David Foster Wallace’s work tempts reviewers to applaud him in terms that alienate the rest of America. This is a sad thing, since Wallace deserves to be read, for pleasure, by a good many people. There are some obvious reasons why Wallace is such critical catnip— he mastered math, logic, Wittgenstein, and tennis by his late teens, and his grasp of language games is virtuosic. There’s a geometry to his writing, a symmetry of levels and recursions, that makes it easy to admire his form and forget his purpose. This might be why Wallace is pointedly open about his literary themes and motivations, which, it turns out, are close to our own concerns— among them the difficulty of making oneself understood.
“I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader . . . imaginative access to other selves,” Wallace told The Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993. But for a man who is steeped in analytic philosophy and metafictional solipsisms on the one hand and the deadening influence of mass entertainment on the other, access to other selves is hard to achieve. A thread running through all of Wallace’s work is our need to understand one another, the substitutes we seek to ease the pain of failing to do so, and the ways in which those substitutes aggravate that failure. In a very real sense, he is struggling with what used to be called the despair of our time.
In Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, which explores the bleakest regions of family, friendship, and desire, Wallace brings the war home. His characters, who in earlier works struggled through “anesthesia,” “anhedonia,” and “aphasia,” here see themselves as ” ‘dark,’ ‘evil,’ or ‘beyond hope of ever sincerely becoming good.’ ” The brief interviews which tie the collection together show brutal men speaking frankly about their erotic proclivities. In “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (VI),” a divorcing couple flips coins for custody of their son. In “The Devil Is a Busy Man,” a lifesaving gift tears a friendship apart. Wallace has never been so direct, and initially, this intimacy makes him look like he’s reaching toward a certain grace.
But Wallace hasn’t quite entered his gospel period. Asides and digressions that play at the margins of his early fictions have sharpened into projectiles— there is an unabashed aggression to them that forces you to choose between the text and the fine print. Like the “manipulative pseudopomo Bullshit Artist” described in the story “Octet,” who tries “to salvage a fiasco by dropping back to a metadimension and commenting on the
fiasco itself,” Wallace
self-consciously straddles the fence between
self-loathing and self-congratulation. Which, then, becomes its own form of self-loathing. The fun house has become a torture chamber.
The new collection cuts closer to the bone in other ways. Wallace has always been a carefree, funny writer, but his cleverness can be a curse. In Brief Interviews, words wound and the humor, scaled back, bares its teeth. Parental love reveals itself as a loathing that doesn’t dare speak. Sexuality reveals itself to be antierotic. Repeatedly, Wallace takes two people at their closest and shows how far apart they remain. There is such hatred in this book that midway through it seems that Wallace’s confidence as a writer masks a collapse in the man— that he’s given in to his own fears, folding fiction’s layers into a blanket and hiding underneath.
But Wallace breaks through this mounting rage to reach a more generous emotional world. In one of the collection’s crescendos, “The Depressed Person,” a woman realizes that the root of her despair is the ability “to share
only painful circumstances and historical insights about her depression . . . instead of feeling truly able to communicate and articulate and express the depression’s terrible unceasing agony itself.” If this regress of the human condition— the inability to make another feel what it’s like to be unable to make another feel, ad infinitum— has been Wallace’s great subject, it’s also a terrible trap for a writer plagued by the same neurotic tics that paralyze his characters. But in accepting the trap’s logical inevitability, Wallace has started to fight toward transcendence through other means— this book is finally a call to action, in life and fiction both. “And what if she joined him on the floor, just like this, clasped in supplication?” one story asks at its conclusion. “So decide,” another answers.
Wallace pays a price for this directness: A few of the best stories land heavily, uncertainly. Others, particularly the more fragmented experimental fictions, seem constipated. But these faults are a concession to the risks Wallace takes as he struggles toward a sincere and hard-earned compassion. He’s more interested in expanding our definitions of what love can be— and dealing with the fallout— than closing himself off to the possibility. “Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering,” Wallace continues in the RCF interview,
part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering . . . true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.
Simple or not, this is what Wallace has done. And if the terrain is bleak, the intensity of the struggle itself is life-affirming. “I stand here naked before you,” a character says at the collection’s end. “Judge me, you chilly cunt. You dyke, you bitch, cooze, cunt, slut, gash. Happy now? All borne out? Be happy. I don’t care. I knew she could. I knew I loved. End of story.” This is a tormented, heroic book.