an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 12, May - December 2015, ISSN 1552-5112



The Violence of Rhetoric and David Foster Wallace’s Hideous Men



James McAdams






 “To recognize the Other is therefore to come to him across the world of possessed things, but at the same time to establish, by gift, community and universality.  Language is universal because it is the very passage from the individual to the general, because it offers things which are mine to the Other. To speak is to make the world common, to create commonplaces” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity).


By now, it is a critical commonplace that David Foster Wallace’s work prioritizes the establishment of an intimate, sincere relationship with the reader.  We see this all over his oeuvre, including in “E Unibus Pluram,” “Westward the Course of Empire Goes Its Way,” various interviews, especially the Larry McCaffery interview of 1991, and, most recently, the bio-pic The End of the Tour.  However, this agenda is not just ethical but also aesthetic; one that, following Lewis Hyde’s championing of eros in the art transaction, often presents tropes, or figures “erotic,” sexual relationships in his narratives as correlatives for the author-reader relationship, where the writer is gendered as male and the reader as female.[1]  This tendency is especially noticeable in the “Brief Interviews” sequence that provides the title for Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999).  In these narratives, the “hideous” men’s seduction strategies, psychological rationalizations, and gender objectification become subtly and accretively associated with postmodern, rhetorically manipulative writing that takes no interest in the reader except as a mirrored other to perform before and benefit from. 

   A central concern in his depiction of the relationships in Brief Interviews consists precisely in this lack of appreciation and respect for the Other.  Except for the final Interview, all the others describe relationships—if “relationships” is even the apt word—from which trust, loyalty, and love have been removed, and replaced - from the male’s side, with manipulation, cynicism, and self-conscious performance, and, from the female side, with incredulity, despair, and victimization.  Like the postmodern writers whose influence Wallace resists, such as John Barth or Mark Lerner, these men employ strategies and tactics to make themselves appear erudite and hip, in order to impress or seduce their audience.[2]

A similar concern for the lack of appreciation for the singularity of the Other occupies the center of Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophy, which displaces phenomenology and ontology from their status as “first philosophies,” replacing them with the ethical encounter.  Following the example of Levinas and others, most notably Derrida, many contemporary literary theorists, among them J. Hillis Miller, Simon Critchley, Andrew Gibson, Dorothy Hale, and Derek Attridge, have foregrounded this concern for the Other, to develop a mode of analysis that returns ethical issues into literary discussions, a move that has been described as “the new ethics” or “the ethical turn in literature.”   

 Derek Attridge in particular has demonstrated the possibilities of invoking the language of the Levinasian-Derridean discourse in his work on such authors as Beckett and Coetzee.  By adapting the philosophical theories of Levinas and the literary methods of Attridge to the Brief Interviews sequence, this essay demonstrates that what is most hideous about the hideous men in the interviews and the postmodern writers they imitate is their narcissistic disinterest in the Other.  Finally, Brief Interview #20, the book’s terminal and most famous Interview, is analyzed to articulate how, in adopting an Ethics of the Other, it corrects the other Interviews, and lays out a framework for how Wallace proposes we overcome the immense distance between Self and Other—by writing sincerely and honestly, and by reading with empathy and respect for what is unique and singular about those we encounter in our lives and in our reading.  Before reviewing these interviews, this paper first explores the origins and objectives of Levinasian philosophy and contemporary New Ethics.         

   As a young man, the Lithuanian-born Emmanuel Levinas studied under both Edmund Husserl, the eminent founder of phenomenology, and Martin Heidegger, the equally eminent (if morally compromised) founder of an ontological philosophy that famously foregrounded “being-in-the-world.” Both men exercised a profound influence on Levinas’ thought until he began formulating his own original thinking in his doctoral thesis, Totality and Infinity, in 1960.  In both this text and especially Otherwise than Being: Beyond Essence (1967), Levinas develops a conception of philosophy based neither on Husserlian phenomenology or Heideggerian ontology, but rather on the ethical requirement to recognize one’s responsibility to the Other.[3] 

   Levinas achieves his displacement of the primacy of phenomenology and ontology by replacing it with his famous pronouncement that the ethical relation is the first relation.  Only by appreciating and being responsible for others can we avoid falling into solipsism; the social demands and conventions of our lives obscure our relationship to the Other, a phenomenon Levinas describes as irresponsibility “veiled by decency.”  Joshua James Shaw glosses Levinas’ meaning by providing the following example:

