A few months back, DFW polemic was all over the Twitterverse. Having not read any DFW before, I began to read Brief Interviews in between PhD research sessions to see what the fuss was about.
I can see now why, as an author, DFW strongly divides opinion. These caustic metafictions are not easy reading. With their sprawling footnotes, unconventional forms and difficult subject matter, these are not short stories as you will know them. There are faux interviews and overheard conversations, a quasi-ethical pop quiz, a Greek epic retelling set in Silicon Valley, a drawn-out rite of passage tale told in the second person. At times, it borders on the unreadable (as was the case with Datum Centurio, a futuristic pseudo-dictionary entry on the breakdown of the human relationship), but conversely, in places it is urgently compelling and heartbreakingly powerful. Prepare to vacillate from one end of the DFW critical spectrum to the other, at times in awe of the sheer audacity and staggering brilliance, at others deeply frustrated to the point of anger at having to flick back and forth between main text and footnotes.
What is noteworthy however, is DFW’s uncanny capacity to exhibit the human relationship in all its profound ugliness. Even more extraordinary: in doing so, he somehow manages to capture and illuminate small moments of overwhelming beauty and sadness. He illustrates the complexities of human interactions with all of their contradicting emotional and ideological baggages, pointing out the equally horrific and comedic ironies in our expectations of other people.
Perhaps more disturbing though is DFW’s ability to hoodwink and manipulate the reader. Through painstakingly meticulous narrative manoeuvring, selfish and superficial characters reveal surprising moral inconsistencies that raise questions about long-established and generally unquestioned systems of thought. In one particular Brief Interview, an interviewee questions what exactly it means to be considered human as opposed to an object, exploring exactly what it takes to alter perspective from one to the other. It is exactly this sort of perspective-shift that turns what would perhaps, in the hands of a lesser writer, be a mundane story into an absorbing and forceful piece of work. The late night calls of a manic depressive, the anxieties of a naïve newly-married wife, a dying father’s hatred for his only son; all somehow become powerful page-turning narratives thanks to DFW’s vividly authentic human voice.
Seldom will you be provided with any sort of definitive answer on the complexities of human relationships. Rather DFW explores these complexities in a way that is self-consciously removed from the critical heart of the story and fails to land on any conclusive view. In the final Brief Interview, a cynical and predatory male describes his supposed transformation into a born-again believer in Love and Humanity through his retelling of a post-seduction epiphany about a New Age girl who has been raped and tortured. What begins as a rather caustic story of a misogynistic courtship ritual becomes a heart-breaking examination of the human soul which finally comes full circle, ending as a wry and rather scathing commentary on how people are perhaps incapable of true change.
It’s impossible to mention this book without reference to the metafictional qualities, which no doubt played a large part in dividing critical thought on the stories. It’s easy to see why the self-conscious, self-referential meta-stuff might be viewed as over-pretentious or clever-clever. But DFW doesn’t patronise his readers, admirably laying his ‘meta’ cards on the table in Octet, in which you, the reader, become the writer writing about writing, a subtle and multi-layered meta-narrative executed with razor-sharp wit, dexterity and self-awareness.
It was, on the whole, a difficult book to read, but also a difficult book to both like and dislike. Whether or not you enjoy the challenges DFW sets up for the reader, there’s no denying the brilliance of his craft, even if he is responsible for countless subsequent metafiction imitations much paler than this colourful collection. I would urge you to read it if you enjoy a demanding reading experience, but expect to be put through your paces. If you’re looking for a light and pleasurable read, this is probably not for you.