DFW’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, books as memory objects, etc.


On our short walk home from her school yesterday, my darling daughter inquires if we can go to the bookstore. She needs some new Junie B. Jones, she reports. I assent.

This particular bookstore is about a mile away, a big labyrinth of shelves and stacks and strange little closets crammed with books. The owner once kindly estimated to me that the place houses somewhere between one million and two million books, but probably not more than three million books. The place is a hive, or better yet a brain. An archive.

On this warmish January afternoon, a coverless paperback wedged and warped keeps the front door propped open. My daughter doesn’t dally, fetching up a bevy of Ms. Jones’ adventures (and the third volume of Ivy + Bean to boot: “It’s Ivy “plus” Bean, not Ivy “and” Bean, her graceful correction).

We have a few minutes before we need to pick up my son, so I do a fairly regular patrol about the premises, looking for a copy of Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies for a colleague. No dice. And, out of weird old habits, go past the last shelf, where Vollmann’s underattended tomes rest near David Foster Wallace novels, always depleted. I like to look at the new covers, I guess.

Well so and anyway, I spied a pristine hardcover copy of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, clearly never read, and thought, Oh hey, this must be a first edition. Which it was and Oh hey you don’t need this book.


There is nothing rare or especially valuable about a first hardback U.S. edition of Hideous Men. The store is selling it for half of the publisher’s recommended price, but I have more than enough credit (thanks unsolicited review copies!) to pick it up. Which I do. Despite of course already owning it in the far more flexible trade paperback edition (first edition!) inscribed by some of the dearest damn friends who gave it to me for a birthday, an edition I reread memorably over a few weeks in Italy, an edition warped by strange moistures (I’d love to pretend the warping arose from the salty splash of the ancient Mediterranean but my own body sweat is a far more likely culprit).


Brief Interviews is my favorite collection of David Foster Wallace stories. The stories here are much better than those in his first collection, Girl with Curious Hair (which, the first DFW I read, has a special place in my gizzards), and though there’s nothing here that can touch the best moments of Oblivion (“The Suffering Channel” and “Good Old Neon”), the collection is cohesive, propulsive, engaging, its longer pieces punctuated by blips and vignettes. Here is the first selection, “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”:

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed very 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.

So I picked up the hardback first edition, realizing that what I really wanted (in addition to this edition that I didn’t and don’t really need) was the copy that I read in college, the copy I borrowed from UF’s Library West (I’ll pay you $10,000 if you can think of a better library name, which you can’t), a flat brown squashed brick—-I must’ve been one of the first to read it, this was in ’99 or early ’00—I checked it out three times and then I had to return it. I ripped off “Adult World (I)” and “Adult World (II)” (these are actually the same story, but…) for a project in some bullshit class I was taking at the time, some class called Post-Historical Visual Culture or some other such nonsense—I didn’t rip off the plot, but the structure, the whole narrative/outline thing that Wallace did there. (My story was about a geneticist trying to clone a son or maybe someone to love, I can’t recall, shudder to recall…And why was I turning in a story and not an essay?!).

Why do I want the very edition that I first read, Dewey’s decimals imprinted on its drab jacketless spine? Why do I want an object that proclaims first, first, first, even though I don’t need it—why the compulsion? And then the sentimental compulsion to keep a less sturdy paperback version just because my name is incribed in itjust because I recall so vividly shaving my beard in Minori in Amalfi after reading “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko” and realizing that Oh my god this story is fucking terrible, DFW, I get what you’re doing, but my god. 

A book is a memory object, a placeholder, a bookmark for the memory of the reading experience, because we don’t remember what we read, not really. I have a few novels committed to memory (more or less) through yearly rereading, through teaching, but on the whole the details fade, the misremembering opens to misreading. My dream is to disband all of my books, march them out into the world, my memory secure, transcendent, stable, eternal, etc.—the objects gone, their dusty physicality imprinted in some psychic library of the soul. But I don’t believe in my dream, and even though I dig e-books, they don’t shock my memory in the same way that old pressed leaves do. So I live with these guys, nestled together unnecessarily, necessarily so.