Typically, I am not aware of others as others.  I live in a kind of fog composed of my beliefs, my desires, my ambitions, my life projects.  I interact with others in this fog, but do not relate to them as unique individuals in their own right; I relate to them as if they were actors and actresses, dramatis personae in the story I am living, the unfolding story of my world.  These interactions are structured, finally, by the social rules and etiquette of my tribe, my community’s collective “veil of decency.”  Levinas’ claim in Time and the Other is that there is something beyond these rules and this fog.  (Shaw xxvii)


What Levinas argues is beyond, or perhaps prior to “these rules and this fog,” is the acknowledgement that the Other can never be reduced to the Same. This reduction of the Other to the Same diminishes the Same by making it unaware of difference, or singularity.  As Critchley elaborates, “ethics, for Levinas, is critique; it is the critical mise en question of the liberty, spontaneity, and cognitive emprise of the ego that seeks to reduce all otherness to itself.  The ethical is therefore the location of a point of alterity, or what Levinas also calls ‘exteriority,’ that which cannot be reduced to same” (5).  Of the same commitment, Andrew Gibson writes, “the ethical relation is always both immediate and singular, a question of responsiveness and responsibility” (16). 

For Levinas, these confrontations with alterity and the responsibility that they entail often manifest in essentially discursive or verbal exchanges.  When discussing the ethical importance of literary address, he focuses on his suspicion of rhetoric, the approbative function of textual interruption, and the phenomenon of “Saying” as opposed to “Said,” where the former designates an open, continuous field of meaning between interlocutors.  Rhetoric, as Levinas envisions it, manipulates its interlocutors—under the guise of loving them, it in fact uses them for its own purposes.  In a passage that anticipates Wallace’s lamentations about capitalist marketing stratagems and televisual culture, Levinas explains that:

Rhetoric, absent from no discourse, and which philosophical discourse seeks to overcome, resists discourse…It approaches the other not to face him, but across all artifice goes unto the other, solicits his yes.  But the specific nature of rhetoric (of propaganda, flattery, diplomacy, etc.) consists in corrupting this freedom.  It is for this that it is preeminently violence, injustice—not violence exercised on inertia (which would not be a violence), but on a freedom, which, precisely as freedom, should be incorruptible.  (Totality and Infinity 70; emphasis added)[4]

Opposed to rhetoric, a discourse that “seeks to overcome” and reduce Other to Same, Levinas commends an “open” style of writing replete with self-conscious interruptions and interrogative forms that challenge the rhetors’ corruption of freedom.  “In order to develop the idea of the ethical importance of interruption,” Robert Eaglestone explicates, “[Levinas] specifically explores the way in which language interrupts itself” (138).  After noting that Levinas uses the interrogative form instead of typical philosophical constative, or truth-value conclusions, he argues “this stylistic choice, in itself, both echoes and affirms Levinas’ philosophical trajectory—not least in this, Otherwise than Being: Beyond Essence is ‘performative.’  Unlike a statement, a question is to be interrupted: a question starts a dialogue” (139).  Levinas’ statement that ethics, not phenomenology or ontology, is the primary relation imbricates with his concern for the myriad subtle ways in which language and literary acts, especially when used rhetorically, can negate the possibility of responsible encounters with alterity.

The primary tenet of the generation of thinkers influenced by Levinas and Derrida is that literature and discursive acts are often inevitably associated with ethical matters. Beginning with such groundbreaking works as J. Hillis Miller’s The Ethics of Reading (1986), Simon Critchley’s The Ethics of Deconstruction (1992), Andrew Gibson’s Postmodernity, Ethics, and the Novel : From Leavis to Levinas (1999), and Derek Attridge’s The Singularity of Literature (2004), this contemporary approach exploits and re-deploys the insights of their poststructural and deconstructive predecessors to devise a reconfigured approach to literary ethics, one that neglects traditional moral criticism as practiced by Leavis or Arnold, for instance, in favor of a more sophisticated conversation between writer and reader.  Describing this “ethical turn,” Adam Kelly notes two divergent approaches:

The first, drawing its orientation from traditional Aristotelian moral theory, has focused on authors of social and psychological nuance, most usually realists of the nineteenth century, most notably Jane Austen and Henry James. See Booth; Miller; Nussbaum. The second strand, which attempts to incorporate the insights of poststructural theory into a reformulated ethics, prefers modernist and contemporary authors…whose work foregrounds encounters of the narrative perspective with otherness, and the failures of language and cognition to fully incorporate alterity into discourses of power and dominance. See Attridge; Gibson; Russell Smith. (“David Foster Wallace: The Death of the Author and Birth of a Discipline”).


