The Panic of Influence

The Broom of the System

by David Foster Wallace
Avon, 467 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Girl with Curious Hair

by David Foster Wallace
Norton, 373 pp., $12.00 (paper)

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

by David Foster Wallace
Back Bay, 353 pp., $13.95 (paper)

Infinite Jest

by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, 1079 pp., $17.00 (paper)
David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace; drawing by David Levine


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…

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