s rear fagade is very still and composed and very nearly wholly silent, the soft gurgle of the pool’s pump and drain and the occasional sound of the poet clearing his throat or turning the pages of Newsweek magazine the only sounds—not a bird, no distant lawn mowers or hedge trimmers or weed-eating devices, no jets overhead or distant muffled sounds from the pools of the homes on either side of the poet’s home—nothing but the pool’s respiration and poet’s occasional cleared throat, wholly still and composed and enclosed, not even a hint of a breeze to stir the leaves of the trees and shrubbery, the silent living enclosing flora’s motionless green vivid and inescapable and not like anything else in the world in either appearance or suggestion.

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