David Foster Wallace is a titan among literary writers. Even in death, his works continue to offer countless readers one mind-bending and soul-shattering exercise after another. Such is the case with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, an anthology of short stories, essays, media transcripts, and stream of consciousness accounts. These somewhat disparate entries come together to knock down conventional literary techniques and male egoism with a sort of neurotic fervor. It’s a tragic, freewheeling, and often macabre look at the highs and lows of intimacy.
The Summation of Sex and Failed Romance
Heavy with psychobabble and run-on sentences, Brief Interviews is in some ways more dense than Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest. There is one entry, an 18-page Greek epic-like satire on 70’s TV producers, that drags and very nearly implodes in on itself. There are, however, more concise and conventional tales whose message is clearer. In “Forever Overhead,” we follow along with a young man who is weighing the importance of his own existence and sexuality while gathering up the courage to leap from a diving board into the pool down below. The pains of growing up and somehow still loathing oneself with the power of a full-grown adult are fully realized. Sometimes life really does stretch out before us like those clear blue waters.
Along with superficial sexual encounters, there are other fine examinations of human relationships within these pages. You have a husband and wife who, after a long and tumultuous marriage, decide to break things off in 1956. Their exchange is all dialogue, and it’s rather biting and cut-throat indeed. Wallace is fully aware of the nasty quips and undercuts that people who fall out of love are perfectly capable of.
The modern interview sections are usually witty and telling of just how much desperation imbues human nature. People cheat, lie, run away from their families, and confess their biggest regrets while on their deathbed. Poets, professors, and prostitutes alike are torn down and examined with a microscopic precision, which can be a bit heady at times.
There is a somatic and painful exuberance that resonates in David Foster Wallace’s narrative voice. As both experiencer and reporter, his accounts are more often detached and cerebral than truly emotion-focused. That lends itself nicely to the fact that so many men and women have lost themselves to failed psychotherapy and overplayed existential dread. After all, we may never cease to bottle up our feelings in an attempt to avoid heartbreak, if only for a moment.
Brief Interviews, while clunky at times, still manages to be self-aware and unrestrained. Literature works best when its boundaries are completely bowled over. Here, all limits have been cast off. Contemporary America could still stand to take a dose or two of this post-modern criticism of what it means to relate and be connected with one another. There is little catharsis here, but perhaps that’s the better cure for the self-serving side of romance and relationships.
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