Copyright © Steven E. Alford
Sloshed, squiffed, stinko: David Foster Wallace, America's premier word-drunk, has returned. After winning the unannounced but prestigious DeLillo/Pynchon/Wallace doorstop competition with 1996's Infinite Jest (winning by a secure margin of 252 pages over closest competitor, DeLillo's Underworld in a scribble-over), cultural ventriloquist
Wallace, spawn of Bartheleme and Pynchon, has now produced Brief Interviews With Hideous Men , a footnote-laden but all-too-brief collection of, well, see the next paragraph.
One couldn't call them short stories; let's let Dave himself take a shot at what they are: "belletristic pieces, pieces which as it happens are not contes philosophiques nor vignettes or scenarios or allegories or fables, exactly, though neither are they really qualifiable as 'short stories' (not even as those upscale microbrewed Flash Fictions that have become so popular in recent years-even though these belletristic pieces are really short, they jut don't work like Flash Fictions are supposed to) . . . " The man does go on.
What they do explore is the logorrheic, neurotic, self-absorbed, hermetically sealed American psyche and its avoidance of self-reflection, signaled here by the spewing of convoluted and defensive verbiage at any and all comers, in this case, the eavesdropping reader.
The Hideous Men of the title are men talking about women. The interviews (containing only answers, no questions) dissect the various ways men have of misrepresenting themselves, both to women and through the verbal strategies by which they hide the truth even from themselves. These men are eminently recognizable, but their sheer enumeration is enough to make you question the possibility of a healthy male psyche (females are exempt from Wallace's pitiless microscopic verbal analysis).
Their hideousness seems linked to Hannah Arendt's comment about Eichmann: he seemed so ordinary that the evil he embodied was somehow banal. Prosaic indeed are these sex-minded men, but taken as a gaggle, as a group, they all seem somehow . . . hideous, with their seduction strategies, observations on 'female nature,' endless selfishly inspired reflections on what-do-Women-want.
Paragraphs are expended on the issue of their "being honest," yet the honesty itself is a posture, caught in soaring, endless sentences that devour their own tails.
"Which I still, to be honest, don't quite think I've ever done: lied. Unless I'm just rationalizing. Unless I'm some kind of psychopath who can rationalize anything and can't even see the most obvious kinds of evil he's perpetrating, or who doesn't even care but wants to delude himself into believing he cares so that he can continue to see himself as a basically decent guy."
Although they pop up with some frequency throughout, Hideous Men isn't all this book is about. There is a bizarre tale of Aaron Spelling's California (and a hint of his family), yet told in the rhetoric of a mythopoetic Greek saga. One of the standout pieces is "The Depressed Person," which pins the wings of the neurotically self-absorbed to a stark white wall. "Adult World" is told from the point of view of a dutiful, yet naïve wife who slowly learns the embarrassing truth of her husband's nightly absences. "Death is Not the End" describes with Robbe-Grillet exactness the perils of literary fame, played out in the life of an American poet. And, of course, there's the young fellow who involves himself with the logistical problems of using [beginital] Bewitched [endital] star Elizabeth Montgomery's powers to stop all motion in a room as an aid to self-pleasuring.
If there is a thematic link to these stories, it's one of psychic disjunction-in each case the character has suffered a ghastly shock (sometimes the reader is given a hint of the shock: other times it remains as firmly offstage as a Shakespearean murder), and is employing words, an ocean of words, as a balsam to somehow soothe the hurt. Unfortunately, the pages of giddy, almost disorienting verbiage only papers over the wound. These pieces are the remnants of individuals trying to reconnect with themselves after a particularly grisly disconnect, and yet they find their method of reconnection-talking it out-is of no use whatsoever. Wallace here is in the business of producing the raw materials for an archeology of psychopathology.
The pyrotechnics, the gyrations, the neologisms, the exaggerations, the archaisms, the page-long footnotes, the meta-inquiry into the meta-discourse-some will see this as a borderline hypnotic verbal analogue of early Clapton or Stevie Ray, as someone ideopathically consumed by his own virtuosity (a virtuosity so transparent it seems as if Mr. Wallace is simply channeling the voices he records here). Others may tire midway through the seventh footnote (seeing it, in Dave's words, as a "trendy wink-nudge pseudo-avant-garde exercise … pseudometabelletristic gamesmanship") and put the book quietly back on the shelf. Me, I love the guy.