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Nasty Business

BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN;\o7 By David Foster Wallace; (Little, Brown: 274 pp., $24)\f7

July 18, 1999|JONATHAN LEVI

No, David Foster Wallace's latest book, "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men," is not just a collection of brief interviews, transcribed in Q & A format with the Qs left unasked. Some are just brief stories, observations really, such as the opening, "A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life," which in its entirety reads:

"When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

"The man who'd introduced them didn't much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one."

Question:

Answer: Because brevity is rarely the soul of any of the lively works that Wallace has begotten over the last dozen years, including the gargantuan 1,000-plus-paged "Infinite Jest," it is worth remarking upon when he does achieve it. One of the best stories in the new collection, "Think," twists a brief adulterous tussle between a man and his sister-in-law into a moment of impotent prayer and spiritual emptiness in under two pages. "Her brassiere's snaps are in the front," the story begins. "His own forehead snaps clear. He thinks to kneel. But he knows what she might think if he kneels."

Q:

A: It's not that I prefer Wallace when he's brief. I know that his infinite sentences give joy and countless hours of pleasure to more than just those delicate souls who enjoy singing the complete lyrics of "American Pie" or reciting from memory Lucky's speech from "Waiting for Godot" at office Christmas parties. It's just that Wallace can create a beauty in those few sentences, an excitement, a sense of strangeness that often gets lost in the barrage of information and detail in which he more typically wallows.

Q:

A: Just look at the 100 pages of footnotes to "Infinite Jest," the obsession with information. Forget about comparisons with James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon. Wallace is the Greg Rusedski of information, serving data at speeds exceeding 149 miles per, whether in the voice of dysfunctional tennis player Hal Incandenza of "Infinite Jest," or the Jeopardy queen Julie Smith in Wallace's gem of a short story "Little Expressionless Animals" from "Girl With Curious Hair." At his best, Wallace, like his fictional Julie, "not only kicks facts in the ass" but "informs trivia with import--makes it human, something with the power to emote, evoke, induce, cathart."

Q:

A: At his worst--take the story "Datum Centurio," in which Wallace extends ad nauseam a one-liner about how, 100 years from now, the word "date" will include the kind of techno-genetic jargon one currently associates with computer manuals and certain rap songs. Or worse still, consider "The Depressed Person," which details in about 30 pages, with the footnoted precision of a small-bore tattooing needle, the therapeutic history of a young, depressed woman.

Q:

A: At the book's heart are the brief interviews themselves, answers to unheard questions, featuring the kind of guys you'd find in a pool hall in Rhode Island or a play by David Mamet. They talk about pick-up strategies (one man calls his thalidomide-wizened arm "The Asset"), they talk about their fathers. They give lame excuses to their girlfriends. Some interviews are gross, some hilarious, like the one with the fellow with a taste for tying up his dates, who compares his ability to tell which women will go for it to the semi-mystical occupation of chicken-sexing. Above all, in descriptions of sexual perversity in Appleton, Fort Dodge and a dozen other cities, the men rationalize hideous behavior.

Q:

A: I dunno. This is a five-set book, no question. Ultimately, I'd have to say that Wallace wins the last set 13-11, like Jim Courier in that endless third-round Wimbledon match with an unseeded Dutchman. But it's frustrating to watch such a two-fisted master of the American language as Wallace hit as many unforced errors as aces.

Q:

A: Sure, he's the winner. Which means, of course, the reader is the loser.

Q:

A: I mean "loser," not just in the sense of getting lost in the rococo roundelay of footnotes and sentences that volley for hours, like a Steffi Graf-Venus Williams forehand-fest.

Q:

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