We'll soon have to give the man his own adjective. Wallace-ian or Wallace-esque won't do—those are too halting and dorky—but we'll need some shorthand for this American writer who has been turning out the most distinctive body of work since Don DeLillo. Here's what the adjective will stand for: an IQ-in-the-stratosphere intelligence that's always operating at full-tilt (and that is both a medium and major satirical subject in his work); stories with footnotes and footnotes to the footnotes; mile-long monologues of young, whip-smart, media-shaped characters whose voices and unspoken thoughts the writer captures with uncanny ventriloquistic wit; a land-speed-record gush to the language, which trips over its own feet repeating itself because it's talking so fast to get out everything that's in its head before more stuff comes into its head that needs to get out just as fast; a crazed Frank Gehry-like architecture to its 400-word sentences; looming in the background, either in the actual back stories or implied in them, the presences of a cold, cruel, masterful father and a too-indulgent, ineffectually loving mother hovering over a nervous, ultrarational boy who's desperate to please everybody (a boy who will grow up to be Wallace); a nevertheless ecstasy-making humor that is, well, fucking funny but can only be fully appreciated in 300-word chunks; a ferocious ambition to outperform every other writer, every other voice out there, and to make the art of fiction central to his generation's consciousness; and finally, a great, bottomless whirlpool of self-consciousness that snares all his characters and his own marvelous talent into its screaming centripetal vortex.
This self-consciousness is the inescapable theme of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, Wallace's new book of 23 fictions, some of which are Kafkaesque fables, some post-Borgesian experiments, and others classic hypertrophied (plug in Wallace adjective here) monologues that Spalding Gray would envy. Now, self-consciousness has a long, ill-starred history in our literature. About the last person to have thought it was a particularly good thing is probably Hegel, and that was in the second decade of the 19th century. Thomas Carlyle called it the "disease of our age"; Nietzsche and D.H. Lawrence thought that it kept us from full presence of existential being or "blood-consciousness." John Barth tried to turn the self-consciousness of the writer to advantage by abandoning what he considered an exhausted representational literature and concentrating instead on the creative process itself—thus giving birth to metafiction. Philip Roth's Zuckerman novels are painstaking examples of the turns of the screw that result: writing about writing, then writing about writing about writing, on and on, and discovering that there's no endpoint to—and no exit from—all that navel gazing, no more than there is a center to an onion.
Barth and Roth eventually turned away from metafictional strategies to embrace what Barth has called a Literature of Replenishment. The dizzying inward spirals of metafiction seemed themselves to have been exhausted, and so on to newer fictionscapes. Most young American writers followed suit, either returning to straight realism, branching out by writing about underrepresented cultures and subcultures, or imitating the fairly inimitable magical realism of the Latin-American greats. The fiction of self-consciousness—fiction about the peculiar turns of mind of isolated people thinking about their peculiar turns of mind—came to seem, in an age of radical literary politics, just one more example of desperate quietism.
David Foster Wallace has, to put it politely, blown this thinking to hell. He put it most pointedly in an essay a few years ago titled "E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction," in which he made it abundantly clear that self-consciousness—that is, a distanced, ironic stance toward one's own thought, experience and being—is the hallmark of any generation raised on television. Which, by now, is most of us. Anybody who grows up watching thousands of hours of TV—and witnesses, say, thousands of TV kisses—will inevitably compare their own first kiss with those TV kisses and will, in some vital sense, be distant from their own first kiss. Will be, in a way, ironic about their first kiss; will feel not transported or disappointed by the kiss, but rather "transported" or "disappointed," with James Van Der Beek's or Shannen Doherty's image hovering and fuzzying up their own tactile, emotional impressions. And what goes for kisses goes for everything else, from the way one looks in the mirror to the way one dies. What Wallace did in that essay was show that postmodern irony wasn't some elitist response to the latest socioeconomic condition or aesthetic trend, but a populist, understandable if inadequate response to living in a world of information overload. Of course, it's not just TV that creates this self-consciousness; it's the whole culture industry, one that's filled with ostensibly reliable knowledge, giving us the illusion that we understand more than we really do. Nowadays, as one character puts it in Brief Interviews, "supposedly everybody now knows everything about what's really going on underneath all the semiotic codes and cultural conventions, and everybody supposedly knows what paradigms everybody is operating out of, and so we're all as individuals held to be far more responsible . . . since everything we do is now unprecedentedly conscious and informed."
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.)
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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.
There are 10 more stories worth discussing, stories like "Adult World," which is about the way self-consciousness about sexual performance helps ruin a marriage; "Octet," a powerful piece of meta-metafiction that ought to re-energize John Barth about a form he once championed; "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko," a mock-heroic tour de force that uses a bizarre combination of epic conceits and Gen-X demotic code to tell a story about Hollywood; and "On His Deathbed . . .," a boisterously funny story about a father who despises his infant son for being, well, a selfish infant. "Why does no one tell you? Why do all regard it as a blessed event?" he begins; he then goes on to describe in indefatigable detail the unforeseeable trials that await all new fathers.
Wallace is, for my money, the most exciting fiction writer out there at the moment, right on top of the Zeitgeist and more attuned to the formal possibilities of fiction than anyone else. What's more, he is naming the secrets of the generation that is now coming to inherit America's cultural legacy, and so there is no way for it not to listen. He has fully arrived; he is major. And reading him, you realize that the world is more and more (insert adjective here).
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace; Little, Brown. 273 pages. $24 hardcover.