The Broom of the System
Girl with Curious Hair
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
David Foster Wallace’s most recent book presents itself as a collection of stories, but you don’t have to read very far to discover that conventional notions of “story” don’t exactly apply. The first piece is called “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,” and it consists, in its entirety, of the following two paragraphs:
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.
The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.
This “history” is printed on page zero. On page 159, in a story called “Adult World (II),” the reader encounters the following passage:
3d. Narr intrusion, expo on Jeni Roberts [same flat & pedantic tone as å¦s 3, 4 of ‘A.W.(I)’ PT. 3]: While following F.L.’s teal/ aqua Probe down xprswy, J. hadn’t ‘changed mind’ about having secret adulterous sex w/F.L., rather merely ‘…realized it was unnecessary.’ Understands that she has had life- changing epiphany, has ‘…bec[o]me a woman as well as a wife’ & c. & c.
3d(1) J. hereafter referred to by narr as ‘Ms. Jeni Orzolek Roberts’; hsbnd referred to as ‘the Secret Compulsive Masturbator.’
Scattered through the volume are three stories with the title “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders”; apparently, there are many more examples, since the entries provided are numbers eleven, six, and twenty-four in a series. There are also four pieces that share the title of the book, and that are themselves divided into nonsequential numbered sections, as though they were culled at random from a vast repository of transcripts. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men also includes a story in the form of a futuristic dictionary entry, a Hollywood pastiche of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Nibelungen Saga called “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko,” and a great many footnotes.
At first glance, then, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men looks like newfangled fiction of a rather old-fashioned kind—the kind that used to advertise itself, in the 1960s and 1970s, as “experimental.” David Foster Wallace, who was born in 1962 and who published his first novel, The Broom of the System, when he was twenty-five, has been widely hailed since then as the heir to such postmodern old masters as John Barth, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon. But Wallace possesses a high degree of generational self-consciousness, and his relationship to his precursors—to the purveyors of “R&D” (research and development) fiction, as Gore Vidal dubbed them, none too kindly, in these pages a quarter-century ago—is, to say the least, ambivalent. In interviews, in essays, and in his fiction, Wallace has acknowledged his debt to the self-styled renegades whose books had become, by the time he encountered them, staples of the academic curriculum. But like many other Americans who grew up in the wake of the 1960s, he seems haunted by a feeling of belatedness: he came of age in a world in which revolt, to paraphrase the poet Thom Gunn, had once again become a style. And while he admires the radical panache of his literary fathers, Wallace cannot help but regard them with an envious, quasi-Oedipal hostility: “If I have a real enemy,” he once told an interviewer, “a patriarch for my patricide, it’s probably Barth and Coover and Burroughs, even Nabokov and Pynchon.”
The fretful embrace and guilty recoil that typify Wallace’s relationship with his literary antecedents are classic symptoms of what Harold Bloom has called the anxiety of influence. And Wallace has a bad case: anxiety may not be a strong enough word; panic is more like it. Consider, among many available examples, “Octet,” a frantic, fragmentary story from the new collection: it is made up of four nonconsecutively numbered “Pop Quizzes,” the last and longest of which (number 9, to confuse matters further) begins, “You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer.” “You” find yourself at work on a series of short pieces a lot like the one you are in the middle of reading, and things are not going very well:
You decide to try to salvage the aesthetic disaster of having to stick in the first version of the 6th piece by having that first version be utterly up front about the fact that it falls apart and doesn’t work as a ‘Pop Quiz’ and by having the rewrite of the 6th piece start out with some terse unapologetic acknowledgment that it’s another ‘try’ at whatever you were trying to palpate into interrogability in the first version. These intranar-rative acknowledgments have the additional advantage of slightly diluting the pretentiousness of structuring the little pieces as so-called ‘Quizzes,’ but it also has the disadvantage of flirting with metafictional self-reference—viz. the having ‘This Pop Quiz isn’t working’ and ‘Here’s another stab at #6’ within the text itself—which in the late 1990s…might come off lame and tired and facile, and also runs the risk of compromising the queer urgency about whatever it is you feel you want the pieces to interrogate in whoever’s reading them. This is an urgency that you, the fiction writer, feel very…well, urgently, and want the reader to feel too—which is to say that by no means do you want a reader to come away thinking that the cycle is just a cute formal exercise in interrogative structure and S.O.P. metatext.
