Sources of Anxiety in David Foster Wallace Part 2: “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”

Patricia Waugh describes metafiction as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (Waugh 2). It is specifically fiction about fiction, forcing readers to be aware that they are reading a fictional work, with the author maintaining a very direct relationship with the reader. David Foster Wallace gained fame practicing such writing, using irony and self-reflexivity to challenge the boundaries of fiction. Writing in a postmodern world means knowing that your writing will be analyzed, and Wallace expresses his own anxiety over this phenomenon through metafiction that addresses the reader he knows is judging him. Wallace’s writing is aware that it will be criticized and deconstructs that very idea in his collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. “#20, 12-96, New Haven, CT, ” – an excerpt from this collection – is constructed with the narrator telling a story about an anecdote relayed by a different character in his story. That’s usually how complicated metafiction gets, and this is DFW on his easiest setting.

Although implicit in many other types of fictional works, self-reflexivity often becomes the dominant subject of postmodern fiction. “The narrator of a metafictional work will call attention to the writing process itself. The reader is never to forget that what she is reading is constructed–not natural, not ‘real’ (Waugh 16).” The narrator of “#20” is a fully-fledged character in his own story, while also narrating the anecdote within it, calling to attention the story as a story and making it a part of him rather than having himself (as a narrator) be a part of the story. He acknowledges that the interviewer will judge him for his brutally candid tone. Much like Wallace knows his stories can be harsh and critics will pan him for it. But beyond the metafiction, the interview is about the anxieties of sexuality, specifically in how it is an attempt at connecting with people.

The narrator is a cocky chauvinist whose pseudo-intellectual language belies a self-conscious need to be respected. He uses “irregardless” and “dash” as if he’s reciting a freshmen dissertation and inundates his overblown sentences with “quote… unquote” revealing a cynical approach to every concept he discusses. He reserves most of his contempt in this story for the woman he picks up and eventually falls in love with. He opens the story by saying he fell in love with her, and yet criticizes her use of the word the night he picks her up, stating the word, “has through over-deployment become trite and requires invisible quotes around it now at the very least.” But he shows a high degree of unawareness, which is ironic for a narrator that is not only aware that he is telling a story, but is aware that he will be judged harshly for it. He criticizes the Granola Cruncher girl and her ilk while he himself expresses many flawed opinions: “She had the unexpected ability to recount it in such a way as to deflect attention from herself and displace maximum attention onto the anecdote itself. I have to confess that it was the first time I did not find her one bit dull.” The narrator is unaware that his character could be drawing attention away from the story and onto himself, as he does many times to go on long tangents of vitriol. He goes on: “an unnatural calm the way some people affect an unnatural nonchalance about narrating an incident that is meant to heighten their story’s drama and/or make them appear nonchalant and sophisticated, one or the other of which is often the most annoying part of listening to certain types of beautiful women structure a story or anecdote.” He is trying to act sophisticated while relaying this story of mortal terror and life-changed encounters but shows his hypocrisy and sexism when criticizing women for doing the same thing. A narrator that is aware of himself and acknowledging that the reader will judge him, yet is unaware of the hypocrisy he shows in his description of the narrator of the inner story, is another staple of Wallace’s use of metafiction. It’s also a sign of the anxiety in such a person; constant fear of being judged and deflection of criticism are latent in his sophisticated and self-referential language.

Rather than have us empathize with the narrator, the story makes an effort to have the reader empathize with the wordless interviewer who clearly gets frustrated with the interviewee’s tangents and sexist pontificating. “I observe with interest that you are now interrupting me to ask the same questions I was interrupting her to ask, which is precisely the sort of convergence–” We know it is a woman because the interviewee outs her and insults her for being one. She continues to interrupt him and ply him for more of the story, making herself a surrogate for the reader eager to hear more about the psychopath story rather than listen to him rant. He is aware that the interviewer will judge his anecdote and manner of telling it – just as Wallace is aware that the audience will analyze his story – this establishes the metafictional relationship of Wallace as the hideous man and the reader as the voiceless interviewer trying to get a story from his blustery rants.

Fear of ridicule is a topic Wallace has talked extensively about, particularly in his essay, “E UNIBAS PLURAM: Television and U.S. Fiction.”

