Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: Stories by David Foster Wallace (New York: Back Bay Books, 2007. 336 pp)

Born in Ithaca, New York, David Foster Wallace was a regionally ranked junior tennis player in his youth. He earned a degree in English and Philosophy from Amherst College, winning the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize. Later, he earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Arizona. Wallace taught literature at Emerson College, Illinois State University, and later became the Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Pomona College. Over the course of his career, he earned a MacArthur Fellowship, the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, and the Lannan Literary Award. Wallace died in 2008.

Rules Made to Be Broken

Of the art instruction I have considered—whether in practice or through study—I would summarize a clear guidance from master to student as such: the apprentice must first learn the rules before she can break them.

For music: scales, 12 pitches, and keys provide the structure. Stick to these rules in composition and beautiful music ensues. Yet, some of the most interesting music breaks these rules. Consider, for example, Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely,” where the use of microtonality—a note in the crack between A and A# leaves an unsettling feeling over the entire song. Here, Radiohead mostly offers a song within the rules of music composition, but then breaks a rule to haunting ends.

Or, in painting, the variety of early and mid-century genres depict normal scenes in unusual ways, whether impressionist or full-on cubism. The rules of visual expression bend and break toward new ends.

So, where and how might an artist “break” a story? Inherent in its language requirements, a story must follow rules for it to make any sense. The author can explore different avenues around unveiling plot or developing a character. The author can pull the levers of pacing and setting. But inherently, a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end, to function as a story.

But, David Foster Wallace believes rules are made to be broken. And in his brilliant collection of stories, Brief Interview with Hideous Men, Wallace explores the building blocks of story and aims for post-modern interpretations of these stories.

Deconstructing Story

While many of the stories in this collection vary in genre and plot, the central thread to the book exists in Wallace’s attempt to deconstruct what a story really is.

Wallace breaks apart language in one story, keeping the bare minimum of a plot underneath futuristic gibberish.

“4b. Concl {embed}: ‘. . . were ready thus to begin, in a calm and mutually respectful way, to discuss having children {together}’” (189).

Wallace focuses on one narrator’s incomprehensible rambling only to drop the narrative show on the last page.

“That one’s own wife might judge you deficient simply for remaining the man she married. Was I the only one not told? Why such silence when —
{PAUSE for episode of dyspnea}” (257).

And most interestingly, especially given Wallace’s fondness for extrapolating his pose in footnotes, Wallace writes commentary on his own process of writing a short story.

He pauses one story, the criticize how poorly he is writing the story, all in a satirical criticism of literary haughtiness.

“(Though it all gets a little complicated, because part of what you want these little Pop Quizzes to do is to break the textual fourth wall and kind of address (or ‘interrogate’) the reader directly, which desire is somehow related to the old ‘meta’-device desire to puncture some sort of fourth wall of realist pretense, although it seems like the latter is less a puncturing of any sort of real wall and more a puncturing of the veil of impersonality or effacement around the writer himself, i.e. with the now-tired S.O.P. ‘meta’-stuff it’s more the dramatist himself coming onstage from the wings and reminding you that what’s going on is artificial and that the artificer is him (the dramatist) and but that he’s at least respectful enough of you as reader/audience to be honest about the fact that he’s back there pulling the strings, an ‘honesty’ which personally you’ve always had the feeling is actually a highly rhetorical sham-honesty that’s designed to get you to like him and approve of him” (147).

Keeping the Skeleton in Place

And so, Wallace exhibits for the reader a rare view at an author attempting what artists in other genres often avoid at all costs. By keeping to the root structure and rules of storytelling—and barely at that—Wallace breaks the rules for maximum creative and artistic impact.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is a challenging read, because the lack of rules taxes the reader, but for the sake of art, it’s worth it.

Verdict: 4 out of 5



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