However urgent this dilemma, it is one Wallace has dramatized many times before. It’s hard to think of another writer of any generation who has written more prolifically about the obstacles to writing, or who has lampooned the self-dramatizing frustrations of the creative process with such inexhaustible, maniacal conviction.
Wallace is deeply suspicious of novelty, even as he scrambles to position himself on the cutting edge. His earlier collection of short fiction, Girl With Curious Hair (1989), concludes with a novella called “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” which is at once a scabrous satire on the academic authority of the ci-devant avant-garde and a virtuoso compendium of tried and true avant-garde techniques. It features authorial intrusions in the manner of John Barth; whimsical collages of wild fabulation and deadpan realism that recall Richard Brautigan, or maybe middle-period Kurt Vonnegut; and long, long sentences in the style of Donald Barthelme. The proceedings are shot through with an air of wild Pynchonian intrigue.
The story’s initial setting is a creative writing department on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, though it makes its way, for murky allegorical reasons, to the central Illinois township of Collision. Its heroes, more or less, are a group of disaffected graduate students, and the villain, more or less, is a creative writing teacher and literary huckster named Professor Ambrose, a thinly disguised (that is, a blatantly obvious) rendering of Barth, for some years the head of the creative writing program at Johns Hopkins. Ambrose, like Barth, is the author of a legendary, endlessly self-referential work called Lost in the Funhouse, and he is, throughout the story, an object of both veneration and rage—admired and resented not only by his students but also by the narrator, who, at one point, under the heading “A Really Blatant and Intrusive Interruption,” launches into a breathless two-page rant on the state of literary production in the United States. Part of its first sentence is worth quoting in the only way Wallace’s prose allows itself to be quoted—at nerve-wracking length:
As mentioned before—and if this were a piece of metafiction, which it’s NOT, the exact number of typeset lines between this reference and the prenominate referent would very probably be mentioned, which would be a princely pain in the ass, not to mention cocky, since it would assume that a straightforward and anti-embellished account of a slow and hot and sleep-deprived and basically clotted and frustrating day in the lives of three kids, none of whom are all that sympathetic, could actually get published, which these days good luck, but in metafiction it would, nay needs be mentioned, a required postmodern convention aimed at drawing the poor old reader’s emotional attention to the fact that the narrative bought and paid for and now under time-consuming scrutiny is not in fact a barely-there window onto a different and truly diverting world, but rather in fact an “artifact,” an object, a plain old this-worldly thing, composed of emulsified wood pulp and horizontal chorus-lines of dye, and conventions, and is thus in a “deep” sense just an opaque forgery of a transfiguring window, not a real window, a gag, and thus in a deep (but intentional, now) sense artificial, which is to say fabricated, false, a fiction, a pretender-to-status, a straw-haired King of Spain—this self-conscious explicitness and deconstructed disclosure supposedly making said metafiction “realer” than a piece of pre-postmodern “Realism” that depends on certain antiquated techniques to create an “illusion” of a windowed access to a “reality” isomorphic with ours but possessed of and yielding up higher truths to which all authentically human persons stand in the relation of applicand—all of which the Resurrection of Realism, the pained product of inglorious minimalist labor in countless obscure graduate writing workshops across the U.S. of A., and called by Field Marshal Lish (who ought to know) the New Realism, promises to show to be utter baloney, this metafictional shit….
And so on. Wallace soon disavowed “Westward,” confessing to an interviewer: “I got trapped…just trying to expose the illusions of metafiction the same way metafiction had tried to expose the illusions of the pseudo-unmediated realist fiction that had come before it. It was a horror show. The stuff’s a permanent migraine.”