“And to the extent that it [TV] can train viewers to laugh at characters’ unending put-downs of one another, to view ridicule as both the mode of social intercourse and the ultimate art-form, television can reinforce its own queer ontology of appearance: the most frightening prospect, for the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to others’ ridicule by betraying passé expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability. Other people become judges; the crime is naiveté. The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier” (Wallace 63).

Wallace sees this fear as a widespread social anxiety, and Subject #20 is exactly the type of person affected by it. He judges the Granola Cruncher girl as naïve and conquers her, even admitting guilt at seemingly taking advantage of her. He knows that the interviewer is judging him for this behavior and this fear cracks his façade of confidence. “I… had formed judgments based on that. Just as I am watching you forming judgments based solely on the opening of things I’m describing that then prevent you from hearing the rest of what I try to describe. It’s due to her influence that this makes me sad for you instead of pissed off.” He is both sad and pissed off, and the ending shows it. The girl’s intense focus on the psychopath draws an emotional reaction from him. The female renders the male at the end. But not in the way that she treats him; in the way that she doesn’t treat him. Not loving back or affecting him in the way she affected the psychopath (and herself). She saved herself and shared a human connection more real than anything in her or the psychopath’s life. The narrator realizes she achieved what every human wants, and he wishes to share in it.

It seems that the woman in the story, whose seeming naïveté made her a target of both predators, is the only person in the story capable of real human connection on a spiritual level that they can’t recreate. That’s why both sob after having sex with her; she exposes the inefficacy of their enterprise. How empty they will always feel, and how fulfilled she feels without them. The narrator brings up the term Male Gaze to describe how he looked at her, and uses the term Female Gaze to describe how she looked at the psychopath. A connection is made between the rapist’s and the narrator’s attempts to connect to women via predatory means. While the rapist is more barbaric, his emotional dependence on sexual relations with – and animosity toward – the women are qualities shared by the narrator. And the rapist’s reaction to the girl’s efforts at a “soul-connection” compare to the narrator’s after her story.

The narrator’s explosion at the end showcases his true nature of sexist vitriol fueled by insecurity: “I believed she could save me. I know how this sounds, trust me. I know your type and I know what you’re bound to ask. Ask it now. This is your chance. I felt she could save me I said. Ask me now. Say it. I stand here naked before me. Judge me, you chilly cunt. You dyke, you bitch, cooze, cunt, slut, gash. Happy now? All borne out? Be happy. I don’t care. I knew she could. I knew I loved. End of story.” “End of story” is the literal ending of the story, and is spat out in a rushed flurry where his language degenerates into an insulting tirade. His honesty has finally come out in the catharsis from his story. He judges love and anyone who expresses it so harshly that he fears the woman listening to him will judge him the same way, and it sparks his already-present anger toward her to come out and transform him into a raving lunatic. This all begins because he met a woman that he thinks he loves and is afraid that other people will hate him as much as he hates himself.

When comparing these two stories, it becomes understandable why the boy in “Forever Overhead” would be anxious about growing up. The man in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” is a sexist and a borderline sexual predator, who is terrified that people will judge him and falls apart when he falls in love. The boy’s sexual awakening heralds an adulthood that might make him like that man, who is only one emotional disorder away from becoming the rapist in the girl’s story. Time is the common force present in all life that draws us toward entropy and destruction. Knowledgeable of this, our culture responds with shallow sexuality meant only to distract us from these fears, but it mires us in even more emotional problems. With these two stories, Wallace constructs an image of modern society that he views as plagued with psychological fears of ridicule and death. The universal fear of growing up in “Forever Overhead” and the mentally crippling fear of judgment in “Brief Interviews” form the challenges we must face as intelligent adults in the postmodern world, but Wallace helps us by connecting us with his writing. He turns these problems into a common struggle and suggests we overcome our fears by acknowledging them. The hideous man believes showing his love is a weakness, but David Foster Wallace shows it to be a strength in the Granola Cruncher, who uses a soul connection to save her life and ascend the failings of human interaction. Wallace wants us to admit our weaknesses so we can reclaim our strengths. We don’t have to stand atop the board in fear; we can dive in together and make a good life.

Boyle, T. Coraghessan, and K. Kvashay-Boyle. Doubletakes: Pairs of Contemporary
Short Stories. Boston: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004. Print.

“David Foster Wallace Has Made My Students Yawn, and I Think It’s Making Me Mad.”
Web blog post. Draft the Blog of Process. N.p., 5 Feb. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

“Time in ‘Forever Overhead.’” David Foster Wallace. University of Texas at Austin, 22
Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2014. .

Wallace, David Foster. “E UNIBAS PLURAM: Television and U.S. Fiction.” A
Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “This Is Water.” Kenyon College Commencement Address. Ohio,
Gambier. 19 Nov. 2014. Speech.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction.
London: Methuen, 1984. Print.


Sources of Anxiety in David Foster Wallace Part 1: “Forever Overhead”

In his writing, David Foster Wallace tackles topics like depression and anxiety, especially fear of ridicule, and how they affect members of modern generations. The two short stories “Forever Overhead” and “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, #20, 12-96, New Haven, CT, ” are great examples of his commentary on the anxieties of sexuality and trying to connect with other people. Fear of ridicule and judgment are mainstays of adult life as shown in “Brief Interviews,” and the worries of growing up form the basis for “Forever Overhead.” Wallace’s use of point of view in both stories reveal his agenda of trying to connect with the reader personally, thus making the works self-reflexive commentaries on life as a self-reflexive enterprise. These stories are Wallace’s devices in exploring neuroses in modern Americans by addressing them directly.

In contrast to his well-known postmodern style that challenges the structure of fiction, “Forever Overhead” is a more traditional short story told in second person about a thirteen-year-old boy on the cusp of puberty taking his first dive (literally and figuratively) into adulthood. Anxiety is inherent in any story about growing up, and Wallace carefully dissects the aspects of these fears finally finding a universal fear of time at the root of it all.

“Forever Overhead” is written in the second person imperative with the target being a young pubescent boy. The story speaks to the reader personally with every “you,” establishing a universal tale of growing up. It opens with “Happy Birthday. Your thirteenth is important.” It doesn’t read so much that the boy thinks this himself, as he has been told his thirteenth is important by society. The entire story reads like a mechanical process to echo the boy’s new life. Every verb is used either as a description of what is seen, heard, smelt, and felt, or as a command turning the boy (and reader) into a passive cog in the machine of life. The theme of machines is introduced to the story with the lines describing the wait for the diving board: “There is a rhythm to it. Like breathing. Like a machine,” and “She was part of a rhythm that excludes thinking. And now you have made yourself part of it, too. The rhythm seems blind. Like ants. Like a machine.” The repletion of the phrase, “Like a machine,” mirrors the repetitive nature of waiting for the diving board, which goes eternally forward, impossible to stop, like time itself. “It is a machine that moves only forward.”

Another source of anxiety for the boy is thinking. “You have decided being scared is caused mostly by thinking.” Anxiety is rooted in over-analyzing things; the “decided” implies that the boy sees every new aspect of life as a discovery: he analyzed the act of thinking and came to the conclusion that it’s too scary to take on too often. Certain scenarios require thinking: “You decide this needs to be thought about. It may, after all, be all right to do something scary without thinking, but not when the scariness is the not thinking itself. Not when not thinking turns out to be wrong. At some point the wrongnesses have piled up blind… When it all turns out to be different you should get to think. It should be required.” He’s an analytical child, as most are at that age, and is coming to mature conclusions very quickly when faced with new feelings like risk. The simple language used to convey complex ideas makes for beautiful writing. “Brown,” “blue,” and “white” are used to succinctly describe the pool and people’s skin. Because he has decided that thinking is scary, the boy perceives the world very basically with “hurt” and “sweet.” He is on the verge of growing up and will not be able to remain simple much longer. “Hurt” and “scared” crop up commonly to describe how the boy feels on his way to the diving board. The young boy’s perspective of the world is experienced so simply but interpreted so intimately, turning the voice from childish to realistic.

