Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Author:David Foster Wallace
Genre:Short Fiction

Most of these stories are brainy and quite dense. (Wallace himself describes them as "belletristic," and I had to figure out the meaning of the word before I could go on.

Did you get it yet? Comes from belles lettres. See what I mean?)

The most interesting story to me was "Octet." It's published as a failed attempt at a series of eight "pop quizzes" about human relationships. The quizzes are an increasingly complex series of impossible situations where the characters are using one another in some blatantly selfish but more or less abstracted way.

What happens is, the author can't manage to complete the series. Several of the pop quizzes don't work, he has to rewrite one of them (both 6 and 6A are included in the series), and you end up with a series of three-plus-one-rewrite of the intended eight. To resolve this, he adds a ninth pop quiz: You are a fiction writer who is trying to publish a series of eight pop quizzes ...

Pop Quiz 9 is a ridiculous attempt to salvage a failed piece of writing, so Wallace acknowledges how ridiculous it is. His acknowledgement is a cheap metafictional trick, so he acknowledges his own cheapness. In fact, the ninth story can be read as an (extremely verbose) apology for its own existence whatsoever - a fact which Wallace freely admits. The strange thing is that on a certain level it works: through his cheap trickery and desperate postmodern-lite artifice, Wallace is using his audience in the same way as his other pop-quiz characters are using their friends and families. It's a delicious paradox: if "Octet" is a failure, then that sneaks it in through the back door of success; but if it succeeds, then the ninth story makes no sense, and the whole thing is a failure.

In all the stories, Wallace loves/hates this kind of navel-gazing. Here are some more things he repeatedly analyzes/dissects/loves to hate/hates to love:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Pretentious psychobabble
  • Horrible people who speak deep truths in a horrible fashion
  • Vivid childhood memories
  • False, fabricated childhood memories
  • People using their difficult childhood as an excuse for their failure to be fully adult
  • Sex
I would probably read something else by him.

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