It is also, to Wallace and his readers, a recurrent one. Wallace’s most rigorous attempt to cure his aesthetic headache and wriggle free of the metafictional trap is an essay called “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” originally published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993 and reprinted in a collection of his criticism and reportage called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997). The essay argues that the critical potential of postmodern fiction has been defused not only by the passage of time but by television, which has transformed postmodernism’s trademark irony from an attitude of dissent into a mode of oppression. Television, as it has matured and come to occupy more and more cultural space and personal time (Wallace cites a study that calculates the average American’s intake at six hours a day), has become relentlessly self-mocking and preemptively self-critical. It thus neuters and domesticates the wild, insurgent energies of the literary avant-garde, and makes it impossible for young writers to match the achievements of their elders:
…The rebellious irony in the best postmodern fiction wasn’t just credible as art; it seemed downright socially useful in its capacity for what counterculture critics called “a critical negation that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems” [the quote is from music critic Greil Marcus]. Kesey’s black parody of asylums suggested that our arbiters of sanity were often crazier than their patients. Pynchon reoriented our view of paranoia from deviant psychic fringe to central thread in the corporo-bureaucratic weave; DeLillo exploded image, signal, data and tech as agents of spiritual chaos and not social order. Burroughs’s icky explorations of American narcosis exploded hypocrisy; Gaddis’s exposure of abstract capital as deforming exploded hypocrisy; Coover’s repulsive political farces exploded hypocrisy.
But nowadays, Wallace claims, the hypocrisy of television is so overt, its explosions so carefully programmed, that it turns revolt into cynicism. In his account, which borrows from the work of media critics such as Todd Gitlin and Mark Crispin Miller, television has made us into passive, alienated consumers of the very forces that pacify and alienate us. If fiction is to recapture its ethical function—its ability to brush the culture against the grain, rather than merely reaffirm its commonplaces—serious young writers will have to abandon irony in favor of…well now, that’s a tough one:
It’s entirely possible that my plangent noises about the impossibility of rebelling against an aura that promotes and vitiates all rebellion say more about my residency inside that aura, my own lack of vision, than they do about any exhaustion of US fiction’s possibilities. The next real liter- ary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in US life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.
These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.”
As cultural history—for that matter, as literary criticism—“E Unibus Pluram” has its weaknesses. For one thing, Wallace’s discussion of television is, as discussions of television often are, maddening in its blithe, judgmental generality. “Television” is about as useful a category in the analysis of contemporary life as “print”: at long last, sir, the medium is not the message. What’s more, Wallace accepts (or at least appears to accept) a rather melodramatic account of the impact of R&D fiction, which depends on the assumption that the world of letters, to say nothing of the world at large, was until the advent of postmodern-ism dominated by hypocrisy, naive realism, and widespread credulity about the benevolence of capitalism and the state. In or around 1960, thanks largely to the efforts of a brave cadre of novelists, most of them employed in universities, all of this changed, with enormous and far-reaching (though curiously short-lived) social consequences.
For all the shortcomings of this account, Wallace’s anatomy of the predicament facing young writers after postmodernism is in many ways persuasive; if he can’t quite capture the grand dialectic of contemporary culture, such as it is, he at least has a feel for its mood swings. He might even be credited with a degree of foresight, both about the ascendance of a certain knowing, allusive, world-weary superciliousness—“E Unibus Pluram” was composed just as Seinfeld began to epitomize the prime-time Zeitgeist—and about the simultaneous emergence of a defiantly plainspoken sensibility ranged against it. The anti-metafictional jeremiad in “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” ends with a paean to the New Realism, which offers “some of the most heartbreaking stuff available at any fine bookseller’s anywhere.”
While the designation “New Realism” may already be dated, the steady outpouring in recent years of earnest, heartbreaking memoirs and short, sensitive story collections by ever younger writers might be taken to bear out Wallace’s intuitions. The backlash against irony has recently found a spokesman in the person of Jedediah Purdy, a twenty-four-year-old product of Exeter, Harvard, and West Virginia home schooling who, with his ambiguously provincial background and his faintly allegorical name, might have escaped from a David Foster Wallace story. In any case, For Common Things,* Purdy’s much-discussed manifesto, argues precisely for renewed attention to “old untrendy human troubles” and for the virtues of “reverence and conviction.” (Purdy’s book has been greeted, as Wallace might have predicted, with a fair amount of eye-rolling and rib-nudging.)
