David Foster Wallace is known for being a difficult writer. He writes fiction with copious footnotes, uses words like “jejune” and “prognathous” seemingly for the fun of it, and never shies away from describing a small portion of a tennis match in dozens of pages of excruciating detail. His magnum opus, Infinite Jest, clocks in at 981 pages, not including nearly 100 pages of footnotes. When he passed away in 2008, he was working on a novel (The Pale King) about the IRS set in Peoria, Illinois, which was published this year in incomplete form – still 560 pages long.
What is less known about Wallace (at least to those who haven’t read him) is his enormous humor and his enormous compassion for human beings. These two character traits are radiantly apparent in all his work. I’ve read most of what Wallace has written, and I can’t think of another contemporary writer who is as funny or creates such a feeling of empathy for his characters as Wallace does.
David Foster Wallace’s collection of short stories, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, is as good a place as any to start if you want to get into reading him. The stories range from 5 sentences (“A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”) to 23 pages long (“On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon”), and many of them are in fact Q & A sessions with (more or less) “Hideous Men”. This hideousness is more self-identified than anything else, consisting of confessions of fairly despicable (but utterly human) moral failings that dismay the reader while also being completely believable. If you’re looking for a (relatively) brief encounter with one of the most brilliant writers of the late 20th century, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is well worth the read.