Posts Tagged ‘david foster wallace’

Möbius master: David Foster Wallace and the masculine manipulator1,2

It’s been a week-long Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace spectacular here at 3000 BOOKS. I’ve been discussing various aspects of the late writer’s second short story collection. What could be more fitting than to end by discussing the ‘Interviews’ themselves? Why, I can’t think of anything. Let’s proceed.

There are four interview interludes in the book. Each interlude contains a number of dialogues with so-called hideous men. It’s not entirely clear what the context of these conversations is, although we can guess that it’s something scientific or medical. A new interviewee is denoted by depersonalised details: ‘B.I. #20 12-96; New Haven CT’. The interlocutor is similarly mysterious; questions are cut out and replaced with, simply, ‘Q’. (The film — which, despite my enduring love for Will Arnett, I will in high likelihood not be seeing — has made its own pretty safe guess about who ‘Q’ is.)

DFW makes it rather obvious why these fellows aren’t the nicest of people. One guy, R, describes implies that he hit on a woman he met at an airport. He meets her while she is breaking down, after realising her lover has broken his promise to start a life with her. R ‘start[s] telling her how she’s right and don’t even deserve and how it’s true most guys are shit and how my heart’s going out and all like that.’ And then, in truly one of the most loathsome outros to a conversation ever recorded in the annals of American literature, ‘A’ asks R what happened:

R: ‘Heh heh.’
A: ‘Heh heh heh.’
R: ‘You really got to ask?’
A: ‘You bastard. You shitheel.’
R: ‘Well you know how it is I mean what are you going to do.’
A: ‘You shitheel.’
R: ‘Well you know.’

The next interview begins like this: ‘I have to admit it was a big reason for marrying her thinking I wasn’t likely going to do better than this because of the way she had a good body even after she’d had a kid. Trim and good and good legs — she’d had a kid but wasn’t all blown out and veiny and sagged.’ Hold on there, ladies, form an orderly line.

But there would be no kick to the stories, nothing to keep my eyes to the page, if these hombres3
were just all nasty. The most involved interview occurs late in the book, with Mr. ‘New Haven CT’ responding. New Haven is talking about how he fell in love with a woman after she related to him the horrifying story of her rape and near-murder by a severely mentally ill man. Not so bad on its face, really. Like many of DFW’s ‘hideous men’, NH is extremely intelligent and self-aware; he is extravagantly minded to preclude criticism or negative impressions and is able to do so adroitly:

I’m not putting it right, I can’t make you feel what I felt. You’ll turn this into Narcissistic Male Wants Women’s Gaze On Him At Climax, I know.

Nothing new there: intellectual douchebag appropriates women’s theoretical constructs to further oppress them. NH rankles along, pre-emptors armed and clichés spiralling everywhere, but then he, like many of the other interviewees, has an epiphany:

It would depend what you meant by true. I simply didn’t care. I was moved, changed — believe what you will. My mind seemed to be moving at the quote speed of light. I was so sad. And that whether or not what she believed happened happened — it seemed true even if it wasn’t. That even if the whole focused-soul-connection theology, that even if it was just catachrestic New Age goo, her belief in it had saved her life, so whether or not it’s goo becomes irrelevant, no? Can you see why this, realizing this, would make you feel conflicted in — of realizing your entire sexuality and sexual history had less genuine connection or feeling than I felt simply lying there listening to her talk about lying there realizing how lucky she’d been that some angel had visited her in psychotic guise and show her what she’d spend her whole life praying was true?

NH is still, no question, a prick. The self-conscious (‘quote’) framing of his soliloquy, his disdain for the beliefs and even the experience of someone he is meanwhile claiming he loved and who changed his life, all that purely rhetorical interrogation…I’ll bet this guy earns his money at the Bar. And even this quote, excerpted, probably isn’t enough to turn the casual reader into an NH convert. But for me, the fact that DFW could make me give two tosses about whether NH was really in love, after making me wade through torrents of the man’s disgusting platitude/anti-platitude schtick, was a huge achievement. Such a huge emotional torque is a writerly feat not to be coughed at. I was kind of almost steaming in admiration at this point. Of course, I got my just deserts for allowing myself to be manipulated. I won’t tell you how, but DFW’s pattern was entrenched enough by this point for me to know what was coming — and I still felt a sucker-punched.

