Seems like a good decade ago. My first exposure to the deeply depressed and fucked up world of David Foster Wallace was his award-winning short story called “Good Old Neon”. A dense, self-defeating, self-pitying monologue that seemed a lot more gripping than it should be. The story doesn’t have much of a plot – just a guy who thinks himself into thinking that he is a fraud. Since this guy is pretty much the author himself (to a large extent in any case), you understand this was the area Wallace didn’t even need to explore. For all his sense of humour and relative success, this was the world he inhabited. Full of hideous men and morose, intense self-deprecation.
It took me some time, as well as Wallace’s untimely death, to get back to the man’s writing. These two books I’m reviewing here, his collection of short stories / sketches titled Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and a set of articles and essays Consider The Lobster, represent two sides of Wallace’s writing: fiction and non-fiction. Although having said that, do they really?..
They say fiction can tell you a lot more about its author than a diary or a memoir can ever hope to. Apparently this is an arguable point, but one very much justified in the case of David Foster Wallace. There isn’t much fictional value in his 1999’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Do not expect conventional short stories with your climaxes and your denouements. Instead, expect wordy and weedy observations stuffed in the minds and mouths of, well, hideous men. Moody, self-obsessed, withdrawn and just flat out disgusting. All, we now understand, deeply rooted in the author’s complexes and fears.
Since Wallace isn’t bothered with giving us memorable or at least half-tangible stories, much of it seems anaemic and doesn’t really stick with you. You may remember certain details or rather exotic agendas which drive these people into sorry and despicable states (here’s a guy whose father works in a urinal; here’s a guy with a stump for an arm and who walks around causing pity in others; here’s a guy who thinks that in the large scheme of things Holocaust may be a good thing, etc.), but there’s only so much ugliness and depression you may take in one go. Chances are, you will get bored. Or maybe you won’t, but in that case you most certainly are the sort of troubled individual Wallace was writing this for.
Why brief Interviews? Well, quite simply, that’s the form Wallace found most fitting to present the personalities of these people. For instance, you have this guy who is full of spite for men who think they know how to please a woman. So what we get is a rather repetitive (and rather annoying) monologue that’s actually a dialogue with no questions voiced. You just know there is a question, and probably an obvious one, but you don’t see it. This sort of format is effective, and allows you to get involved and perhaps even identify with the hideous man in question. Then again, maybe not.
However, my favourite piece here is not an interview but a lengthy, meditative reflection on growing up called “Forever Overhead”. A simple enough metaphor; the author is observing a young girl about to springboard into the swimming pool. It’s a beguiling, transfixing piece, and the way this girl (it’s her thirteenth birthday) is about to be immersed into this hostile and adult world, you get entangled in Wallace’s unassuming, verbose prose.
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is not a great book, but it’s occasionally half amusing to read about a guy who is detestable and knows it. Much like that anonymous author of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground.
Consider The Lobster, on the other hand, is wildly entertaining. None of that depressing, self-imposed misery. And where from? The book is a collection of essays, articles and reviews dealing with issues as diverse and intriguing as lobsters (yes), John McCain and pornography. And the good thing is that the contents are as gripping as the themes that Wallace covers.
Part of the book’s appeal lies in the sheer immediacy of its language. Wallace knows no intellectual restraints, he is just giving it all out – much like a modern day blogger. But with a lot more insight and writing chops.
Every piece manages to be addictive in its own way. It’s touching (“The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” is Wallace’s personal experience of 9/11), cynical (“Up, Simba” is a lengthy account of McCain’s presidential campaign that Wallace was commissioned to write for Rolling Stone), and occasionally quite technical and scientific (his exhaustive review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary Of Modern American Usage). Wallace’s main strength as a non-fiction writer is his ability to find humour or/and appeal in such seemingly dead topics as the Maine Lobster Festival or trashy memoirs of once great sportsmen (in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” the author wanders from Austin’s monosyllabic autobiography to the general problem of sports memoirs).
My favourite essay, though, has to be the one that opens the collection. “Big Red Son”, a totally electrifying article on AVN Awards (sort of Oscars in pornographic film industry). The piece evoked an essay by Martin Amis I once read in Guardian. It was called “A Rough Trade” and it dealt with Amis’s close (too close you might say) experience with American pornographic market. But whereas Amis has successfully explored and exploited the subject in a number of his novels and short stories, Wallace’s writing gives off an appealing odour of innocence and bewilderment (which is only natural). When he calls the Awards “an apocalyptic cocktail party” or “an obscene and extremely well-funded High School assembly”, it’s both hilarious and credible.
“Big Red Son” is a terrific insight into the world inhabited by humourless people with hilarious names. Like critic Dick Filth, for instance. People who nonetheless take the whole pornography thing very seriously indeed. A contrast Wallace makes us enjoy so much.
In the end, you have to admit that it’s precisely non-fiction writing where Wallace excelled. It’s wickedly entertaining pieces on boiling lobsters and adult cinema that disclose his deep, complex, intriguing, insecure personality.