Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace \ Short Shorts (Exclusively) from "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men"

And now, the best micro-story that you'll ever read:

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 he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never know, after all, now did one now did one now did one.

This is the page-zero opener of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, entitled "A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life." Consider this the follow-up to Girl with Curious Hair's "My Appearance," in which although sincerity has long been shown the door, we soldier on with grim humor. These two potential lovers don't talk about themselves: if they did, they might not be liked, even if it can only be the appearance of being liked (considering that, not actually knowing anything about one another, there is nothing to like). And there's something funny and sad in saying "She laughed extremely hard," for laughter should be free, not forced. As they leave, alone, focused entirely on their own narrow strips of pavement, we can imagine their faces twisted up into a smile and down into a frown. And, of course, the kicker: even the man who introduced them doesn't like them; will we ever be able to take anything at face-value again? [100/100]

This is a recurring theme for Wallace, and it leads to the identically titled stories, "The Devil Is a Busy Man." The first sums up suspicion by relating an anecdote about a man who finds it difficult to give things away until he decides to try selling, instead, for "bargain" prices. ("And they'd be skittery about it too and their face all closed up like at cards and they'd walk around the thing and poke at it with their toe and go Where'd you all get it at what's the matter with it how come you want shed of it so bad.") Though Craigslist has made it easier to find less-picky scavengers, it still looks like we feel better ripping someone off than getting charity (that's why they call it a "steal"): yeah, we're pretty evil.

This point is cemented in the second story, in which a man has done a good deed for someone else, and now struggles to avoid telling them -- or us -- about it, as a selfless act requires anonymity. By the end of the story, he realizes that while not being specific, he has been implicitly seeking gratitude -- whether it's unconscious (as he claims) or not, he comes to this conclusion:

I showed an unconscious and, seemingly, natural, automatic ability to both deceive myself and other people, which, on the "motivational level," not only completely emptied the generous thing I tried to do of any true value, and caused me to fail again, in my attempts to sincerely be what someone would classify as truly a "nice" or "good" person, but, despairingly, cast me in a light to myself which could only be classified as "dark," "evil," or "beyond hope of ever sincerely becoming good."

These still aren't "stories" as much as they are "readable philosophy lessons," but to that end, they're crisper and more effective than the "Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders" series, particularly in the way Wallace so perfectly vocalizes a moralizer's thought-process, working toward an inescapable truth about man even as he tries to fly away from it. It is sad enough that it is so hard to trust another person; but to live with the idea that it may be impossible to trust even our own actions as being anything more than selfish? (No wonder knowledge, that damned apple, is said to be a curse.) [69/100]

I don't mind the lack of character in these stories, or rather, the way in which "character" has been internalized so that the readers can see what happens when they test these thoughts in their own brains. But if you then can't get into the narrator's head, it's not just the logic that breaks: the story falls apart as well. That's what happens with "Think," which seems to be daring the reader to figure out what the man is thinking as the woman -- his wife's former roommate's younger sister -- frees her breasts and, striking poses from Victoria's Secret catalogs and replaying seduction scenes from films, approaches him. "It's not what you think I'm afraid of," he finally says, having fallen to his knees to pray, so we know that it's not because of the images of his wife and child flashing through his head. We'll never know, because Wallace wants us to imagine what it would be like to stand in this man's shoes; he purposefully omits details and information in the hopes that we will flex our mental muscles and think, perhaps to empathize, perhaps to not. But as he's shown in his other work, without such an obvious gimmick, there are ways for him to tell a story and make us think, so there's little positive I can really say about this exercise, no matter how vivid certain parts may be. [16/100]

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