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: