A baffling man

Although David Foster Wallace doesn't act the way an author should, his brilliant new book is filled with desperation, loneliness and addiction.

Topics: David Foster Wallace, Books,

A couple of years ago the young novelist, essayist and short story writer David
Wallace showed up on the “Charlie Rose” show. It was a delightfully painful
television experience. The hook for the appearance was that Wallace’s
novel, “Infinite Jest,” had just been issued in paperback.

The publicity that surrounded Wallace and that difficult, brilliant, heavily promoted but little-read novel provides a good working example of the differences between the agent-editor-media matrix’s vision of a serious writer and one who actually is serious. In the happy publicity vocabulary of Nice Cover Quotes and glossy mag author profiles, Wallace is a soulful Gen-Xer with long, light brown hair, an eccentric bandanna, a girlfriend, a tennis background and the added glamour of deep thoughts and a successful rehab history.

In reality, however, Wallace is a strange, very intelligent man with bad clothes who looks in public as if he’d prefer to be wearing a full mask but makes do with a scarf over his head. He also happens to be one of the most ambitious and talented writers of his generation. His work is bitingly funny and remarkably, even wildly, imaginative; at the same time he aims for very large psychological, emotional and social issues, issues of how we live or fail to live, love and fail to love, survive or destroy ourselves.

Judging by his demeanor as well as his prose, Wallace has what appears to be a nicely productive case of chronic depression — you can see that sore and haunted look around the eyes. Apparently he tried drugs for a short time — a sensible experiment given his personality — but didn’t react well to them. Now he writes a lot.

What makes Wallace such a good/bad talk show guest and profile subject is that he attempts to answer fully and in nuanced ways the questions he’s asked. The publicity machine can artfully photograph around him, they can catch the near-blondness while largely obscuring the monastic agonies and fanatical intensity marking his face, but they have trouble with the quotes. On “Charlie Rose,” Wallace was like a giant combine moving through a field of wheat when he was supposed to be posing with a cute donkey and an old leather plow in front of the family barn. In the midst of long answers that continually posed an impossible series of new questions, moving over the humps of the host’s simplistic assumptions with a clatter and bang, he stopped and asked Charlie, ‘I assume all this will be edited out, right?’ Each new inquiry seemed to make Wallace seethe, and his obvious awareness that he’d better try to answer in a way appropriate to a television show only made him squirm deeper into the nest of implications he created. Charlie seemed dazed.

I thought it was a splendid display, but I also thought I detected the sound of WNET producers screaming all the way from midtown. Authors are not supposed to behave and talk like actual authors when they’re given the golden seat on the talk show. They are supposed to entertain, to stick to mild and conventional wisdom or similarly mild and conventional provocations. Just give us that air of authorial expertise, that touch of benign loftiness that we can easily grasp, so that we feel neither inferior nor ignorant but perfectly capable and well-informed. Watch Skip Gates, or Ken Auletta, and get it right next time.

An appropriate thought because the next time has just rolled around. Wallace publishes a new work of fiction this month, “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men,” a collection of stories that, like his earlier collection, “Girl With Curious Hair,” as well as “Infinite Jest,” is filled with desperation, loneliness and addiction.

Early reviewers from the likes of Publishers Weekly and Kirkus seem baffled by this book. Its formal innovations, its ironic play across the plain of ideas in addition to character, make it a difficult book for average readers to pin down. “Opaque” one review called it. In fact, “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” continues Wallace’s record of presenting new turns, new valleys and imposing palisades in the landscape of American short fiction. Wallace’s selections of voices are in the best sense theatrical and historically nimble: in “Girl With Curious Hair,” for instance, his characters included an unstoppable lesbian contestant on “Jeopardy,” a skinhead girl, an actress making an appearance on “Letterman.” Here, he takes up figures possibly more obscure, less pop-cult than sub-cult: a murkily identified refugee of central Europe or the unnamed individual at the center of the story “The Depressed Person.” They all speak in a language subtly undergirded by their own appropriate historical knowledge. Wallace writes of young boys at the pool, middle-aged men in uncomfortable sexual situations and the aforementioned depressed woman who unbearably narrates her pathologies in the neo-vocabulary of healing and therapy. Perhaps most extraordinary among the collection are the clinical documentary impersonations of certain unpleasant men whose dysfunctional reminiscences — mostly sexual but occasionally otherwise — constitute the series of fragmentary selections Wallace calls “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.”