It is therefore at least arguable that we have lately witnessed the emergence of a group of anti-ironic anti-rebels. But is David Foster Wallace among them? Are his harangues against the tyranny of irony meant to be taken in earnest, or are they artfully constructed simulacra of what a sincere anti-ironist might sound like? Or both? If one way to escape from the blind alley of postmodern self-consciousness is simply to turn around and walk in another direction—which is in effect what Purdy advises, and what a great many very interesting writers, without making a big deal about it, simply do—Wallace prefers to forge ahead in hopes of breaking through to the other side, whatever that may be. For all his impatience with the conventions of anti-realism, he advances a standard postmodern view that “the classical Realist form is soothing, familiar and anesthetic; it drops us right into spectation. It doesn’t set up the sort of expectations serious 1990s fiction ought to be setting up in readers.” Wallace, then, is less anti-ironic than (forgive me) meta-ironic. That is, his gambit is to turn irony back on itself, to make his fiction relentlessly conscious of its own self-consciousness, and thus to produce work that will be at once unassailably sophisticated and doggedly down to earth. Janus-faced, he demands to be taken at face value. “Single-entendre principles” is a cleverly tossed off phrase, but Wallace is temperamentally committed to multiplicity—to a quality he has called, with reference to the filmmaker David Lynch, “bothness.” He wants to be at once earnest and ironical, sensitive and cerebral, lisible and scriptible, R&D and R&R, straight man and clown, grifter and mark.
Because of Wallace’s manifest interest in philosophical conundrums and language games, it is tempting to judge his ambitions on their logical merits, and to declare that, on theoretical grounds, he can’t have it both ways. But since he is, after all, a fiction writer, it may be wiser to judge his output with reference to that hoariest of creative-writing-workshop questions: Does it work? In the case of Infinite Jest (1996), Wallace’s longest, boldest fiction so far, the answer is yes, it works; it works too damn hard.
Infinite Jest might be subtitled “A Radically Expanded History of Postindustrial Life.” It takes place in a future meant to represent a logical extension of the present. The trend toward corporate sponsorship, which has in the real world given new names to college bowl games and professional sports stadiums, has, in the novel, colonized time itself: around 1997, it seems, the numerical calendar was scrapped, and chapter headings indicate that action is taking place in the “Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad” or the “Year of the DependAdult Undergarment.” (The excremental associations of the products in question—a hemorrhoid medication and an adult diaper, respectively, in case you don’t pay attention to the commercials during the evening news—are indicative of one aspect of Wallace’s sense of humor.) And the colonization of all aspects of life by the entertainment industry—currently a source of endless handwringing in the journals of opinion—here takes a lethal turn. “Infinite Jest” is the name both of a lost masterpiece of experimental cinema and a video cartridge that, wired directly into the viewer’s nervous system, produces an overpowering, instantly addictive stimulus leading irreversibly to drooling, catatonic paralysis.
“Infinite Jest” is also, of course, a description of the novel’s structure. The book is almost eleven hundred pages long, but it feels even longer, owing in part to several hundred footnotes, which disrupt the reader’s attention and send it looping backward and forward in an effort to maintain continuity. Even without the distraction of the footnotes—which sometimes consist of pseudoscholarly apparatus, sometimes of extended narrative tangents, sometimes of humorous asides—the text itself is simultaneously fragmentary and recursive. Story lines alternate wildly; some resume after long digressions, some turn out to be nothing more than digressions themselves, and the connections between the proliferating threads are persistently elusive, and just as persistently hinted at. Infinite Jest is, to my knowledge, the longest novel about tennis ever published. It is also a dystopian political satire set on a North American continent menaced by paraplegic Quebecois terrorists and splintered into new territorial arrangements, the most wildly metaphorical anatomy of drug abuse since William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and a tender, heartfelt, coming-of-age story.
The novel’s Pynchonesque elements—the fact that part of the United States is now a federation called O.N.A.N., the symbiotic relationship between terrorists and law enforcement agencies, the shadowy career of underground filmmaker-turned-tennis-coach James Incandenza—feel rather willed and secondhand. They are impressive in the manner of a precocious child’s performance at a dinner party, and, in the same way, ultimately irritating: they seem motivated, mostly, by a desire to show off. And some of the novel’s broad satirical intentions—to warn us that corporations control everything and that entertainment is a drug—are familiar bromides decked out in gaudy comic dress.
