Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: Stories. David Foster Wallace.

Wallace, David Foster. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: Stories. Little Brown, New York, 1999. F;8/16.

This set of stories preceded Infinite Jest, but followed The Girl with Curious Hair. Wallace was not using alcohol or soft drugs, but was in (as he was for many years) personal difficulty with finances, relationships, and his stormy inner life. Here as always is the explosive combination of his wacky sense of humour and deeply sympathetic human insight driven by his relentlessly negative introspection.

Forever Overhead places a boy on his 13th birthday at a public swimming pool in the lineup, on the ladder, and then out on the edge of the high diving board. It’s public, sensuous, emotional, and (Wallace trademark) deeply human. How complicated but how simple is growth and risk.

There are several Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, and these typically involve thoughtless selfish seductions, as described to a female interviewer in some sort of an institutional setting. Always walking a moral tightrope, the author is staking out an unequivocal condemnation of inner rottenness and at the same time owning it.

There is experimentation with breaking the fourth wall, at times very explicitly, in Adult World, and especially in Octet, where moral dilemmas are presented as academic quizzes. The Depressed Person concerns a completely self-absorbed woman whose misery is compounded by insight into preoccupation with herself and putting her needs ahead of others. The psychotherapy is riddled with ideologic absurdity, but the protagonist hates being unable to see the humanity of the therapist, who commits suicide. It’s all “me, me, me,” in the most extreme suffering, but again we know the author is reflecting on himself.

Something happened in Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko. I found it a tedious narcissistic festival of jargon. I kept wondering, when everything else I’ve read of this author is so good, how this could be so terrible. I’m sure I missed something.

There are millions of enormously bright, sensitive, screwed-up characters in the world, but only one in a billion accomplishes what Wallace did. I can’t remember which philosopher marveled at the number of people who expend nearly all their energy just trying to be normal. Then Kafka, Hemingway and Wallace appear within that cohort and we (whether or to what extent we are a member of the group) get to look in and understand. 8.9/9.5.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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