Short story: “Brief Interview #20”

by look i have opinions

“Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” (the title given in The Paris Review) or “B.I. #20” (the title given in the collection) or “Brief Interview #20,” by David Foster Wallace

From The Paris Review, Fall 1997, No. 144 (read here); The Paris Review awarded it the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, recognizing it as the best short story in the magazine that year; collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; read aloud by the author here

10,723 words, counting the “Q.”s

Wonderfully harrowing and a bit bizarre. None of the characters have names. The whole story seems to be more about analysis and memory and storytelling than about the events themselves.

It’s sort of a microcosm of the problem Wallace struggled with (or claimed to be struggling with) in a lot of his fiction: the cerebral cynic who can’t really function without his soul, the painfully earnest naif. Here, the naif is an actual character. We never get to see or hear the “Granola Cruncher” except through the interviewee, which to be honest probably makes her more believable and likable in the role. (Mario Incandenza in Infinite Jest isn’t completely convincing to me, and while I like “Good People,” I think a lot of readers find it patronizing.) It doesn’t hurt that the interviewee is obviously untrustworthy. His cynicism is untrustworthy. His contempt for the Granola Cruncher is untrustworthy, and the reader gets in the habit of trying to see past it. Trying to short-circuit readers’ cynicism by anticipating it is a very common technique in Wallace’s (and others’) writing, probably an overused one, and I’m surprised how effective I find it here.

The main point of all this seems to be the way the interviewee changed in his anecdote. He’s come to believe in love without scare quotes. He changes during the interview too, but at the end his defenses are back up and he degenerates into bitter misogyny, like a lot of Wallace’s hideous men. It’s not clear whether he’s really become a whole person, someone who can be “saved,” or whether he’s kidding himself.

Loose threads:

  • The interviewee claims to know things that the Granola Cruncher didn’t tell him at the time, like the symbol on the rapist-murderer’s forehead and what it meant. I have the impression he saw that symbol in a flash of intuition, because of his affinity with the other man. It’s also possible the G.C. told him that later and we’re meant to infer a relationship. Not sure.
  • The interviewee’s casual use of “mulatto,” followed by a seemingly mindless anti-racist remark—just part of his general cluelessness?
  • What does it mean that he uses the word “irregardless” in the middle of this highly literate-sounding spiel of his? I remember seeing this word in Wallace’s story “Oblivion,” which is also narrated in the first person. There, it seemed to be a way of deflating the extraordinarily pompous narrator slightly (possibly indicating that his voice was a caricature by another character). There’s also “brutally accosted,” meaning assaulted or abducted. I think it must be some kind of running grammar-nerd joke for Wallace.
  • The interviewee also makes what I think is a pointless self-correction (even more reminiscent of “Oblivion”): “And nor can I—and I can’t for the life of me recall whether she ate the sticker, nor what became of the apple at all.” Maybe an example of his compulsion to tailor his language to his audience (as he describes himself doing when picking up the G.C.), in which case he’s not very good at it, at least not with the interviewer.

The Paris Review version adds a subtitle that was removed in the reprinted version that I first read:

#6: E——— on “How and Why I Have Come to be Totally Devoted to S——— and Have Made Her the Linchpin and Plinth of My Entire Emotional Existence”

The mocking/self-mocking note isn’t needed, I don’t think, although the hint of closure is nice. I saw an analysis that suggested the interviewee is himself a rapist-murderer, probably because of lines like “But if you could understand, have I—can you see why there’s no way I could let her just go away after this?” I think it makes more sense to think he’s just an aimless grad student, especially since the interview sounds like it takes place in a bar. Then again, he seems to know a lot about “psychotic sex crimes” and gets slightly defensive about it (“Turn on the news for Christ’s sake”).

Edited to add: Looking back, this post probably owes something to “David Foster Wallace and the Velveteen Rabbit,” an essay written by James Warner and found in the magazine Identity Theory. I forgot having read it but it’s a really enjoyable essay.