The interviews, which are scattered throughout the book, suggest some sort of endless psychological entrance interview or massive and unbounded sociological study. They are in a question-and-answer format, but the questions are omitted, represented only by a blank line beginning and ending with “Q.” With the questions left blank, we are without the soothing presence of the “normal,” and are left to face the warped reality of late-20th century life in its purest sense, entirely free of context, reduced to language and vocal impersonation, like a rough cut, unnarrated Frederick Wiseman documentary, all sound and no picture.

In one, Wallace presents a highly damaged middle-aged man of what one guesses is East German birth recounting his earliest masturbation fantasies, set at what he calls the State Exercise Facility, where his mother dutifully kept fit and where he, a sickly child, accompanied her and his brother. He watched with the dread and horror of the physically inept as they threw weighted balls at each other and perspired. In his fantasy, stimulated by early viewing of “the American situation comedy ‘Bewitched,’” he was able with a gesture of his hand to freeze all motion in the gymnasium and hold insensate everyone in the large room, while beckoning the woman he desired, the only other animate being in the tableau, to join him for a frenzied liaison in the middle of the gymnasium floor, all the other exercisers, including Mama, standing paralyzed and oblivious around them. His schoolbook English syntax is perfectly formal and incorrect in all the right places, as he explains that the fantasy was not so easy to sustain:

This may appear so outlandish, of course, from the perspective of how little logic is in envisioning a sickly youth causing sexual desire with only a hand’s motion. I have really no answer for this. The hand’s supernatural power was perhaps the fantasy’s First Premise or aksioma, itself unquestioned, from which all then must rationally derive and cohere. Here you must say I think First Premise. And all must cohere from this, for I was the son of a great figure of state science, thus if once a logical inconsistency in the fantasy’s setting occurred to me, it demanded a resolution consistent with the enframing logic of the hand’s powers, and I was responsible for this. If not, I found myself distracted by nagging thoughts of the inconsistency, and was unable to masturbate. This is following for you? By this I am saying, what began only as a childish fantasy of unlimited power became a series of problems, complications, inconsistencies, and the responsibilities to erect working, internally consistent solutions to these. It was these responsibilities which quickly expanded to become too insupportable even within fantasy to permit me ever to exercise again true power of any type, hence placing me in the circumstances which you see all too plainly here.

Note the sharp, nearly unconscious doubling of meanings here in “erect,” and “exercise.” Other interviews include what seems to be an overheard conversation between two lecherous traveling salesmen, and one subject’s reminiscence of his father’s life as a men’s room attendant in a fancy hotel. You might call these pieces tours de force, but you might also as easily see them as entirely new ways of creating fiction.

Wallace, among his other talents, blends the languages of modern philosophy, sexual angst and suburban psychological breakdown in a way that manages both to be thoroughly new in literary terms, and yet still evoke in the reader that state of mind that all great literature evokes, that sense of encounter with phenomena long familiar and suddenly, perfectly identified.

Wallace is a third-person writer in a first-person age. As a result, he appropriates first-person forms and uses them to give himself and us a third-person perspective. Instead of fiction’s usual series of self-assertive paragraphs he prefers to employ the most obnoxious, or annoying, or mundane narrative formats of our time like a hermit crab inhabiting discarded shells. In “Brief Interviews,” these include the questionnaire, the Q&A, the structured notes that approach but do not achieve the level of a story, plus footnotes galore (many running to three pages or more), futuristic dictionary entries and, in a story called “Octet,” the pop quiz:

Pop Quiz # 4

Two late-stage terminal drug addicts sat up against an alley’s wall with nothing to inject and no means and nowhere to go or be. Only one had a coat. It was cold, and one of the terminal drug addicts’ teeth chattered and he sweated and shook with fever. He seemed gravely ill. He smelled very bad. He sat up against the wall with his head on his knees.

This took place in Cambridge MA in an alley behind the Commonwealth Aluminum Can Redemption Center on Massachusetts Avenue in the early hours of 12 January 1993. The terminal drug addict with the coat took off the coat and scooted over up close to the gravely ill terminal drug addict and took and spread the coat as far as it would go over the both of them and then scooted over some more and got himself pressed right up against him and put his arm around him and let him be sick on his arm, and they stayed like that up against the wall together all through the night.

Q.: Which one lived.

Redemption Center indeed. In this passage, as in all of Wallace’s work, the hope of redemption, redemption of the most significant kind, flickers through the text like a weak but still present flame, and what comes through of him as a writer and mind are his sense of profound irony, his intellectual scope and something too of his well-handled, almost talismanic pain. Wallace has planted himself firmly as the American writer of his generation to watch, to match and, most urgently, to read.

Vince Passaro is a contributing editor for Harper's magazine and is finishing a novel.

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