But along with its fast-fading pyrotechnics, Infinite Jest also offers some genuine illumination. In the two main plotlines, which trace the adolescent travails of tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza and the struggle for survival of Don Gately, who works in a halfway house for recovering addicts, Wallace’s relentless intelligence yields some old-fashioned novelistic insights into characters, events, and places. Wallace is blessed with a brilliant ear not only for the noise in his own head—he is surely one of our most gifted self-mimics—but for the harsh polyphonies of contemporary American speech. And in the self-contained vignettes of chemical dependency and clinical depression that punctuate the proliferating subplots, Wallace’s style at last finds a substance it can use. In “E Unibus Pluram” he made some sweeping claims about the addictive powers of the entertainment media:
It’s tough to see how…having more “control” over the arrangement of high-quality fantasy-bits is going to ease either the dependency that is part of my relation to TV or the impotent irony I must use to pretend that I’m not dependent…. My real dependency here is not on a single show or a few networks any more than the hophead’s is on the Turkish florist or the Marseilles refiner.
The strongest parts of Infinite Jest suggest that this observation is less interesting as a statement about television than as a statement about dependency as such. The novel’s most serious and sustained conceit is that all-encompassing, self-renewing need is the organizing principle of contemporary culture and the structuring psychopathology of everyday life—that we are, individually and collectively, trapped in endless cycles of compulsion, self-delusion, and denial. What we need is ultimately less important than how we need it. Our daily lives are organized around a repertoire of stratagems designed to feed our habits in the name of breaking them:
This last time, he would smoke the whole 200 grams—120 grams cleaned, destemmed—in four days, over an ounce a day, all in tight heavy economical one-hitters off a quality virgin bong, an incredible, insane amount per day, he’d make it a mission, treating it like a penance and behavior-modification regimen all at once, he’d smoke his way through thirty high-grade grams a day, starting the moment he woke up and used ice water to detach his tongue from the roof of his mouth and took an antacid—averaging out to 200 or 300 heavy bong-hits per day, an insane and deliberately unpleasant amount, and he’d make it a mission to smoke it continuously, even though if the marijuana was as good as the woman claimed he’d do five hits and then not want to take the trouble to load and one-hit any more for at least an hour. But he would force himself to do it anyway. He would smoke it all even if he didn’t want it. Even if it started to make him dizzy and ill. He would use discipline and persistence and will and make the whole experience so unpleasant, so debased and debauched and unpleasant, that his behavior would be henceforward modified, he’d never even want to do it again because the memory of the insane four days to come would be so firmly, terribly emblazoned in his memory. He’d cure himself by excess.
This nameless character’s doomed, misguided, yet oddly convincing plan to rid himself of his marijuana habit bears an unmistakable resemblance to Wallace’s own repeated attempts to cure himself of his interlocking addictions to irony, metafiction, and the other cheap postmodern highs. If I blow my mind on self-consciousness this one last time, Wallace resolves over and over, I’ll never go near it again. But he always comes back for more. The addict is like an ineducable rat caught in a cruel behaviorist maze of his own devising, and so, much of the time, is the strung-out post-metafictionist. But in a passage like this one, Wallace happens upon an unexpected exit from the cul de sac of postmodern mannerism—a breakthrough into something that is not old-fashioned illusionistic realism but that is nonetheless alive with captured reality. And he accomplishes this breakthrough by applying the spiraling, recursive logic of his own fictional self-examinations to another person, a person who couldn’t care less about literary fashion.
One of the critical commonplaces about Pynchon, Gaddis, et al.—a commonplace to which Wallace clearly subscribes—is that their stylistic and formal inventions were created under pressure of lived experience. What made realism untenable for these writers, according to the conventional wisdom Wallace has absorbed, was reality itself: Pynchon’s involuted, encrypted sentences, Barth’s blatant narrative intrusions, Coover’s self-consuming artifacts—all of these were designed to explode the hypocrisies and jar the complacencies of a monstrously complex society whose deepest workings could not be represented by traditional narrative means. But what these writers passed on to their students and followers was, for the most part, the habit of formal and stylistic invention for its own sake, an empty set of quotation marks, a self-consciousness without selves. In my opinion, a lot of Wallace’s earlier work, including much of Infinite Jest, slips back toward that abyss—an epistemological black hole as comfortable and familiar as a worn-out couch in a graduate student lounge. And many of the stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which gathers together the shorter fiction Wallace has written over the past ten years, read like bravura classroom performances—footnotes to his earlier annotations of the experimental tradition.
