Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Dear CF,

I started the evening rereading “Brief Interviews” and felt convicted and abased, recognizing in myself too much of what the Depressed Person says. And you, dear friend, are the beleaguered Support System with whom I (i.e. the depressed person) try constantly to really truly literally “share,” to whom I reach out for a glimmer of connectedness, for whom I try to Be There. To see myself thusly has only exacerbated my isolation-feelings, my anguish, my sense of injury, my feelings of abandonment. I’m nothing but a cracked bundle of need, a pail of neuroses. I think my three therapists would agree.

In that story the therapist dies “without leaving any sort of note or cassette or encouraging final words for any of the persons and/or clients in his life.”

For a moment I fantasized about DFW being my fourth therapist and indulged the ghoulish question that first struck me when I heard about his suicide:

Did he leave a note?

At any rate he left a cassette, and you found it. You’re right. It may be eleven years old, but Charlie Rose’s interview of David Foster Wallace covers 80% of what we’ve talked about, minus the sex. And I mean that literally–every time women appear, it’s a negative for him. He’s unhappy or exasperated with their role in his artistic world, and the feeling seems mutual.

On Unforgiven:

What’s interesting is that I don’t know a single female who likes the film. Females think ‘Western?’ It stinks. And if you can get them to watch it, it’s not a western at all. It’s a moral drama. It’s Henry James, basically. It’s very odd.”

Charlie gets worked up about this, agrees, and adds that this is the greatest rift his girlfriend and he have ever had about a movie.

(And there’s Henry James, king of the tragedy of manners, large as life. In a Western, no less–the one genre he might be least expected to appear in. I may have to watch Unforgiven after all.)

Wallace is even less happy with feminists who interpret the length of his books as having to do the length of his dick. I don’t blame him. First, it’s not true. Secondly, it’s not surprising that he prickles. The stakes of that sort of criticism are higher for him than they are for most. Returning for a moment to the irony of our generation constituting a Demographic, nothing would be quite so humiliating, for the culminating practitioner of a particular brand of artistic self-awareness, than to be found guilty of a truly unconscious influence.

But the dick’s not totally off the table. The Chronicle published an article on “intellectual crushes”–the brainy attraction a student feels to a certain kind of teacher. If anything, it’s the organ responsible for this feeling, the “intellectual dick,” that is the Firecracker’s great preoccupation (and Wallace is one, make no mistake). The writers he mentions—Delillo, Barthelme, Barth, Pynchon—were all well-hung in this department, and are all regular recipients of the male Firecracker’s admiration and energy. This isn’t penis envy, which Freud reserved for girls, and which it is evident, I think, that I suffer from. But it’s close.

Wallace says Lynch’s obsession is “The unbelievably grotesque existing in a kind of union with the unbelievably banal.” This truly brilliant take on Lynch gestures, I think, at what appeals to the cerebral Male. Let’s drag Henry’s brother William into this and call the Firecracker’s fierce (and not unjustified) admiration for Lynch, Barth et al. what it is, at least in part: a drive. Earlier than sex, but post-pre-Oedipal. It’s tribal and does not easily admit women–let’s be frank, it works better without them. It’s the universal desire to get lost in the funhouse and wee vigorously into the Po-Mo Stream of Consciousness (sponsored, alas, by the Depend Adult Undergarment).

Urinal cakes, mirrors, death diapers and the sublime, all in a tidy package.

Of Delillo and company, DFW says: “It was the first generation of writers who actually read a lot of criticism.” I think he’s right. He says, too (and this is exactly what we’ve been discussing—the problematic desire for a relationship of exclusivity in art) that irony, cynicism, irreverence—the tools that made these guys great—have now entered the culture.

“SO,” says DFW, “I don’t consider myself a post-modernist.”

The coordinating conjunction doesn’t follow, goddammit. (This reminds me of a kindly academic who, when asked what he was doing for Christmas, said “Well, my cat died, so I’ll be spending it alone.”) In that story, it’s the coordinating conjunction that gets you in the gut.

As for the leap in logic here: Why “so”? Is it because the value of his work depends to some extent on his tools not having (ahem) “entered the culture”?

I know this is a dominant view. I just want to see it ably defended by the Firecracker population, and it grieves me–selfishly, heartlessly–that DFW, articulate and talented as he is, the ultimate Firecracker, even expressing a wish that his head won’t explode–is no more.

This, for example, helped:

Charlie: “But you like movies.”
DFW: “I do like movies.”
Charlie: “English Patient.”
DFW (drinks water, looks back in disbelief): “You’re seriously asking me for my … of English Patient?”
Charlie: Yes.
DFW pauses.

I think The English Patient was an extremely well-done slick commercial movie. I thought it was beautifully lit… I thought you know the desert looks like a body, it’s kind of erotic. I thought it was David Lynch Lawrence of Arabia. I thought the story was somewhat predictable and some of the sentimental stuff at the end seemed like stuff I’ve seen too many times before.

It’s a brave stab at diplomacy. I haven’t seen The English Patient, but I can certainly imagine what he means. It’s no coincidence that he invokes Lawrence of Arabia, a gorgeous film known for powerful male relationships, most of which center around a particular kind of compelling hero-worship and flirt constantly with insanity, and–excepting a little ululating from the sidelines–for its notable absence of women.

Other revealing, and dare I say it? touching moments:

DFW: “I’m gonna look pretentious talking about this.”
Charlie: “Quit worrying about how you’re going to look! Just be!” (Very Whitmanesque.)

DFW: “You confront your own vanity when you’re going on TV.”

To quote him: “Most of the things that are leaving my mouth seem to be mean.” I don’t mean to mock, except in fellowship. I admire the hell out of Wallace in this interview and in many of the things of his I’ve read. Something of a mildewed sparkler myself, I want kinship. I want the right to praise and to pee standing in solidarity and to stop, as he put it, “hating the teacher for the wrong reasons.” Because he was the real thing—a true Firecracker, one of the Elect.

That’s why, after the first minute of dumb shock, his death wasn’t a surprise.


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