The stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men read something like William Gass meets Dennis Hopper, if William Gass took scads of acid and listened to Sonic Youth, and Dennis Hopper popped Valium and read Michel Foucault--i.e., the book is a monolithic agglomeration of sesquipedalian prose pieces erecting abracadabra puzzles of Lacanian jargon and pop arcana, which you must disentangle one by one to arrive at some itinerant yet brilliant epistemological or teleological or eschatological insight. Pointy-headed Wallace consistently plunks down such Frankenstein phrases as "satyrosaurian sybaritic heterosapien male," "pseudometabelletristic gamesmanship," "value-neutral bioexperiential model," etc. You need a volume of Gray's Anatomy, a dictionary, and a copy of the DSM III Case Book just to keep score.
You get the point. One does not read Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men per se; rather, it is a book to be wrestled, wrangled, pleaded with, taken to the floor. Story after story throws down a synaptic grudge match fought in the back alley of Wallace's baroque, apocalyptic imagination. Simply to finish the volume is a victory--a Pyrrhic one. You may or may not feel rewarded by the final page. You will definitely feel exhausted.
The stories in Brief Interviews deal predominantly with sex, or, more specifically, they peek into the interstices of how we really feel about sex. As such, Wallace's stories become anti-aphrodisiacs--ice-cold intellectual showers for the overheated libido. Time and again, he cracks the nasty nut of machismo to perform a dialogic autopsy on the meat inside. Like Swift or Celine, he's outraged by what he finds. The cumulative effect of these investigations is nauseating, hilarious, assaultive, and depressing. When it works, the brutality of hideous attitudes is horrifying, à la Edgar Allen Poe or even Thomas Bernhard. When it doesn't quite click, Wallace comes across as a blowzy grad student filching some fancy feminist schtick.
The closer Wallace gets to his subject matter, the more successful the results. A good example of his talent for intimate portrayal is the story "Forever Overhead," a snapshot of a pubescent boy's internal/external journey from the edge of a public pool to a high dive. Here Wallace manages, in just 10 pages of exacting prose, to capture the confusion and heartbreak that attends the awakening of sexuality. It's so excruciatingly vivid you can smell the chlorine and feel those hormones swelling the glands.
Similarly stunning are passages in the manifold riffs on the title story (which are interspersed throughout the collection like a recurring bout of hiccups). These "interviews" read like the purgative confessionals of a foul-mouthed St. Augustine: emetic, shameful, tyrannical, and lewd. Like a mad ventriloquist, Wallace throws his voice into an array of misogynist types; the refracted testimonies are righteous with self-knowledge of a dark Eros only tentatively overcome. The monologues are squirmy and obscene, and sometimes wickedly accurate.
Most of the stories have no discernible narrative arc; they do not progress but rather circle, prod, and interrogate their subject matter. In the best of them, Wallace utilizes a controlled psychobabble to scoop out the subterranean muck of contemporary ideologies and emotions; he queries, from weird angles, our ass-backwards internal logic, and then shows how that logic catalyzes our often abominable behavior.
Conversely, the more detached and satiric the piece, the more obscure and congested Wallace's writing becomes. In a story such as "The Depressed Person," there is the infuriating roadblock of annotation--quasi-clinical footnotes which spill from the story like an avalanche of post-graduate bullshit, threatening to overwhelm the page. This metafictional device is fatiguing. It hinders the narrative flow and taxes the reader's patience (some of these footnotes drone on for pages at a time). Also, the incessant curlicues of cleverness are often counter-productive--really, nothing more than highbrow puns and theoretical name-dropping. They deflate rather than enhance the intensity of Wallace's concerns.
In one of these footnotes, Wallace himself provides a conceit by which to dissect his analytic indulgence: It's "like if you'd just bought a fancy expensive take-out dinner from a restaurant and brought it home and were just sitting down to try to enjoy it when the phone rings and it's the chef or restaurateur or whoever you just bought the food from now calling and bothering you in the middle of trying to eat the dinner to ask how the dinner is and whether you're enjoying it and whether or not it 'works' as a dinner. Imagine how you'd feel about a restaurateur who did this to you."