No matter what you might like to say about DFW, I think I would try and jump a stream for him. You can’t admit but that he put everything on the line for his readers, and that is why I loved reading this book so much. Not to venerate a palpable trickster over a quiet one — I would easily walk miles for Marilynne Robinson, for example.4 But it’s always exciting to watch the Indian Juggler: someone who does something so unimaginable for your own physical body or operating brain that it seems impossible. Yet when they do it, it’s perfect, it’s beautiful, and it just about takes your breath away.

1 Wow, if I’d known in advance about the lame, faux-academic titles I was going to use for this series, I would have tried to make a Harry Potter joke, at least.
2 It’s as you feared: now that I know how to do superscript in html, you’d better expect at least a footnote per post from this point on.
3 ‘I’ll take synonyms for “men”, for five hundred, Larry.’
4 Not sure what’s with all the ‘prove your admiration through the completion of physical challenges’ clauses here.

David Foster Wallace and pre-empting the editorial reader

The therapist said that she felt she could support the depressed person’s use of the word ‘vulnerable’ far more wholeheartedly than she could support the use of ‘pathetic,’ since her gut (i.e., the therapist’s gut) was telling her that the depressed person’s proposed use of ‘pathetic’ felt not only self-hating but also needy and even somewhat manipulative.

The behaviors, in other word, were primitive emotional prophylaxes whose real function was to preclude intimacy; they were psychic armor designed to keep others at a distance so that they (i.e., others) could not get emotionally close enough to the depressed person to inflict any wounds that might echo and mirror the deep vestigial wounds of the depressed person’s childhood, wounds which the depressed person was unconsciously determined to keep repressed at all costs.

(italics mine, from ‘The Depressed Person’, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men)
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Dodgem-car driver: David Foster Wallace and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men‘s spasmodic variety of forms

If I were asked to place David Foster Wallace in the literary carnival, I’d probably have him steering the dodgem cars. Not on the ghost train, with its foregone tricks, leaden tracks and lacklustre frights; nor on the spinning teacups that are happy to turn on their given place. Brief Interviews is a plenty-note introduction to the heady, acute jerks of Wallace’s wireless dodgers; the question constantly on the passenger’s lips is: are we going to crash?

There are 23 short stories in Brief Interviews. A survey of the first few reveals pretty neatly Foster Wallace’s hand (which is that he has a couple of trick decks up his sleeve). The first story, ‘A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life’, contains only two paragraphs. It would be useless to summarise it; a quote is better. The first paragraph reads:

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

Who the hell writes two-paragraph stories? Is it just American geniuses? (Tell me if you can think of anyone besides Lydia Davis. Hey, I’m in post-four-day-weekend mode here.) It might be unusual, but I really like the construction of this story: cutesy, bombastic title that helps set up the game; three watertight and knowable characters (the other one shows up in the next and final paragraph); narrative arc; conflict; insight into the ‘postindustrial human condition’. It’s like ticking boxes in a list, really.

Then, ‘Death is Not the End’, which starts out like this:

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…

I’m pretty sure there are short of five full stops in this whole story, so it’s prudent to end there. It’s hilarious, isn’t it? It seems vulgar when I describe it, but the juxtaposition of ‘XL Speedo-brand swimsuit’ with the American literary superstar’s plaudit list is too lavish not to enjoy just a little bit.

