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I know I've read three?! books now and not posted about any of them (Earthly Powers, Dhalgren, Fifty Shades of Grey) and now I'm talking about David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Because I'm reading it now and it's ehhh well it's DFW. DFW is a big deal. It's just how it is. That being said I don't have to like him, and in many ways I don't. I appreciate his essays. His fiction also becomes much like reading an essay, in that he's made an art of the self-referential writer-confiding-in-the-reader-about-writing as he goes. Everything is excess, is information, is giving too much and describing more and giving you options and showing you what he's doing. A desparate, self-conscious, writing for approval. His fiction is quite good, actually, and sometimes (oftentimes) I wish it were left to work its magic effect on the reader without his over-analyzing it for us. The best example of this is Adult World (pg 161). Fiction can have these very simple, very descriptive moments like:

She sometimes had bad dreams in which they were driving someplace together and every single other vehicle on the road was an ambulance.

This is what fiction does well: gives you details that are not, in and of themselves, telling the reader what to think, but provide an insight to the character's experience. We have fear, we have the symbol of the car, we have a mode of transportation, the sensation of speed and distance passing by quickly that compresses time, and the distance from the master bedroom to Adult World all laid out as a journey fraught with injury and danger, like the marriage itself.

And then you have this piece of fiction in (I) augmented in (II) with:

1c. Flat narr description of J.'s sudden pallor & inability to hold decaf steady as J. undergoes sddn blndng realization that husband is a Secret Compulsive Masturbator & that insomnia/yen is cover for secret trips to Adult World to purchase/view/masturbate self raw to XXX films & images & that suspicions of hsbnd's ambivalence about 'sexlife together' have in fact been prescient intuitions & that hsbnd has been clearly suffering from inner defecits/psychic pain of which J.'s own self-conscious anxieties have kept her from having any real idea [point of view (1c) all objective, exterior desc only].

Okay, I get it. It's metafiction, and this is what metafiction does. It's no longer about doing good writing, because there is plenty of good writing out there. It's writing about the act of writing good writing. How do you write a scene well? How do you structure a story so the audience sees it the way you want? How does POV, epiphany, character desc, etc, fit into this? If you go by the definition of "good writing doesn't draw attention to itself" you're missing the point. DFW lives [or not? RIP] to draw attention to the act of writing. Maybe he really is [was, RIP] a crazily insecure guy who needs to put those insecurities about writing into writing, and since he was also very smart and did it in a new, novel way, hit that sweet spot in metafiction popular culture where people became interested in this expounding-on-writing-as-you-write phenomenon.

And he's a very god writer. He is. There's no arguing with it. He has the most distinctive voice of any writer popular in the last few years; if you're reading DFW you know it. You spend time looking up words you don't know. You consider the relationship between reader and writer, and between writer and subject, in ways other books don't make you think about. It's important to read DFW.

That being said, oh god, this book. I woke up really content that I had three hours to sit inside listening to rain drip from the eaves, drink Earl Grey, and read from the couch, only pausing to listen to thunder. And I put the book down disgusted, insecure, upset, and feeling claustrophobic. If you read books to escape, to get out of your life, don't, dear god don't read DFW. Unless you want to become insecure, self-obsessed, repressed, and feel worse about humanity. He writes about horrible people--and admittedly the title is Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, maybe other books are better, but from what I've read of them, I get a sinking feeling not--and he writes about them compassionately. He describes shame so it is understandable, so you see it encroaching, describes depression and how easily it slips up on you, describes the selfish, mean, petty emotions of hideous people. I have to admit when I got the interview about rape I became uncomfortable, and when I got to "To know that another human being, these guys, can look at you lying there and in the totally deepest way understand you as a thing...as just a hole to shove a Jack Daniel's bottle in so far it blows out your kidneys--"
I stopped reading.

There are things you can and can't read and this is personal for everyone. I want to read and enjoy DFW, I really do. I think he has important things to say, says them in an interesting way, and has started an entire trend of writing (footnotes, oh god, footnotes) in modern fiction that is worth studying and perhaps even emulating (thought not to the extent it's been emulated). But if I have to read these books at the expense of my own sanity and mental health, I'm not sure it's worth it.


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March 2013


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