It’s not easy to explain David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, especially to a co-worker or a parent, or your wife or your wife’s friend.
First you have to tell them about the format. Yes: there are brief interviews. But you don’t hear the questions and you don’t know who is doing the interviewing or why. It’s best, you explain, to think of it as a collection of short stories—and there are some plain old stories in there. But then you have to try to successfully relate what happens in the “plain old stories” about the poet and the kid on the high dive, which again, is not easy.
You might try saying something like, “There’s one story ‘The Depressed Person’ that amazed me, because it starts as this sympathetic portrait of someone struggling with the genuine misery of depression, but it slowly shifts until, before you know it you’re taking this pitiless look at the narcissism and selfishness of this person, and the self-serving, self-help jargon that enables her. And what’s really something is that in the end it manages to be both sympathetic and pitiless.” It might not work to follow that up by saying, even though you are impressed by it, “The other funny thing is, ‘The Depressed Person’ is one of the most annoying things I’ve ever read, but mostly because it’s so well written it’s like actually being in the room with a really annoying selfish person. Except for the sympathetic part. Which is sad in retrospect, knowing what the author struggled with.” That last bit will also require explanation, if they aren’t already aware, which prompts that face people tend to make when you suggest they might like an author who has committed suicide.
This may or may not be the best time to tell them that there are some very long footnotes.
You’ll want to tell them that Brief Interviews does in fact have some very straightforward stuff that goes beginning to middle to end, but even those can be pretty wildly experimental. Like the one about the insecure wife that starts normal but then breaks down into what seems like the draft of a script for a movie or TV show. Or the one about the painter, which is a crushingly sad story—but you don’t want to say why because it’s best to see it slowly take shape out of a softly-smudged and beautiful kind of impressionistic style that you never figured Wallace was capable of until you saw him master it. Try reassuring them that stories still get told, and that the book is not one of those things that people like to wave their hands and call “mental masturbation.” That’s when you realize, however, that maybe you shouldn’t be recommending the book to your co-worker or your wife’s friend knowing that it frequently mentions actual masturbation, as well as a variety of odd erotic behaviors, callous sexual and emotional manipulation, more than one instance of rape, vivid descriptions of bathroom activity and bodily fluids and something awful with a Jack Daniels bottle.
Note that if you mention all of that stuff it gets harder to explain how the book is actually very funny.
It’s probably best to stick to that point about “mental masturbation,” and explain that to “enjoy” this kind of experimental fiction—which can seem hostile to people who “just read for fun” and can feel like it’s just for cynical crowds who say you must not “get it” if you don’t like it—is actually to invert that cynicism. To be willing to have fun reading someone who wants to tell a story but is trying to do that in a new and interesting way. The trick is not to raise a cynicism against old fiction but to drop the cynicism to new fiction, and approach it with a sort of childlike wonder and joy.
If you get that far, though, you might add that the word “joy” is not one you would necessarily use to describe the book. Try explaining all this while wondering to yourself if you give David Foster Wallace a pass because it’s such, like, a thing to discuss his books and be seen reading them on the bus.
If you’re talking to the right person, you could point out that Brief Interviews is probably one of the greatest explorations of modern heterosexual gender interaction in American literature. If they’re not into that kind of stuff, try just saying that it’s basically two hundred and eighty pages on why the expression “man up” is utter bullshit and why those ads are so terrible. (Be careful if you’ve been drinking here. It could get out of hand.) Try explaining that even though the interviewed men are accurately “hideous” they aren’t that different from people you probably know. It’s more like how we are all pretty hideous on a daily basis. Make sure to say that they shouldn’t watch the movie first but should try it out afterward.
Try explaining it like this: “If you don’t read it, you will never read anything else like it.” Try explaining what a gift that is. That might work.