Saturday, January 16, 2010

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

My first book to be crossed off The Great Book List of 2010 was a good one for me, I think.*

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) by David Foster Wallace was a unique collection of complex and oftentimes endearing, sometimes bizarre, short stories. This was the first I've ever read of Wallace's. I can tell that I'll become friends with many more of his works.

I think I was most impressed by Wallace's striking writing style and impeccable humor--like every story was a project. For example, the very first story of the book, A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life, is about two and a half pages long but happens to be collectively contained in one sentence. It is in no way fluid and is told in a back-tracking, distracted voice. One sentence tells the career history of a man who may or may not be lounging on the deck of a pool.

My personal favorite stories, Adult World (I) and (II), enter into a marriage that is learning to become itself. It's about a wife who's finding out about herself and her husband via painstakingly realistic insecurities. As with every other story in the collection, the struggle manifests itself in the bedroom--in this particular story, most of the wife's hesitation and angst is centered right there on the head of the husband's pink, raw penis. Wallace found a way to climb right into the mind of a woman pretty clearly. Being a woman, myself, I felt like this character was written more or less flawlessly. Perhaps mind-boggling insecurity isn't something saved for females, alone. She and I share the gift of the over-think. It started with the imagination of a marital problem which then led to imagining the source of the issue (which of course had everything to do with herself and nothing to do with him) and eventually leading her to resolving the conflict at hand. In realistic fashion, it takes the wife to places (mentally and physically) that we all know that she'd rather not go. In regards to story telling, though, Wallace never ceased to deliver. In Adult World (I), he tackled the story in a stark, traditional if not businesslike manner that presents the characters, tension and struggle in no uncertain terms. He continues the story in Adult World (II) in a completely different manner. The hurried resolution is written in hastily scrawled notes and outlines (and personal notes to self) that, one would assume, the writer would go back to, fill in the blanks, wash over with a broad brush of continuity and we'd all get along just fine and never even notice the process. But we're left with a huge, satisfying comedic mess that we're happy to pick through.

But on to the brief interviews. Included in the 23 chapters are four entitled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. These are, as shrouded in thin mystery, exactly what they sound like. Sound bites and stories as told by men in an interview. For the most part, we never know what was asked by the interviewer, all we are privy to is the response from the "hideous" man. Much like overhearing a phone conversation. There is pause for a question and then the man goes on to speak in his own tongue to tell his own story. I found myself constantly impressed with Wallace's choice to speak on behalf of these gentlemen in, generally, a very distant manner. As if releasing one's own demons was on par with filling out a loan application.

We meet a lot of men. One man shouts the same uncontrollable, absurd phrase every time he orgasms. It's embarrassing enough that he truly believes that no one could love him despite it. Another man discusses meeting a woman in an airport who had been truly scorned by a lover. He does what he can to describe to us how his heart went out to her, his genuine pity and desire to comfort her. It is eluded, later, that he has sex with her despite thel sincerity.

A lot of men, yes, but not one of them hideous. Not to me. But, then again, it's hard for me to hold anything against an honest person--even when faced with the most heinous admission. People can be their own worst critics, it seems, especially regarding such untouchable subjects. These men are never truly hideous, rather, they approach themselves with a certain measure of shame. As do us all at one point or another. Addiction. Loneliness. Desperation. Narcissism. I have a theory that we all struggle with at least one of these at any given time.

What is it about the sex? Why am I (I suppose that I can only speak on my own behalf--though I assume this could easily be yours) so very drawn to it in my literature and shouldn't I be repulsed or defend my taste and decency? I don't think so. There is the novelty, of course. There is the obvious taboo. But there's got to be more to it. As a writer, you're hard pressed to find a scenario as revealing and honest as a moment such as this--a confession, an omission, even a lie. Once the pants are gone, regardless of the task at hand and regardless of the lies that may be told or the lighting or distractions, there is at least one honest glimpse into the character. A guy who can only be turned on by a partner wearing shoes (absent mother), a woman who can only come on top (control issues)--and then there's the really kinky stuff that (while I won't get into it here) is much easier to diagnose. I dare you to write a quality sex scene that doesn't have to do with something much, much deeper. It can not be done.

Wallace used sex and confessions, footnotes and sidebars as an introduction to self-honesty. I was highly impressed with what he could do with the words he chose for this collection and I'm curious to see how John Krasinski chose to adapt it for screen in the very near future.

*I apologize if it made you blush that I used the following words: "pink", "come", "penis", "masturbate"**, "top", and "narcissism".
**"Masturbate" was actually edited out, but the sentiment remains.

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