“Brief Interview #30” — David Foster Wallace


B.I. #30 03-97 DRURY UT

‘I have to admit it was a big reason for marrying her, thinking I wasn’t likely going to do better than this because of the way she had a good body even after she’d had a kid. Trim and good and good legs—she’d had a kid but wasn’t all blown out and veiny and sagged. It probably sounds shallow, but it’s the truth. I’d always had this major dread of marrying some good-looking woman and then we have a kid and it blows her body out but I still have to have sex with her because this is who I’ve signed on to have sex with the whole rest of my life. This probably sounds awful, but in her case it was like she was pre-tested—the kid didn’t blow her body out, so I knew she’d be a good bet to sign on and have kids with and still try to have sex. Does that sound shallow? Tell me what you think. Or does the real truth about this kind of thing always sound shallow, you know, everybody’s real reasons? What do you think? How does it sound?’

“Brief Interview #30” by David Foster Wallace. From  Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.


David Foster Wallace Reads “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”

The audiobook of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men came out almost a year after its author, David Foster Wallace killed himself, which kinda sorta makes it strange to hear his voice read some of these tales. Here’s Wallace reading “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,” a short short short story. As far as audiobooks goes, this collection is fantastic. There’s a great cast here, and the actors, including Bobby Canavale, Will Forte, Christopher Meloni, John Krasinski (who adapted the book into a film which I’ve, despite having had a pirate copy for several months, been too afraid to watch) intuit Wallace’s work and communicate its humor, pathos, and subtlety. The biggest treat though is hearing Wallace’s voice again.

Essential Short Story Collections: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men


Properly describing David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men involves using all of those words that I hate to see in any book review: “radiates,” “pathos,” “poignancy,” “gut-busting laughs,” “existential crises of identity in the post-modern world,” and so on. Now that I have them out of the way, let me tell you why you should read this book: it will make you laugh, it will make you cry. Out loud. After you read it, you will want to press it on other people, who will say, “Yeah, sure, okay”; only their eyes’ will be slightly-slanted, their mouths just a bit crooked, even their nose will appear askew at your demand. They will hurriedly change the subject–you’ve already foisted so many unwanted books on them, and who even has time to read now?–but you will persevere! “Here,” you’ll say, “Read “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”–it’s only two paragraphs! You can read the whole thing in under a minute!”:

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 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.

And, as they finish reading, you’ll beam at them and nod your head knowingly. They’ll look a little confused, perhaps bored. “It’s like an overture, see? It’s like, about loss, the inability to connect, the masks we wear to hide our hideousnessnesses.” Your victim will nod politely and begin to bring up an interesting thing he saw on the local news concerning pet ownership, but you’ll cut him off before he can get out of this. “Check out the “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” sections that permeate the book–they’re like little vignettes, interviews where you only get the interviewee’s responses. They’re funny, shocking sad–they’re really good! Also, check out my favorites– “Adult World (I)” and “Adult World (II)”–these stories are about a wife who it turns out doesn’t really know her husband at all. Just read the beginning– ”

For the first three years, the young wife worried that their lovemaking together was somehow hard on his thingie. The rawness and tenderness and spanked pink of the head of his thingie. The slight wince when he’d enter her down there. The vague hot-penny taste of rawness when she took his thingie in her mouth–she seldom took him in her mouth, however; there was something about it that she felt he did not quite like.

“See?” you’ll demand uncaringly of your now-obviously exasperated detainee, “See? Sex! It’s got sex in it! Everyone loves to read about sex, especially weird awkward sex!” Your victim will now stand up, feigning the need to visit the restroom. But you won’t let him go that easily! “There’s another series of running vignettes that unify the book’s structure, making its sum more than just a collection of previously-published stories–check out a selection from one of the “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders” series”–

“Don’t love you no more.”

“Right back at you.”

“Divorce your ass.”

“Suits me.”

“Except now what about the doublewide.”

“I get the truck is all I know.”

“You’re saying I get the doublewide you get the truck.”

“All I’m saying is that truck out there’s mine.”

“Then what about the boy.”

“For the truck you mean?”

Your poor visitor is now literally walking away from you, ignoring the book in your hands, yet still somehow politely smiling–though only with his mouth–his hard eyes show how much he hates you right now. As he retreats to the toilet, your feelings hurt, you comfort yourself by declaring that he doesn’t read anyway; besides, he wouldn’t be able to figure out that “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko” was a retelling of both the Tristan and Isolde and Narcissus and Echo stories, set in Hollywood; he wouldn’t appreciate the book’s themes of child-abuse, repressed (false?) memories, and lost love. Philistine.

When he comes out of the bathroom you chit-chat a little more and then he’s ready to go. He holds his hand out toward the book. He wants to borrow the book. He wants to take your book. Oh shit. What have you done?


Believe it or not, that dude who plays “Jim” from The Office is directing a movie version of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, scheduled to come out later this year.

You can read the first part of this series here.