David Foster Wallace's Hideous Men

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June 3 1999 3:22 PM

David Foster Wallace's Hideous Men

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Eliza,

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I, too, would like to read a DFW book on medieval recorder enthusiasts. Anything that's less about him and more about well-crafted characters. For all of Jest 's wild futuristic imaginings and intellectual showiness, what makes it so near and dear to my heart is its uncanny ability to create a gripping, realistic world of characters that I wanted to follow around to the ends of the earth. The halfway house's raggedy crew, the way they get along (or don't) with each other, the way each struggles with addiction in different (entirely believable) ways, their day-to-day lifestyles, their speech patterns, their philosophies--all of this was dead-on, and among the best writing I've ever read. Ever. I could have done without some of the silly romps and too-clever artifices DFW threw into that book just because he could, and because he's in love with his own literary voice. But when he writes with discipline, and tells a mature, character-driven story, there's just nobody better right now.

So that's what I want from his next book. Something along the lines of Jest, but with the 400 superfluous pages excised and even more concentration given to the superlative epic that remains. A real book. I want him to grow up and stop fooling around (although it's hard to accuse someone of fooling around who produces a 1,300-page novel) and write the absolute masterpiece that I know he has in him. Jest was close, but I think he can do even better.

That's not to say he shouldn't write about himself at all. His first-person nonfiction work (in Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) is brilliantly funny, and I'd love to see more of it. But I think it detracts from his fiction writing when he lets himself seep in. I do respect what he's going for in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men--I'll take earnestness over irony from him any day. (DFW shares his own exploration of how irony can kill literature in an excellent essay on TV and fiction writing in Supposedly Fun Thing.) And if he wants to tackle religion, well, bully for him--but I hope he'll do it next time through believable characters, not through annoying meta-commentary.

It's true that in some ways BIWHMis a more grown-up work for DFW: He's taking on the big issues in a heartfelt way instead of churning out a comic spree. But Jest took on some of the big stuff, too. The difference: BIWHM's just too much telling, not enough showing. He needs to combine that urge to confront what matters with his ability to spin a wonderful tale. When that book comes out, I'll be waiting in line.

As ever,

Seth

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Eliza Truitt is a staff writer at Slate. Seth Stevenson is a Newsweek correspondent in New York. This week they discuss David Foster Wallace's new collection of stories, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (click here to buy the book).

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