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In order to review the audio version of this book, I start in an “I don’t know”-state; I really don’t know how to talk about it. I first listened to it with some friends, driving through the most picturesque parts of the Norwegian countryside, and they demanded that we’d turn it off after half a CD. “Seriously, what is this?! It’s sick!” They found the storytelling disturbing and incomprehensive, even offensive. I understood them; the sound of the CD was not very compatible with the harmonious scenery we were passing through, nor with the magnificent mountains and peaceful fjords that we were enjoying through our windows at the time. Because Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is not an idyllic journey – encountering it will inevitably be a bit disturbing and frustrating, especially if you prefer mental comfort to mindfuck.
David Foster Wallace’s book, first published in 1999, is a collection of 23 short stories, of which most, to most listeners, probably won’t make sense at first. They are excerpts from interviews with male subjects on different topics, and the interviewer’s questions are omitted. In this four CDs (approx. four hours) long audio book the stories are read by the author and a bunch of actors, such as John Krasinski, Bobby Cannavale and Chris Messina, who really make this fiction come alive. Wallace’s voice is one of kind: fragmented, as are most people, intellectual, curiously passionate, mundane and acutely aware of everything.
I once read an interview with Wallace, where he claimed that "fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being". He spoke about freedom, attention, awareness, discipline, effort, and “truly caring and sacrificing for others, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways”. In this interview he also said that “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.” These words are a useful accompaniment to Brief Interviews with Hideous Men – there is caring and sacrificing and room for conscious decision in it, despite the title and the many portraits of misery.
And the book is funny; it’s humorously serious, it’s strange, intelligent, crass, nuanced, sensitive, and interesting. I couldn’t help becoming happily lost in these short stories that revolve around love, language, loneliness, sex, depression, desire, disgust, violence, memory, mental illness, destruction, survival, construction, disintegration, pain, hurt, misery and everyday life, even though it is, at times, gut-wrenching and distressing. Interview #20 is in many respects one of the best stories I’ve ever heard.
These stories are loaded with just about everything, but, as anyone reading this probably already knows, they are not served as traditional texts. However, partaking in fiction is fun! Listening and thinking are great ways of expanding your mind, and here, with this four pack of CDs, is a way to do it.
After our Norway trip, my friends never wanted to hear about David Foster Wallace again, and they won’t have to. To me, however, listening to Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, was a mind-blowing trip; a weird and confusing pleasure. Something definitely worth trying. Just don’t expect too much.
© 2010 Minna Forsell
Minna Forsell is a psychologist, graduated from the University of Stockholm. She currently works in a psychiatric health care center in Volda, Western Norway.
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