By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Sarah Bennett
By LP Hastings
By Jena Ardell
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
By Joel Beers
The characters in Wallace's book are therefore paralyzed. They're extreme cases of what T.S. Eliot called "dissociated sensibility," an incapacity to make thought and feeling work together. Wallace's characters "know" their problems intimately because they have access to a prodigious amount of psychological information about them, as we all do (because we watch the daytime talk shows). Yet they're still massive wrecks, wildly fucked-up. In fact, Wallace implies, they may be fucked-up because of all that information. They're living in a Foucaultian nightmare in which the knowledge that is supposed to liberate them turns out to be even more entrapping than ignorance.
Wallace hasn't exactly invented this fictional turf—by now (and this too is part of his point), it's out there in mass culture, in the film Slacker, for instance, or, at a lower temperature, Scream, as well as that season of Seinfeld when Seinfeld was about Seinfeld—everybody's doing it now. But Wallace has brought to it a vertiginous humor, an enormous intellectual pressure, an imaginative range, and an unyielding desire to pursue to its conclusions the inspiraling logic of life experienced in the information age.
You probably get this inspiraling logic best in a story called "The Depressed Person." The glory of the story isn't just in its digs at therapy culture (in which one is "totally honest" at one's Inner-Child-Focused Experiential Therapy Retreats) but in its evocation of the hellish double bind the title character is in. The depressed person is depressed because she has an inner-child wound, naturally, and her therapist thinks the best way to deal with it is to talk about it, so the Depressed Person enlists a telephone support group to help her cope. What happens, of course, is that calling them makes her more depressed because she feels self-conscious and guilty for being so selfish about calling people who aren't as down as she is and talking about her depression all the time. But her only option now that she's even more depressed is to call them again and to talk to them about how guilty she is about calling them and how depressed it's making her feel. Ad nauseam. It is maddening. It is hilarious. Finally, it is a portrait of tremendous, unalterable loneliness.
The title piece, "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men," which is about a hundred pages long and spread out over four sections in the book, takes this logic further still. The story is composed of "interviews" with guys in their 20s and 30s; the questions are implied (indicated only with a "Q" on the page), and so the interviews turn into monologues in which these men talk about women and sex. (This book is Wallace's first genuine foray into adult sexuality, an issue he was suspiciously skittish about in Infinite Jest.) One is about a guy now housed in a mental ward who as a boy obsessed about Elizabeth Montgomery's power on Bewitched to freeze space and time. When he got older, he began to fantasize while masturbating that he, too, had this power and could use it to seduce girls. Only freezing time and space, even in fantasy, isn't as easy for him as it was for Elizabeth Montgomery. Hyperintelligent and cripplingly self-conscious, this guy sees freezing space and time as an immense series of "problems, complications, inconsistencies" that demand a godlike mental concentration, not to mention a command of physics and astronomy, that he can never achieve, and thus he goes nuts. (Which doesn't keep him from being able to describe his condition with superrational clarity.)
Other portraits are more clearly hideous: a guy who picks up a just-jilted girl at an airport, listens sympathetically to her sad tale of abandonment, and then proceeds to bed her and leave her. Another guy talks up a woman at a bar by telling her about what selfish shits men are in the sack, about how even the ones who try to please the woman by making her come over and over are really more selfish than the ones who pass out like beached whales after they're done. Why? Because the selfish shits demand that the women, in receiving all that pleasure, owe them for their selflessness. (Meanwhile, the speaker's trying to pick up the woman at the bar by being honest about his selfishness and knowledge of the complications of sexual encounters.)
In the last "interview," a harrowing and deeply disturbing story strangely reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," a smart, insensitive yuppie who has picked up a hippie chick at a concert finds himself falling hopelessly in love with her when she tells him how she saved herself from being killed by a rapist by, essentially, loving him through the rape. That "loving him through the rape" sounds canned, not to mention P.C.-obnoxious, is hardly lost on this guy, who is, like most of Wallace's characters, extraordinarily aware of cultural scripts, and so he relates her tale with "quote-unquotes" and with phrases like "try to bracket the New Age goo and the terminology and focus on the tactical strategy itself." But the raped girl has gotten to him, gotten past self-conscious character armor to the quick of his own loneliness, and so the story turns out to be about his nakedness and his terror of being naked.