On Hideous Men…Posted 9 January 2012 by Wee Bey
I first read, in no particular order, every word Ernest Hemingway ever published in book form in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Minneapolis, one block behind the Hennepin County Medical Center. I think I had read For Whom the Bell Tolls, before that, but I plowed through it again, though not with the ferocity with which I attacked The Sun Also Rises, which I read in one sleepless night.
Traveling light because of youth and upheaval, I had no furniture save my bed; no car, no television, nothing but my backpack, one bookshelf with the one box of books I took with me for my sophomore year of college and my own crushing depression and chronic insomnia. Nominally, I was a student, and every day I’d walk past the Metrodome to catch the No. 16 bus across the river. I’d sleepwalk through a couple classes, then hike to the other side of campus to the used bookstore. I was cooking in a bar to pay the rent and I’d use the cash tips from the servers to buy a book, cart it with me to the bar, then start it on the bus on the way home. I’d read all night, partially because I couldn’t stop consuming the sharp, short sentences and in part because HCMC emergency room was the default destination hospital for anyone injured without health insurance in the metro area, and the ambulances peeled out, sirens blaring, at a terrifying clip.
It occurs to me now that I took that first discovered Hemingway in that state, but also that I read the man’s entire catalogue without once thinking about how the author’s life ended. Despite being in a fragile state of mind, myself, Hemingway’s suicide never entered my thoughts. It’s easier to be younger; it’s no country for old men.
So, then, what to make of this: as I made timid progress through David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, a collection of short, fictional pieces, I could not stop lingering on the author’s suicide. What to make of one more thing: the book, though brilliant, shook me in places so much I had to put it down. I read two or three other airplane books in between parts of it. The sixth chapter, The Depressed Person, in particular, kept me up for at least two nights.
I picked Wallace because I am a little embarrassed not to have read any of his fiction. And I picked Brief Interviews because it seemed less of a commitment than his seminal novel, Infinite Jest. Don’t misunderstand, either. Brief Interviews is brilliant in places, and you should read it. But it’s not what I’d call pleasurable, either.
Why does Wallace’s suicide come to the forefront in his writing so much, especially in comparison with someone like Hemingway? Part of it is time. Hemingway was long dead and gone before I was born. Wallace writing contemporaneously forces a reader like me to confront my own mortality. Part is frame of mind. I’m older now, and I know people who have killed themselves. But I think the biggest chunk comes from form and style.
Ernest Hemingway famously envisioned a story as an iceberg. The metaphor is apt, especially regarding Hemingway’s own fiction, and it’s seductive. The bulk of the tale remains underwater. It moves with force and power, but the motion is nearly imperceptible on the surface. What’s more, the Story has clean, sharp edges, shines brilliantly in the light and becomes, when it bumps into other parts of this world, an immovable object. That’s powerful shit, and there’s no doubt in my mind I internalized the mythos of story-as-iceberg since the second I read the Hemingway quotation. It does occur to me, now, though: Who wants to write a fucking iceberg?
The author’s job, then, is to decide how much of the story to leave above water, then shave off the sides. The basic goal is to trim everything down to it’s barest necessity, leaving the smallest possible iceberg-shaped hole in the middle of the tale for the reader to fill in herself. There’s really only one possible emotional truth, but it’s written in by each new reader. Take, for instance, my favorite Hemingway short story, “Hills Like White Elephants.” The narrative consists of a dialogue between a couple contemplating abortion – and with it, the end of their relationship. Were DFW to take on this subject, would he leave the word abortion out of it? Not likely. He’d title the piece “Two Briefly Happy Lovers Can’t Bring Themselves To Say Abortion Aloud In A Train Station.”
Wallace comes at things from a thoroughly post-modern perspective, but he’s shooting to outline the same emotional truth. He walks you through the characters’ mental processes better than even they likely understand them, as he does in the series of eponymous sections in the book, which seem to consist of prison interviews with convicted sex offenders determined to explain how their wires got crossed. Then he adds footnotes – oh, fuck, the footnotes – explaining, further, often with an added perspective, other possible motivations, most often ones that undercut the reliability of the narrator. While Hemingway is devoted to one form in pursuit of emotional truth, Wallace shows an absolute commitment to ANY form to get at the same thing. Interviews with the questions removed, true-false pop quizzes, footnotes that run longer than the main narrative, first-person, third-person, he’ll do anything. And perhaps, I think, that shows an immediacy and desperation that brings to the fore the author’s own sad ending.