Every physical sense is accounted for in this story with smell being most important; the bee smells the sweetness it cannot reach, just as the growing boy’s new bodily functions are described with what smells emanate from the liquids made in his body. The pool too is introduced smelling exactly like the boy’s semen: “The smell is, more than anything, like this swimming pool.” This association of the pool with the boy’s bodily changes symbolically turn it into the new world he must jump into at the end of his adolescence (and the story). Something’s smell can be more important than the thing itself as in what the mother has in her can. The sweat bee that likes it perceives it as only something sweet, making its perspective comparative to the boy’s. The relation of the bee to the boy is one of the story’s most important aspects concerning the theme of anxiety. After the mother swats at the bee: “The bee is back right away, seeming to hang motionless over the can in a sweet blur.” It is drawn to something that it cannot have, but the anticipation makes it feel as if time has stopped and that the feeling will last. If the bee can stave off satisfaction forever, it can be satisfied. This mirrors the boy’s desire to stave off jumping from the high board and subsequently stave off growing up. The bee hovering over the can refers to the boy standing on the board: “If you wanted you could really stay here forever, vibrating inside so fast you float motionless in time, like a bee over something sweet.” This line is where the story gets its title; a perfect existence in the boy’s mind is remaining outside of time above everything forever. Never having to jump into the water and continue living into adulthood and death. “Bees have to move very fast to stay still.” Standing still in time means moving as fast as time moves to appear standing still, which is why the bee looks like a blur. The boy wants to catch up with time and become motionless in it. He feels that he has found that on the high board.

Nearing the end of the story, the boy is startled back to reality and is pressed to finally jump. “There’s been time this whole time. You can’t kill tine with your heart. Everything takes time.” Time is an important concept in this story, as it is made into the main source of anxiety for the thirteen-year-old boy. “Now that there is time you don’t have time.” This line comes when the man behind him on the diving board shouts for him to jump. When one comes to terms with the reality that time will never stop existing, one feels no ownership of time as a concept and only knows it as a force that pushes them onward eternally into inevitable oblivion. It represents one of the foundational sources of anxiety in the story and thus is all our lives. The boy comprehends this finally. The pool looks hard from the board and the boy knows it will be soft when he falls into it. This brings up the line, “So which is the lie? Hard or soft? Silence or time?” It refers to the confusion over existence; were his senses fooled by the appearance of hardness? Is silence the way things are with time being the aberration? Or is time the struggle against the silence? This confusion fuels the final psychological pain for the boy as he falls into the future. It’s interesting that DFW decides to use “time and silence” suggesting they are opposites like “hard and soft.” When the thirteen-year-old is on the high board, it is described as “still and quiet… No time and no real sound but your blood squeaking in your head.” We know that time is the source of anxiety in the piece, so we can assume that its counterpart would be motionlessness, time not moving and silence/peace taking its place.

Wallace answers his own question with, “The lie is that it’s one or the other. A still, floating bee is moving faster than it can think. From overhead the sweetness drives it crazy.” As we grow up we start to figure out what lies we were told in our childhood. We begin to think of life as divided into truths and lies, and this line succinctly describes the revelation that there is no clear distinction, and life is a swirling chaos. It’s an equally comforting and disquieting notion because we rely on that line to keep track of the world, and the aporia resulting from losing that distinction causes deep philosophical anxiety. Postmodernists generally believe that, when closely examined, all formalized claims describing phenomena, reality, or truth, rely on some form of circular reasoning and self-referential logic that is often paradoxical in nature. Thus, it’s important to uncover the hidden patterns of circularity, self-reference, and paradox within a given set of statements rather than feign objectivity. David Foster Wallace invokes this post-structurist critique in the line, “The lie is that it’s one or the other.” Our cultural childhood ended when postmodernism began criticizing some of our earliest lessons and taught us the malleability of “truth.” This whole story is about a child worrying what “truth” will mean as he grows up. He decides thinking is scary, but he discovers that his senses can lie to him. He undergoes rapid philosophical growth at this age that will lead him into the anxiety-laden battlefield of modern adulthood.

In his Kenyon College commencement address, David Foster Wallace described the human condition of daily crises and chronic disillusionment and warned against solipsism, invoking compassion, mindfulness, and existentialism: “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t…. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.” The boy in “Forever Overhead” is just now confronting truth as an idea and deciding for himself how to see it, which is only the beginning of his problems, but Wallace shows optimism in revealing it as a universally shared problem.
(Continued in Part 2)