A number of themes recur throughout the stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Grappling with chronic depression is one. The impossibility of ever really knowing what another person thinks is another, along with the tangentially related question of how and why people can treat other people as less than completely human.
I frequently found this book hard to read, partly because some of the stories are dense and thorny, but also because the spectre of Wallace’s life, particularly his early, untimely, and self-imposed exit from it, looms large over its contents. It’s difficult to read “Suicide as a Sort of Present,” a story featuring a depressed young man struggling with the gap between his own perfectionism and high external expectations of himself, without seeing it as eerily predictive. It’s tempting to look for explicitly autobiographical elements in other stories as well: does the narrator’s resentment of the son in, “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, The Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon,” represent resentment that Wallace felt (or feared) his own father felt toward him? Wallace is perhaps too tricky to try anything so obvious (several of these stories devolve around confusion about the identity of the narrative voice and how distanced it is (or isn’t) from what it recounts, and/or from Wallace’s own voice and attitudes*) — maybe the story is about Wallace’s fear that he would be unable to unreservedly love his own hypothetical offspring. Then again, maybe suggesting that the superficial reading is too obvious to bear serious consideration is actually a sort of double-feint.
One might even go so far as to regard some of these stories as coded cries for help. I think, besides being absurdly reductionist, this would fundamentally miss the point. If Wallace’s stories frequently concern the necessity and difficulty of communication between human beings, they don’t exclude fiction as a fraught and intrinsically unsatisfactory mode of communication. In many of these stories you can sense Wallace pushing at the limitations of narrative fiction, trying to brainstorm a way around them. Sometimes he almost succeeds.
Reading the best of these stories is like watching a sleight-of-hand artist explain a trick as it’s performed, and still being fooled. Some of the stories that at first seem among the weakest, like “Tri-stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko,” with its broadly parodic character names and elaborate but stilted sentences, eventually turn out to be among the most densely layered and surprising.
Nowhere is this more evident than in “Octet,” which at first seems to be an almost sophomoric exercise of trite, almost jokey moral dilemmas. It’s the sort of story I don’t want to reveal details about, but not only did I find it worth the effort, I ultimately found it the single most moving piece of fiction I read this year.
needs more demons? Fighting the desire to whinge here about how I wish Wallace had had a few less demons himself. Maybe (to borrow a conceit from his hideous men) without the torment of those demons, he wouldn’t have been such a powerful writer; then again, maybe there’s no causal relationship. No easy answers, in life as in his fiction. Also in summing-up-terms should note that this is a very rare book in that even the stories that I didn’t think were very good (and there were a few) seem to fulfill a structural purpose in what is an unusually cohesive book for a short story collection. Finally, although I’m willing to presume that it is well-intentioned, and am curious about the degree to which director John Krasinski regards the film as successful and particularly whether he thinks it was affected either for good or ill by studio pressures, I thought the film version of this book was dreadful and completely misrepresents what I perceive as the book’s core objectives, but I’m nonetheless grateful to it for impelling me to actually read the book, the first of the several Wallace volumes I haven’t read that I’ve been able to get through since 12 September 2008.
*As inferred from the voice and attitudes expressed in Wallace’s non-fiction, with the acknowledged proviso that said voice and attitudes are necessarily, at least in part, fictional constructs. This is most nakedly presented in the titular brief interviews, where Wallace employs a number of distancing devices, like malapropisms to which Wallace would never succumb and labeling the men’s attitudes “hideous” to start with; the men themselves also employ distancing devices, including “happened to a friend of mine”-style layering obfuscations.**
**In addition to previously noted difficulties with reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, it’s also difficult to consume large quantities of Wallace’s prose without succumbing to temptation to qualify or expound upon a point in footnote form. This is perhaps also an opportune place to note that Wallace’s storied use of footnotes is the most abundantly evident, if superficial, indication of his frustration with limitations of narrative fiction, representing a challenge not only to its linearity but to the notion that divisions such as “main stream” and “sidebar” are useful and/or intrinsically meaningful.