Just as all male activity is meant to impress girls (or boys, depending), writers write to seduce their readers. Naturally, the smarter a guy is, the more likely he is to stumble over himself in this pursuit. With this in mind, here's some advice for hip brainiac du jour David Foster Wallace, inspired by his new collection of stories: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
by David Foster Wallace (Little Brown & Company, $24) Flatter the reader In Lolita, as Humbert Humbert worms his way into a young girl's arms, Vladimir Nabokov seductively convinces his readers that he believes them to be smart enough to keep up with him while at the same time making it effortlessly clear that he could, intellectually speaking, kick their ass. Talking up and down to the reader at the same time—now that's genius! David, rather than linguistically tickling our inner thigh, you keep dumping this pile of heady verbiage in our lap. Here are some words we had to look up and we're still not sure what they mean: luculent, self-urtification, cryovelate, horripilative, virid—and that's just from one story, "Octet." Sometimes this flatness comes across as honesty and integrity, like you're trying not to control or manipulate our emotions.1 But we like to have our emotions manipulated, David! That's why we read books and go to movies! Maybe there are more or less honest ways to go about it, but whether we succumb or not is ultimately due to charisma, and your self-consciousness isn't letting much come through. Obsession In Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon seems so wrapped up in his labyrinthine subject that we're not even sure what it is (let alone why it's so important). But his intense involvement comes through loud and clear. Call it the stylistic equivalent of James Dean looking off to the side with a world-weary, melancholy yet wry look in his eyes, thinking mysterious inner-directed thoughts, but most of the time—even though you pursue every idea to its most ornate implication—you seem almost bored by your material. You exude this affectless slacker facade that makes us think you're going for the blank yet lust-inducing gaze of Keanu Reeves. Alas, you come off more like Stephen Dorff.2 Basically, we know that artists don't care much about anything outside of their own heads, but at least give us the illusion of empathy! You do occasionally provide that, we'll admit. The story "Signifying Nothing" achieves, in its stifled, over-explored way, a pang of loss and anger in its tale of possibly troubled, possibly functional family dynamics. "Forever Overhead," about a boy climbing a high-dive tower for the first time, actually dares to be vulnerable, as opposed to merely self-aware. But they're the only stories that even try. Most often, a thick slab of text just sits there, hoping that feeling will bubble up by means of some kind of post-structural transubstantiation. But then maybe annoyance is the only feeling you're after—in which case, you're succeeding admirably. Don't try so hard Even when using some oblique device—for example, the second part of the story "Adult World" is just an outline—you explore your subjects in exhausting detail. The effect is exhausting. Nicholson Baker does more or less the same thing, yet gets away with it because he's always having fun; Nic finds a manic joy in every excessive word, and his enthusiasm is infectious. You give no such sense of pleasure. Your verbosity seems dutiful, even obligatory, as if you aren't fulfilling your mandate unless you put as many of your amazing brain cells as possible to work all the time.3 You sometimes attempt to circumvent this by playing this trying-too-hard quality for comic effect, pushing it to the point of neurotic absurdity, but the labored feeling never quite goes away. While it would be irresponsible to tout Frank Sinatra as a font of wisdom, let's conclude with this pearl from Ol' Blue Eyes: "An audience is like a broad. If you're indifferent, Endsville." Don't be so cool, David—loosen up and swing!* 1In fact, David discusses this gambit in "Octet," where he delves into his metafictional narrative strategies at such length that you gotta admire the guy for his rigor, while at the same time you can't wait for the damn thing to be over. The title story has a different kind of honesty; it's a series of faux-interviews with guys, most of which center around explaining and justifying their efforts to sucker girls into bed—just like the writer/reader relationship. The "brief" part is a fib, though; some of these interviews go on for pages. But more on that in a moment. 2Ouch! Meow! 3If he's not careful, David will end up like Harold Brodky—more kowtowed to than read, "respected" so he can be avoided with a clear conscience.