‘Death is Not the End’ is longer than the first story, about a thousand words. In addition to the long-sentence funnies, ‘Death’ also has — wait for it — footnotes. Throw your hands up in the air, people who don’t like authors tinkering with fictional form. DFW is pretty famous for his footnotes, but this is the first time I’ve come across them. Out of context, the decision to use footnotes in a short story might seem despicable. I know I’ve turned my nose up at experimental fiction that’s used them before. But really, they’re so funny in this story. Witness:

…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,1 on the pool’s tile deck, in a portable deck chair whose back was now reclined four clicks…
1 Also the first American-born poet ever in the Nobel Prize for Literature’s distinguished 94-year history to receive it, the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature.

You’ve met this person; you’ve met the person who is so pathologically unable to cease glorifying his or her own achievements that random interjections about their accolades seem to pop out of their mouths like balls from a tennis machine. Or you know about that creative bigwig whose accomplishments loom over any conversation vaguely related to said bigwig’s area of expertise (‘Honey, can’t we stop talking about John Updike now? I want to eat my dinner.’) such that they seem a spectral annoyance instead of a guy whose books you might like to read one day. Footnotes, as used in ‘Death’, are a clever and playful technique that doffs its hat to the multifaceted literacies of modern-day readers.

As I said, DFW’s work is well known for the proliferation of these borrowed-from-academia interruptions, and sometimes the interpolations get sizier than the ‘actual text’. In ‘The Depressed Person’:

Awful quality photograph, but you can see here two pages in which the text-of-the-story, as we might think of it, is clinging with fond hope to the top of a page, an unathletic kid stranded in the middle of the monkeybars, watching the more acrobatic of her peers tumble back and forth below. God damn me if I lie, but I tried really hard to read every single word of the footnotes in this story and just failed miserably. After a while, I would say to myself, ‘I get it. It’s an overcogitated, anxious elaboration of an emotional point made regarding a particular character whose internal turmoil is not fully served by the tip-of-the-iceberg outlay she feels is socially acceptable. There are two layers. I get it,’ and just read the parts in bigger font. I’m only human.

Other forms DFW uses are the ‘reconstructed transcript’, a twenty-five line conversation with no attribution; a series of ‘pop quizzes’; and an excerpt from a future dictionary. And then there are the ‘Brief Interviews’ themselves, which I think I will talk about tomorrow.

Someone told me that David Foster Wallace’s mother used to pretend to choke every time he or his sister, Amy, made a grammatical mistake in conversation, and wouldn’t stop until they corrected the blunder. (Malcolm Knox tells the story better here.) While guilty grammarians might end up with particular types of problems, linguistic inadequacy certainly wouldn’t be among them. The sheer audacity of some authors’ vocabularies strikes a reader immediately, with John Banville and Vladimir Nabokov being two of the keenest examples. Like those two authors, Foster Wallace’s relationship with nouns, verbs and their accomplices so far outstrips mere familiarity that only ‘mastery’ really describes it with enough vigour or accuracy. But ‘mastery’ implies a kind of august formality, and Foster Wallace’s spirited deployment of his expansive lexicon revealed an obvious love for the components of the English language. He herded words together with the loving exactitude of a sheepdog and the creativity of a gastronomic chef.

What follows below is a selection of the words and a couple of phrases I took care to scrawl into notebooks while reading Foster Wallace’s short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. The words listed here are much depleted of their interest by their aggregation outside the context of the book — sorry. Yet, as a language enthusiast, I found the late writer’s generous and successful application of words — whether highly specific and obscure, or slangish — extremely affecting.

The list:

  • dottle
  • indole
  • eccrine tang; uremic breeze
  • equerry
  • abreactive
  • belletristic
  • virid
  • mentation
  • natal face
  • a minim of respect
  • inculent
  • urtication
  • cruelly ferrous
  • stochastic
  • gambrel

So, it’s David Foster Wallace Week here at 3000 BOOKS. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that it’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace Week, but that would be more unwieldy than a 50x real size Rubik’s Cube. Imagine permuting the LL corners on that. I loved Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and there were a few things I wanted to get my head around (or, in some cases, simply put into a list). So, this week there will be multiple posts dealing with various aspects of my reading of this book.

What did you get up to this weekend? How about me, you say? Oh, well, just THIS: righteous bruises.