Perhaps the best and least reflective piece in Brief Interviews is “Forever Overhead,” the first full “story” in the collection. He captures an extended moment, freezing it in time. A boy uses the occasion of his 13th birthday to take his first plunge off the high dive. Wallace continually downshifts, capturing the moment by slowing it, slowing it, slowing it until he can focus all the reader’s attention on inevitable moment and ask the question – Which is real, the board, the air or the water.
“The clouds are taking on the color of the rim of the sky. The water is spangles off soft blue, five o’clock warm, and the pool’s smell, like the other smell, connects with a chemical haze inside you, an interior dimness that bends light to its own ends, softens the difference between what leaves off and what begins.”
“Forever below is a rough deck, snacks, thin metal music, down where you once used to be; the line is solid and has no reverse gear; and the water, of course, is only soft when you’re inside it. Look down. Now it moves in the sun, full of hard coins of light that shimmer red as they stretch away into a mist that is your own sweet salt. The coins crack into new moons, long shards of light from the hearts of sad stars. The square tank is a cold blue sheet. Cold is just a kind of hard. A kind of blind. You have been taken off guard. Happy Birthday. Did you think it over. Yes and no. Hey kid.
Two black spots, violence, and disappear into a well of time. Height is not the problem. It all changes when you get back down. When you hit, with your weight.
So which is the lie? Hard or soft? Silence or time?
The lie is that it’s one or the other.”
This is Wallace at his most successful; you’d be hard-pressed to find a better short story written in the last 20 years, to be honest. The language shines, the metaphor, though simple, holds up well – the line for the board as time, the cool blue sheet of adulthood underfoot, the floating air of adolescence. He’s so gifted he makes something deceptively similar into a metaphysical masterpiece. And when he hits you, with his weight, he then simply types, “Hello.” And that’s the end.
Things come apart – intentionally or not – later in the stories. In particular, the piece “Octet” feels like unraveling.
Octet is a series of pop quizzes which begin with number four and do not proceed sequentially. Rather than the typical postmodern quick question, which is designed perfectly so that any answer is plausible and what actually matters is why one answers yes, no or maybe, these questions take themselves apart. By the second example, Wallace undercuts his premise as fast as he can get it down, sometimes before he presents it, in perfect academic cadence. He admits at the end of the second it isn’t a very good question. He takes a second stab at the second question again, and it only gets longer and more convoluted, stretching for pages and pages with footnotes, themselves stretching for pages and pages again.
It’s plausible this was a first draft and Wallace simply left it as an example of a failed chapter. It’s equally plausible it was an intentional chapter, a winding and weird commentary on the futility of deconstructionism and/or academic thinking and writing patterns to arrive at any kind of Truth. Doesn’t matter, really. It becomes the second, whatever Wallace intended.
But I would argue Wallace means more to us when he’s capturing that moment on the high dive. Even if the footnotes and the post-modern forms used to deconstruct post-modernism are what made him famous, he means more to me when he’s taking the risks associated with modernism: This might be wrong. This might be too simple. This might be just jerking off over a simple image. This might suck.
Every writer, every last one, fears this. We’re all cowards. Wallace is so talented, and the temptation to live in the margins, to simply avoid letting anything stand for itself, to hedge, and let his obvious talent be the tiebreaker, the answer to the unanswerable questions, must have been immense. It’s to his enduring credit that he wrote both pieces, but I respect the hell out of him for writing “Forever Overhead.” It’s a story about time and courage, and it took big brass balls to write. And it should stand up, over the years. Forever.
When I read stories such as “Octet,” I remain unsettled; even now, reading it again to write this, I have a hard time getting all the way through. When Wallace hedges everything, I see a mind and a spirit that can’t find relief. I see suffering. And it isn’t pretty, even when the language is. I want to buy him a beer and tell him it’s OK. If it sucks, you can throw it out, and start tomorrow with a clean sheet of paper.
Maybe I am old, and set in my ways. But I think I’ll always prefer that first kind of story, the kind I read all those years ago with the sounds of ambulance sirens in my ears. Hemingway trying to capture the iceberg for all of us, to frame it right, to paint all the lines clean and cold and clear. The reader provided the Truth.
Reading Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is watching David Foster Wallace try to melt the iceberg – with a flame thrower, a hair dryer, with burning tires and, one imagines, discarded manuscripts held aloft in anger, with a Bic lighter, a match, his hands, his entire body, and finally, finally, with footnotes and dependent clauses and digressions into dark corners, with the heat of his body, with the beating of his own heart.
There’s a kind of Truth there. But I don’t know if it’s mine.