30 May 2010

Brief Review of Brief Interviews

I've written a fair bit on this blog about one of my top two or three favorite authors, David Foster Wallace. I'm hoping to use this summer's respite from required reading to finally finish slogging through his rather daunting catalogue. Of the three books that remained for me, I decided to start with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I think the requisite "acclaim for" pages in the softcover version nail it pretty well, especially the blurb from Time's R. Z. Sheppard:

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is meant to interrogate the reader, to elicit fresh responses to horrors that have lost their edge in the age of information overload . . . It displays a range of intellect and talent that is unseemly for any one writer to have, let alone show off.

My only quibble with Sheppard's assessment is his implication that Wallace is showing off. I mean, maybe. But I think the truth is probably more innocent and more tragic. I think he's simply trying as hard as his prodigious talents will allow him. I think more than just about anywhere else in the Wallace canon (at least the 85% or so that I've encountered), Brief Interviews is where Wallace fesses up to what seems to account for some or perhaps most of why he writes. Things come to a head in Pop Quiz 9 of "Octet," which begins, "You* are, unfortunately, a fiction writer" (145).

Ironically, there's no fiction to be found in PQ9, because it's where Wallace lays out, in agonizingly self-conscious detail, what he's up in "Octet" and--as Sheppard points out--in pretty much the entire book. The piece isn't working as he intended, he comes out and tells us, and so urgent is his desire to quote-unquote bare his soul** regarding the apparently undefinable thematic backbone of the Pop Quizzes that he decides to "address the reader directly and ask her straight out whether she's feeling anything like what you feel" (154).

I frequently get the impression that Wallace haters think all his formal acrobatics are just some tiring attempt to be cute. I think they couldn't be more wrong. As I said, I think he's concentrating really, really hard. And, to borrow from Dave Marsh's characterization of Aretha Franklin in "Respect": "[Wallace] when [he's] concentrating is as good as it gets" (Heart of Rock and Soul, 10). Here's his description of his own desperation in resorting to this fourth-wall-breaking ploy, "which in the late 1990s, when even Wes Craven is cashing in on metafictional self-reference, might come off lame and tired and facile, and also runs the risk of compromising the queer urgency about whatever it is you feel you want the pieces to interrogate in whoever's reading them" (146, emphasis his):

The trick to this solution is that you'd have to be 100% honest. Meaning not just sincere but almost naked. Worse than naked -- more like unarmed. Defenseless. 'This thing I feel, I can't name it straight out but it seems important, do you feel it too?' -- this sort of direct question is not for the squeamish. For one thing, it's perilously close to 'Do you like me? Please like me,' which you know quite well that 99% of all the interhuman manipulation and bullshit gamesmanship that goes on goes on precisely because the idea of saying this sort of thing straight out is regarded as somehow obscene. In fact one of the very last few interpersonal taboos we have is this kind of obscenely naked direct interrogation of somebody else [Ten years later we have an abbreviation for the self-revelation that rhetorically must accompany such prying: TMI. ~KMO]. It looks pathetic and desperate. That's how it'll look to the reader. And it will have to. There's no way around it. If you step out and ask her what and whether she's feeling, there can't be anything coy or performative or sham-honest-so-she'll-like-you about it. That'd kill it outright. Do you see? Anything less than completely naked helpless pathetic sincerity and you're right back in the pernicious conundrum. You'll have to come to her 100% hat in hand. (154)

This is the sentiment at the heart of all the material I've found most compelling and heartbreaking--but also the most deeply reassuring--about Wallace's work. For more of what I mean, see the painfully self-conscious Dean or President or Provost or whoever in Infinite Jest (my copy is currently missing or I'd name him for you). Or see that scene in IJ where he's talking about all the things you learn in AA or the halfway house and there's like four or five pages of semicoloned subclauses that just make me want to weep because they so thoroughly finger the jagged grain of each of our darkest secrets and most relentless insecurities. Or see, for the closest thing to PQ9's direct and explicit desperation, the "intertextual quotation[s]" that contain "the really urgent stuff" as part of the "multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit" in "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky" (Consider the Lobster, 271).

The reason Sheppard's show off misses the mark is that Wallace's decision is ultimately a move of deep humility:

[I]t's not going to make you look wise or secure or accomplished or any of the things readers usually want to pretend they believe the literary artist who wrote what they're reading is when they sit down to try to escape the insoluble flux of themselves and enter a world of prearranged meaning. Rather it's going to make you look fundamentally lost and confused and frightened and unsure about whether to trust even your most fundamental intuitions about urgency and sameness and whether other people deep inside experience things in anything like the same way you do . . . more like a reader, in other words, down here quivering in the mud of the trench with the rest of us, instead of a Writer, whom we imagine to be clean and dry and radiant of command presence and unwavering conviction as he coordinates the whole campaign from ack at some gleaming abstract Olympian HQ.*** (159-160)

In the end, Wallace knows all he can do is ask us to think about it: "So decide" he concludes (160). I will be forever puzzled by the people who decide he's simply putting up a front.


* In all of these pop quizzes, we're asked to make an ethical judgement or some other decision about one or more of the characters or situations in a short sketch. The sketch of PQ9 is of a writer writing an octet of quizzes (this "Octet" of quizzes, as it were), and so the implicit quiz question is something like "What would you do in my situation?" Thus, it's important to be clear about the pronoun antecedents in these quotations: "you"--the reader of the Pop Quiz--are Wallace himself.

** See B.I. #20 and much of PQ9 on how we all get reduced to such banalities when we really drill down deep into the big-insights-into-the-human-condition layers of personal experience and attempted expression.

*** I wonder if being a good priest/pastor/preacher is perhaps analogous to learning--to use Wallace's terms as he's developed them here--when to be a reader and when to be a Writer, or more appropriately just a writer. I think the great emphasis on cultivating self-knowledge as part of priestly formation is so we can learn to see and get some kind of handle on which of these two impulses is most strongly informing whatever bit of priestly advice bubbles up for us in a particular situation. I.e., "In recommending X, am I actually just responding to the way this situation pokes at my own insecurities, or do I have the kind of critical distance that surely almost all of us need in order to be truly open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit?" Of course, theologically and rhetorically, the ability and desire to relate to fellow human beings as Wallace's reader rather than his Writer is also really important. Most of us know a seemingly 100% Writer-priest or -pastor, and there's a good chance he or she is not very effective.


enigmakaty said...

I have to thank you kyle. Because of your DFW appreciation, I've brought just one book to Idaho... and 453 pages (and 176 footnotes) in, I'm halfway through it. It's possibly the best book I've ever read.

(Also the dean was Incandenza, later to be replaced by charles tavis...)

Kyle Matthew Oliver said...

Glad to hear you're liking IJ, Katy! Yeah, what a special book.