But a handful, most of them composed since the appearance of Infinite Jest, recover some of the squandered and compromised satirical energies of that tradition by suggesting that meta-metafiction, or post-postmodernism, or whatever you want to call it, is a form of realism after all. The feedback loop of irony and sincerity which animates so much of Wallace’s writing turns out not to be an artifact of literary R&D, but a fact of human nature, or at least a salient aspect of the way we live now:
Please believe me. The whole reason I’m having us talk about my record and what I get afraid might happen is that I don’t want it to happen, see? that I don’t want suddenly to reverse thrust and begin trying to extricate myself after you’ve given up so much and moved out here and now I’ve—now that we’re so involved. I’m praying you’ll be able to see that my telling you what always happens is a kind of proof that with you I don’t want it to happen. That I don’t want to get all testy or hypercritical or pull away and not be around for days at a time or be blatantly unfaithful in a way you’re guaranteed to find out about or any of the shitty cowardly ways I’ve used before to get out of something I’d just spent months of intensive pursuit and effort trying to get the other person to plunge into with me. Does this make any sense? Can you believe that I’m honestly trying to respect you by warning you about me, in a way? That I’m trying to be honest instead of dishonest? That I’ve decided the best way to head off this pattern where you get hurt and feel abandoned and I feel like shit is to try to be honest for once? Even if I should have done it sooner? Even when I admit it’s maybe possible that you might even interpret what I’m saying now as dishonest, as trying somehow to maybe freak you out enough so that you’ll move back out and I can get out of this? Which I don’t think is what I’m doing, but to be totally honest I can’t be a hundred percent sure?
This is from one of the “Brief Interviews” in the current book—an incomplete, shuffled set of seventeen conversations of varying length between a silent, apparently female questioner, represented by the letter “Q,” and her unnamed subjects, some of whom are strangers, some, like this one, lovers. A number of the men have bizarre tics and predilections: one of them involuntarily shouts “Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!” every time he ejaculates; another recounts how an elaborate childhood masturbatory fantasy (highly reminiscent, perhaps inadvertently, of Nicholson Baker’s novel The Fermata) became so philosophically vexing that it drove him to a life of celibacy; and still another explains how his grotesquely deformed arm gets him “more pussy than a toilet seat, man. I shit you not.”
But while many reviewers have been captivated by the more outré specimens of hideous manhood, what is most striking about the interview subjects, and what they ultimately have in common, is their slippery, narcissistic ordinariness. Number 11 dumps Q on the pretext that he can no longer tolerate her suspicion that he’s about to dump her. Number 31 explains that the best way for a man to please a woman is not to perform oral sex on her (a common misconception, apparently), but to trick her into performing it on him, which is what she really wants. The interviews hold up to hilarious, disturbing scrutiny the endlessly inventive duplicity that animates men’s single-minded pursuit of sex. Acknowledging what louts they are becomes another weapon in the arsenal of loutishness.
The most important thing is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’vegot it made. Wallace’s “Interviews” apply Laurence Olivier’s cynical show-business truism to the theater of sexual conquest and betrayal. Or, as pop singer Nick Lowe put it a few years back, “All men are liars, and that’s the truth.” Wallace’s Q, intrepidly documenting this version of the Cretan liar’s paradox (the corollary of which is that all men are cretins), seems to have stumbled upon an unnerving Darwinian insight. If, that is, male behavior has evolved through a series of adaptations meant to maximize opportunities for copulation, then the ability to use “honesty” as a strategic form of deceit—an infinitely reusable capacity, at least for some—may have evolved not in the laboratory environment of recent US fiction but in the primordial wild. This, at any rate, is something like what two of Q’s interlocutors (identified in interview #78 as “E” and “K”) seem to think:
E——: ‘Plus remember the postfeminist girl now knows that the male sexual paradigm and the female’s are fundamentally different—’
K——: ‘Mars and Venus.’
