The Incredible Shrinking Jest: Wallace Makes More With Less

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men , by David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown & Company, 273 pages, $24.

It’s a lovely title, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men , and also unlikely: as if anything from the pen of David Foster Wallace, the profligate Wunderkind who gave us 1,079 pages of Infinite Jest could ever be brief. Mr. Wallace has a pause button (he’s famous for his footnotes) but no mute, no stop, no off. Or that’s what I thought till now.

This new collection of short fiction proves that the 36-year-old Mr. Wallace, who is now known in knee-jerk blurb-mode as the major talent of his generation, can do it all, even brevity: The first item, a bitter little ditty, weighs in at less than 100 words; none of the stories bulks up to more than 30 pages. This is Mr. Wallace lean and mean, bantamweight, light on his feet, quick with his hands.

Scratch that. The boxing riff is too macho; it suggests kinship with hideous men. Say instead that Mr. Wallace has mastered the art of “focus”–that’s the term used in one of these stories by a young woman, a “Granola Cruncher,” a devotee of an imported, “apostrophe-heavy” religion. By “focus,” she means a kind of prayerful soul-to-soul connection that involves “intense concentration further sharpened and intensified to a single sharp point … a kind of needle of concentrated attention whose extreme thinness and fragility were also … its capacity to penetrate.” (This in a story about rape.)

In most of Brief Interviews , Mr. Wallace uses his “focus” to penetrate the souls of hideous men. It’s painful and often funny and very often hugely impressive and achieves, amazingly, exactly what the granola-crunching young woman promised: Piercing layers of irony, self-consciousness, fear, hostility, neurosis and plain old stupidity–piercing, in short, the “insoluble flux” of the conscious self (what Wallace Stevens called “the evilly compounded, vital I”), Mr. Wallace touches “the beauty and nobility of the generic human soul,” a quick glimpse of common humanity in every grotesque. When he parrots new age nostrums, he’s indulging his fascination with jargon; it’s not a sign of insincerity. What he wants to get at is “some sort of weird ambient sameness in different kinds of human relationships”–sounds better, doesn’t it, in his own edgy, pop pedant voice? He lets us know, in meta-mode, that he feels a “queer urgency ” about all this. It’s catching.

There are all manner of stories in this collection: a footnote-heavy, maddening descent into the hall-of-mirrors unhappiness of a woman obsessed with her mental health (“The Depressed Person”); an elliptical, arty tone-poem (“Church Not Made with Hands”); an aborted “cycle of very short belletristic pieces,” transformed, mid-cycle, into a metafictional meditation on the difficulty of what “you, the fiction writer” are trying to achieve (“Octet”). Tying it all together are the “Brief Interviews” themselves, 18 encounters parceled out in four sections, each encounter carefully labeled and dated (“B.I. #72 08-98, North Miami Beach, FL,” for example), as though they’d been plucked from a vast archive.

Hideous men come in all colors: physically deformed, psychologically deformed, brutish, smug, arch, conspiratorial. Some stoke subterranean violence. Each reveals himself in his own voice; each registers as real, a bad dream or even a nightmare, and pinching yourself is no escape. A vestigial “Q.” is all that’s left of the questions asked by an anonymous interviewer. The reader sees only the response, which is always performative. The interviewee is conscious of an audience–i.e., the questioner–and thus self-conscious (a state of mind Mr. Wallace has made his specialty), and yet also unconsciously revealing himself. It’s a tough format to work with, which means that every success looks like a tour de force .

Exactly what you think of “B.I. #42 06-97, Peoria Heights, IL,” a son’s cruel exposure of his father’s “career” as a washroom attendant in a grand Midwestern hotel, “the single finest men’s room between the two coasts, surely.” The son dwells obsessively, graphically on the sounds and odors in an “opulent and echoing” space equipped with eight toilets, six urinals and 16 sinks, the room where his father has stood, dressed in “Good-Humor white,” nine hours a day, six days a week, for more than 25 years. The descriptions are minute, unbearably vivid and precise: “The damp lisp of buttocks shifting on padded seats.… The urinal’s ceaseless purl and trickle.” Mr. Wallace makes sure your nostrils are assaulted by the “difference in some men’s odors, the sameness in all men’s odors.”

You soon realize that the hotel washroom (“that miasma”) haunts the son. He hasn’t seen his father in decades but he’s nonetheless scarred by the shame he still feels at the indignity of his father’s work. He’s scarred also by his father’s emotional absence. Hideousness, in this case, begins with an awful occupation: “He showered thrice daily and scrubbed himself raw but the job still followed him.” Followed him home, in fact: “The face he wore in the men’s room. He couldn’t take it off.” Whence (we deduce) the son’s appalling condition–fitting punishment, perhaps, for having turned his back on the afflicted paterfamilias. Now the son is condemned to hear in his head a concert of “flatus and tussis and meaty splats.” But remember: In back of this inherited hideousness is our biological “sameness,” the human inevitability of excrement. The son, desperate to detach himself from the father, draws closer. “The door tells the whole story. MEN .”

The boy in “Forever Overhead” is not yet a man, though “hard curled hairs” have sprouted around his “privates.” It is his 13th birthday, and at a public pool just west of Tucson, Ariz., he screws up his courage, gets in line and climbs to the top of the tower for the high dive. That’s it. That’s the story: Mr. Wallace leaves him up there on the board, clenched by fear. It sounds slight but it isn’t. The surface shimmer is gorgeous, a shocking accuracy of detail; the suspense, brief and unresolved, had me suffering vertigo; and the resonance (this comes after several readings) compels respect.

Once the boy has decided to jump, he joins a procession of people who climb; “the line … has no reverse gear.” He’s stuck, and you’re with him, climbing every rung on the tower’s ladder. “The rungs are very thin. It’s unexpected. Thin round iron rungs laced in slick wet Safe-T felt.” Pause to admire, please, the echoing beauty of that last sentence. Here’s how it is at the top, for him, and for you: “The rough white stuff of the board is wet. And cold. Your feet are hurt from the thin rungs and have a great ability to feel. They feel your weight.” He is most disturbed (you both are) by the two “dirty spots” at the end of the board: “They are from all the people who’ve gone before you…. They are skin abraded from feet by the violence of the disappearance of people with real weight.… The weight and abrasion of their disappearance leaves little bits of soft tender feet behind, bits and shards and curls of skin that dirty and darken and tan as they lie tiny and smeared in the sun at the end of the board.” And below? “The square tank is a cold blue sheet. Cold is just a kind of hard.”

Happy birthday. And welcome to adulthood, the one-way climb to abrasion and disappearance. If you want reassurance, consider what happens each time a diver’s body hits the “cold blue sheet”: The tank “heals itself.” After each fall a splash, “a great fizzing. Then the silent sound of the tank healing to new blue all over again.”

Well. Now we know he can write short. Let’s just hope he writes for a long, long time.