Saturday, January 30, 2016

Brief Interviews with Hideous MenBrief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The way she concluded that something was wrong with her was: either something was really wrong with her, or something was wrong with her for irrationally worrying about whether something was wrong with her."

Another difficult review to write as I feel passionate about the book, both about its greatness and its shortcomings, but lack the tools to convey my passion with. David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) is a magnificent literary work, marred by overlong, repetitive, and self-indulgent fragments. Obviously I feel ridiculous criticizing an accomplished writer, yet I truly believe that in this work he frequently loses control over his prose and lacks economy of expression.

Brief Interviews might be called a collection of short stories if not for the fact that many parts of the set are not stories at all: the author himself calls them "short belletristic pieces". A substantial portion of the book is composed of interviews - as promised in the title - in which we only follow the answers provided by the patients, but the questions asked by a psychologist or psychoanalyst are left to be guessed at. Instead of a summarizing review I will offer a few thoughts about the pieces that I love and the ones that I had to struggle with to finish reading.

The set has a stunning opener: the piece called "A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life" contains only 79 words, and takes less than a quarter of a page. These brilliant five sentences read like poetry. Another outstanding short story, "Suicide as a Sort of Present" - one of the last pieces in the book - on mere three pages tells so much about the mother-son relationship, while managing to avoid cheap elucidation and forcing the reader to think.

"The Depressed Person" is a masterpiece of a story about a terminally self-obsessed woman who finds the roots of her depression in the one-upmanship (and one-upwomanship) games of her divorced parents who used the daughter's orthodontic treatment as a means to show that one cared for her more than the other. The story is masterfully written in professional psychoanalytic jargon, and it makes me angry to realize that millions of people have been severely damaged in life by succumbing to psychotherapy.

While the piece entitled "Signifying Nothing" reveals deeper layers of father-son relationship, it is also extremely funny. Many interviews are absolutely hilarious: I will just mention a story about a malformed body part (no, not that one) serving as a "pussy magnet", or about the bondage exercises - with the use of double-slip knots and the works - that lead to rather unexpected climax. On the other hand, I find "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko", despite all its clever puns and word plays, and "On His Deathbed [...]", another contemplation of the father-son relationship, unbearably long and virtually unreadable.

The short story "Forever Overhead" resonates with me as strongly as anything I have read in my entire life. The story describes - on just eight pages - how a boy celebrating his thirteenth birthday approaches the pool jumping tower, climbs it, and jumps. The reason for my total fascination with the story is that when I was a teenager - and before I found out that I had no writing talent - I had wanted to write a short story where taking a jump from a tower into an emptied pool was a metaphor for coming of age.

To sum up, Brief Interviews is a seriously flawed masterpiece: awesome, extraordinary literature mixed with insufferably self-indulgent prose.

Four stars.

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