THERE'S AN UNWRITTEN rule of contemporary commercial fiction that in order for a novel to be successful, the author must create at least one "likable" character with whom the reader can identify or sympathize. This may in turn create a likable image for the author, garnering love and acceptance (measured in sales) from the book-buying public. To give a recent example, even Thomas Harris' gruesome bestseller Hannibal turns its murderous, cannibalistic protagonist into a fairly likable guy by pitting him against an adversary even more reprehensible than he is.
This mass desire for likable characters infuses not only the book publishing world, but the rest of the pop culture landscape (see Forced Hollywood Happy Ending for evidence). Based solely upon this criteria, David Foster Wallace's darkly cynical new short story collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men -- which displays a blatant disregard for anything remotely likable -- will undoubtedly send many readers racing back to their favorite feel-good books for reassurance that life can't really be as bad as Wallace would have us believe.
The young author's last novel, Infinite Jest (1996), was a brilliant and gargantuan (at 1,100 pages) elucidation of life, philosophy and infotainment culture at the end of the century. It had critics falling over themselves to proclaim him one of the brightest stars of a young, hip literary vanguard, not to mention what one critic described as "this generation's James Joyce." Needless to say, expectations were high for his latest effort; and while not the culturally defining "event" of his last book, Brief Interviews confirms Wallace's reputation as an immensely talented, versatile and fearless writer who appears to be delving ever deeper into the realm of experimentally non-commercial literature. His collection of short stories scales down the scope of the novel, focusing attention on human relationships and emotional discontent as filtered through a deeply subversive artistic sensibility determined to push the boundaries of traditional narrative fiction.
An almost overwhelming sense of loneliness serves as the connective tendon between the stories in Brief Interviews. Wallace creates a dark world populated by alienated characters whose self-destructive impulses and greedy emotionalism often render them unlikable, even as they struggle for self-awareness. In "The Depressed Person" (winner of a 1999 O. Henry prize), we meet a woman whose complete self-absorption in her own ravenous depression leads her to inadvertently inflict shocking acts of callousness on the loved ones who comprise her "support network." Here, Wallace deftly skewers the self-help industry by giving his heroine a mind-numbing vocabulary of pop-psych jargon that ultimately distances her even further from her true emotions. In "Adult World," a young newlywed's raging sexual insecurities lead her to a depressing dependence on sex toys and joyless, addictive self-pleasuring. In "The Father," a man on his death bed bitterly recounts his venomous hatred for his son, railing against a world that cannot see the "evil" lurking in the seemingly innocent young man.
In this troubled world of the lonely and the damned, people are denied even the humanity of individual names; Wallace instead assigns them descriptive labels (i.e. "The Wife," "The Father," and in one story, "X" and "Y") to evoke a society of people who possess the tools for positive self-reflection, but not the emotional maturity to use them.
Binding these stories together is a series of mock interviews with the hideous men of the book's title. Questioned about their views on love, sex and relationships, these truly repugnant individuals reveal an uncomfortably insightful view of the kinds of sexual charades and posturing men often use to veil their secret desire to form real connections: from the misogynistic, one-armed man who uses his "deformity" to trick sympathetic women into sleeping with him, to the toxic lothario whose ruthless pick-up techniques are chillingly paralleled with those of a serial killer/rapist. Elsewhere, a pair of loquacious grad students' head-spinning deconstruction of the "post-feminist, postmodern" woman reveals their deep confusion between real and theoretical women. These hideous men are pawns in Wallace's scheme to uncover the tattered melancholy behind these obscured sexual ideologies.
While this deluge of emotionally crippled characters and their nasty behavior may seem on the surface to be utter misanthropy masquerading as hip cynicism, Wallace's deep sympathy for the plights of his "unlikable" characters mitigates the darkness and reveals an author very concerned with the tenuous state of humanity in a desensitized world. Always a funny writer, Wallace also manages to inject a healthy dose of black humor into the bleak proceedings, in the form of such characters as the penis-wagging father in "Signifying Nothing," who can't seem to recall interrupting his son's TV watching with his peculiar predilection.
While his characters may be twisted, Wallace conveys true joy in his exhilarating experimental writing style. One of the most adept practitioners of the postmodern meta-fiction style (which arose in the 1960s under the auspices of such writers as William Gaddis), Wallace hurls the increasingly familiar structure into brave new worlds. The language in Brief Interviews crackles with invention and surprise, giving each story its own stylistic voice. Zinging from prose poetry to faux classical mythology to journalistic reportage to stream of consciousness, this is the kind of writing that thumbs its nose at convention and challenges readers to embrace the cognitive whiplash caused by Wallace's warp speed inventiveness.
Throughout, Wallace displays a keen self-awareness of the constructed nature of fiction, continually drawing attention to the writing process itself. By presenting one piece ("Adult World II") entirely in the form of his own personal story notes, he questions the writer's obligation to satisfy his/her audience by shaping abstract ideas into recognizable narrative patterns. In an essay on literary theory, disguised as fiction ("Octet"), he audaciously deconstructs the whole concept of self-aware meta-fiction, in effect becoming his own meta-critic.
By calling into question the conventions of likable characters and smooth narrative structures, Wallace forces readers to confront their own prejudices in selecting fiction; and like a true postmodernist, he challenges their relationship to the text. In a publishing industry increasingly dominated by formulaic safe-bets, kamikaze writers like Wallace, who take chances that may make them commercially "hideous" authors, is not only exciting but vital for the evolution of literature as an art form rather than mere commodity. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Wallace predicted that a commercial market for his kind of fiction will soon no longer exist. Let's hope he's just being cynical.