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Mostly good with a few exceptions
on December 26, 2000
"Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" is the sort of collection that comes out only after an author has already achieved a reasonable amount of fame and success. It is a book where an author who has received critical praise for previous works can sell a book primarily on the value of his name, not necessarily on the quality of its contents. This isn't meant to imply this book is of no value or is even a bad book. In this reader's opinion, a good 70% of the stories in this work are worthy of publication. It is the other 30% or so that I question whether or not would be deemed deserving of publication if they didn't have David Foster Wallace's name attributed to them as the author.
The stories dealing with the self-absorption and egocentrism of our current therapy & self-help-filled age are both hilarious and frightening. In "The Depressed Person" a woman gets so wrapped up in her own depression that she actually looks at a friend's bout with cancer as a benefit, assuming that her friend, now free from the burdens of having to work, has little better to do with the last months of her life than listen to the sob stories of the title character. Another story concerns a woman so worried about her own sexual ability that she actually is relieved to find out her husband is a porn addict, thinking it means her own fears of sexual inadequacy are unfounded. Sometimes, though, the jokes die out long before the story ends. Towards the end of the book there is a story about a father filled with resentment towards his son, due to the fact that having the son around caused the father to have to share the attention and affection of his wife. What starts off as a funny tale of selfishness and jealousy soon begins to resemble one of those bad "Saturday Night Live" sketches where the same "funny the first time you heard it" joke gets repeated over and over again ad nauseam. . The title pieces, the "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men", which are interspersed throughout the book, are the collections strongest. They provide an insightful look at misogyny and the distorted logic used by many men to justify their poor treatment and attitude towards women. Two men in these interviews, while acknowledging the rape is always undeserving, still try to argue that is can build character in the victim. One man rationalizes his bizarre and deviant sexual behavior by arguing that he never heavily pressures any woman to participate. One man brags to another how he was able to use a woman's fragile emotional state as a tool in his sexual conquest of her. I have to tip my hat to Wallace, he had me absolutely in stitches with the "Brief Interview" about a young man who goes insane after contemplating the drastic universal implications of his sexual fantasy (a fantasy involving the temporary stoppage of time, a la Samantha from "Bewitched").
As a reader, I can deal with, and even enjoy some of Wallace's eccentricities (his constant, but almost always entertaining footnotes, his concluding one story with a plot outline for the remainder of the story instead of the ending itself). At times, though, you almost want Wallace's IQ to drop a few points, because he can occasionally get too clever for his own good. For the life of me, I couldn't tell you what the stories "Church Not Made with Hands" or "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko" are supposed to be about. I am willing to accept the possibility these stories were simply over my head, however, Wallace would be wise to realize that the quality of a story does not increase in direct proportion to how few people understand it. There is more than enough good stuff in this book to make it worth recommending, but I wouldn't worry too much about reading it all the way through. The few stories that don't seem promising at the outset don't get any better as they go on.