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#11 – Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

May 19, 2007

exercise in your frustration, unconditionally love meBefore I can even begin to discuss David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, I have to first go into two diametrically opposed forces which influenced my reading of it: Infinite Jest and Jim Halpert.

Infinite Jest was my first introduction to David Foster Wallace.  I had heard good things about it for a while, and I read it last summer.  I hated it.  I thought it was a tremendously frustrating, bloated post-modern disaster.  I don’t mean to disparage Wallace’s writing, because he’s clearly talented; it’s what he chooses to do with his writing that drives me nuts.  There are three significant plotlines in Infinite Jest: the story of a boarding school for young tennis players, an incredibly well-written discussion of the life of a recovering alcoholic in a halfway house, and a bizarre story about radical Québécois separatists who are searching for a destructive film called Infinite Jest.  Each of these stories contains dozens of characters and long tangents which are completely unrelated to the story, but there is a general narrative thread to them.  But then, after you’ve gotten through 1000 pages of these stories, and just as all three plotlines are about to meet for the first time, the book just ends, leaving the reader with no closure whatsoever.  It’s then that you realize that the first chapter was actually an epilogue, set months after the climax, and there is one sentence on page 16 which merely hints at what actually happened after the story ended.

This drove me insane.  I don’t mind having to work at getting through a novel, (House of Leaves is still the best book I’ve ever read,) but I demand some payback for my investment.  If a book is just going to jerk me around and not develop its story, I don’t have time for it.  I finished Infinite Jest, but when I realized that I wasn’t actually going to find out what happened in it I swore off David Foster Wallace, no matter what good things I heard about his writing.  Then I heard that John Krasinski from The Office, in the next step in his apparent quest to out-indie Zach Braff, is writing and directing the film adaptation of Wallace’s short story collection, Brief Interveiws with Hideous Men.  Despite my self-imposed moratorium on this author, I felt the need to read the book for myself, because I think Krasinski is hugely funny and I wanted to see what he has to work with here.

The end result is 23 stories of varying levels of tolerability.  Just like in Infinite Jest, virtually nothing happens in them.  Sometimes this is a good thing, in subtle stories about a young kid’s panic on the high dive at the pool, or a father’s deathbed confession that he’d always hated his son Wallace’s writing is very effective.  It’s when he gets too post-modern, and starts becoming all self-referential and using too many footnotes, that I can’t stand reading him.  I even had to abandon one of these stories halfway through, “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko”, an impenetrable reinterpretation of Ovid through some kind of metaphor using network TV – I don’t know.  I hated it, anyway.

The titular “brief interviews” are some of the best material here: a series of interviews with men who are all somehow immoral or deviant talking about their relationships with women, which I understand is also going to be the body of the film.  These stories are well-written, and Wallace reuses a technique from Infinte Jest where he only provides the interviewee’s side of the conversation, replacing all the interviewer’s questions with a “Q”.  So, interspersed throughout the collection, we have 18 unconnected monologues, with the general theme of “hideous men” to unite them.  How Halpert is going to pull a movie together out of this, I’m anxious to find out.    Meanwhile, I should have stuck with my Wallace embargo – I didn’t enjoy this book nearly enough to justify the frustration it caused me.

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