E——: ‘Right, exactly, and she knows that as a woman she’s naturally programmed to be more highminded and long-term about sex and to be thinking more in relationship terms than just fucking terms, so if she just immediately breaks down and fucks you she’s on some level still getting taken advantage of, she thinks.’
K——: ‘This, of course, is because today’s postfeminist era is also today’s postmodern era, in which supposedly everybody now knows everything about what’s really going on underneath all the semiotic codes and cultural conventions, and everybody supposedly knows what paradigms everybody is operating out of, and so we’re all us individuals held to be far more responsible for our sexuality, since everything we do is now unprecedentedly conscious and informed.’
E——: ‘While at the same time she’s still under this incredible sheer biological pressure to find a mate and settle down and nest and breed, for instance go read this thing The Rules and try to explain its popularity any other way.’
K——: ‘The point being that women today are now expected to be responsible both to modernity and to history.’
E——: ‘Not to mention sheer biology.’
K——: ‘Biology’s already included in the range of what I mean by history.’
E——: ‘So you’re using history more in a Foucaultvian sense.’
K——: ‘I’m talking about a history being a set of conscious intentional responses to a whole range of forces of which biology and evolution are a part.’
E——: ‘The point is it’s an intolerable burden on women.’
K——: ‘The real point is that in fact they’re just logically incompatible, these two responsibilities.’
E——: ‘Even if modernity itself is a historical phenomenon, Foucault would say.’
K——: ‘I’m just pointing out that nobody can honor two logically incompatible sets of perceived responsibilities. This has nothing to do with history, this is pure logic.’
E——: ‘Personally, I blame the media.’
This is a fine parody of a graduate school bull session—“Foucaultvian” is an especially deft touch. It is also, of course, a knowing self-parody on Wallace’s part. The effect, and perhaps the intention, of his habit of turning his jokes around on himself is to short-circuit criticism, much in the way that the hideous men’s confessions of their own dishonesty are meant to make them appear, ultimately, sincere. But the effect of this kind of heavily defended discourse—whether metafictional or “real”—is ultimately to prevent communication, just as the impeccably logical seductions and repulsions of the hideous men are designed to protect them from the illogical messiness of genuine human contact.
Wallace, of course, knows this too, and the best story in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men conveys the terrible emptiness that lurks behind our era’s rituals of compulsive self-reflection. The story is called “The Depressed Person,” and it describes, in the flat, clinical language of psychotherapy, the life of a woman whose unhappiness is not so much the result of any particular trauma as the wellspring of her identity. She is depressed because she is the Depressed Person, and vice versa. The joke of the story is that the woman is sent into paroxysms of navel-gazing agony by trivialities—by the memory of her pampered childhood or her parents’ relatively harmonious divorce, or as a result of overhearing an insensitive remark about a woman she barely knows—while her therapist and the friends she refers to as her “support network” fall victim to tragedy, disease, and death. Which makes her feel even worse—about herself:
At this point in the sharing, the depressed person took a time-out to solemnly swear to her long-distance, gravely ill, frequently retching but still caring and intimate friend that there was no toxic or pathetically manipulative self-excoriation here in what she (i.e., the depressed person) was reaching out and opening up and confessing, only profound and unprecedented fear: the depressed person was frightened for herself, for as it were “[her]self“—i.e. for her own so-called “character” or “spirit” or as it were “soul” i.e. for her own capacity for basic human empathy and compassion and caring—she told the supportive friend with the neuroblastoma. She was asking sincerely, the depressed person said, honestly, desperately: what kind of person could seem to feel nothing—“nothing,” she emphasized—for anyone but herself? Maybe not ever?
This story is the most brilliant dissection I have seen of what Christopher Lasch once called “the banality of pseudo-self-awareness.” And there is probably no writer whose work makes a stronger case, twenty years after Lasch wrote the book on it, that we still inhabit a culture of narcissism. Does Wallace’s work represent an unusually trenchant critique of that culture or one of its most florid and exotic symptoms? Of course, there can only be one answer: it’s both.
Knopf, 1999. ↩