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Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and David Foster Wallace

This "self-conscious self-consciousness" (to use an apt phrase from D.T. Max’s postmortem New Yorker profile; it would also apply to the stop-start auto-parsings of several of the more hideous men, all of whom seem to worry that they’re not making themselves clear as well) is the defining element of Wallace's style. Such worries are an authentic part of the process of communication and understanding, which are the defining elements of Wallace's content: hideous men who can't relate to women, say. Wallace dives headlong into subjectivity to demonstrate the near-impossibility, and absolute necessity, of compassion for others. In his famous Kenyon College graduation speech, this snuff-dipping Midwesterner tennis fan and philosophy student advised: "everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe ... Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real ... It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self."

At a Wallace tribute last October, Michael Pietsch, who edited Infinite Jest, recalled "David's love affair with the English language" and his scrupulous engagement with the editing process: "ppp. 739–748. I’ve rewritten it — for about the 11th time — for clarity, but I bare teeth all the way back to the 2nd molar on cutting it." Other editors had similar experiences. To Deborah Treisman, at the New Yorker, he wrote: "[I]n some cases I’ve 'taken' [your changes] in a sort of oblique way that’s entailed further small changes around the recommended change …" Dave Eggers recalled: "It wasn't that he was combative, but more that he had thought pretty much everything through, and had good reasons for every comma."

Eggers also recalled, as did almost everyone else, what a nice guy Wallace was — "funny, decent to a fault, and thoroughly unpretentious." In 2003, Eggers interviewed Wallace for the then-newly arrived literary magazine The Believer. The two spoke about Infinity and More, and Wallace's efforts to make math generally accessible (without condescending to either the subject or the reader), and about the descent of American political discourse into mutual enmity and corrupted rhetoric: "Everybody’s pissed off and exasperated and impervious to argument from any other side ... My own belief, perhaps starry-eyed, is that since fictionists or literary-type writers are supposed to have some special interest in empathy, in trying to imagine what it’s like to be the other guy, they might have some useful part to play in a political conversation that’s having the problems ours is."

This is, perhaps, a way back into the Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, works of sympathetic imagination in which Wallace (and, now, a company of actors) channel the voice of another, a voice that may be ignorant, misogynist, perverse, pathetic — or may not, depending on certain extenuating circumstances. "Extenuating circumstances" could mean the information Wallace dispenses (does it change anything if a guy who seems at the outset to be defending rape is himself a rape victim? It's phrased as a rhetorical question, but I don't think it is). But on a more conceptual level the extenuating circumstances could be anything we might imagine about what it would be like to be somebody else (provide that we're "choosing to do the work").

The last Interview, the one Krasinski enacts in his new film, is Wallace's summary of everything that's come before: a precise, empathic description of empathy, of "us[ing] penetrating focus to attempt to feel and empathize with ... psychosis and rage and terror and psychic torment." The vocabulary is technical and precise, the grammar is dense but correct. To revise Zadie Smith's formulation, appreciating nuance in language is how we appreciate nuance in ideas and in people — perhaps nobody understood this interrelationship better than the guy who once wrote a 17,500-word review of several dictionaries. The capacity for "other-directed" concern that eludes The Depressed Person of "The Depressed Person" did not, apparently, elude the depressed person who wrote the story.


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