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.