In a similar vein, Attridge, remarking on what Kelly describes as the second approach, states that “the literary event, therefore, should be though of as an ethically charged event, one that befalls individual readers” (The Ethics of J.M. Coetzee xvi). In the following, I employ these approaches as a theoretical perspective through which to interpret “Brief Interview #20,” a short but potent masterpiece that encapsulates many of David Foster Wallace’s ideas about empathy, respect for the Other, and the need to combat selfishness, cynicism, and manipulation.  However, before that story, it’s necessary to briefly explore Wallace’s thoughts regarding the difficulty of truly knowing others and the concomitant importance of “other-directed impulses,” such as attention, awareness, and responsibility.


In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave the Commencement Address at Kenyon University.  Although immediately recognized by Wallace fans as a profound statement of his works’ concerns and themes, as well as his personal convictions and beliefs, the speech became an Internet sensation following his death in September 2008.  The crux of the argument emphasizes that we control the power to decide what to think of, and how to think, and that making the wrong decisions about what to pay attention to leads to obsessions and petty frustrations that cause emotions ranging from boredom to suicidal despair. 

The most persistent and lethal problem, he argues, is the “default setting” (or “veil of decency” in Levinasian terms) that, simply because I have always been at the center of my own experience, I therefore believe myself to be most important person in the world, and the existence of others is thus judged according to whether they aid or hinder my desires.  It’s not that these attitudes are “evil or sinful,” Wallace caveats: “it is just that they are unconscious.  They are “default settings” resulting in the “the freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of creation” (Kenyon). 

However, Wallace advises, there are different ways of approaching and processing these situations.  The important thing to realize is that we have a choice, a difficult choice, but a choice, to decide if we want to think about the things he lists above—which leave us feeling frustrated, angry, hurt, injured—or we can climb to a different height to survey the situation, one which uses awareness, compassion, and empathy to imagine that the screaming lady in front of you at the supermarket has sat up for days with a husband dying of cancer, or helped your spouse through an act of bureaucratic kindness.  Of course, Wallace admits,

“…none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible…[and] if you’ve really learned to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options.  It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things (Kenyon; emphasis added). Like the social “veils of decency” that Levinas condemns for rationalizing our inability to be responsible to the Other, Wallace’s “default setting” of existential primacy and superiority leads to exactly the same thing, unless it be checked by the power of attention, compassion, imagination, and sincerity.[5]    

   A consideration, then, of Wallace’s concern with, on the one hand, the vital importance of being aware and empathetic of Others, and, on the other hand, his acknowledgment of how immense and almost intergalactic the distance between Us and Them, Same and Other, sometimes appears to be, leads one to appreciate how much effort he puts into his work to overcome this problem.  As Zadie Smith argues, in a brilliant comparison of Henry James and Wallace:

[James’] syntactically torturous sentences, like Wallace’s, are intended to make you aware, to break the rhythm that excludes thinking.  Wallace was from that same tradition—but, a hundred years on, the ante had been raised.  In 1999, it felt harder to be alive and conscious than ever.  Brief Interviews pitched itself as a counterweight to the narcotic qualities of contemporary life, and then went a step further.  It questioned the Jamesian notion that fine awareness leads a priori to responsibility.  It suggested that too much awareness—particularly self-awareness—has allowed us to be less responsible than ever.  It was meant for readers of my generation, born under the star of four interlocking revolutions, undreamed of in James’ philosophy: the ubiquity of television, the voraciousness of late capitalism, the triumph of therapeutic discourse, and philosophy’s demotion into a branch of linguistics.  How to be finely aware when you are trained in passivity?...In part, this was Wallace’s way of critiquing the previous literary generation’s emphasis on self-reflexive narrative personae (268).

In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Wallace finds a way to explore the connections between awareness, love, and ethics in a unique and impressive way: through the literal troping of the author-reader relationship as a conjugal and intimate male-female relationship.  Smith’s “self-reflexive narrative personae,” here, become both postmodern writers and serial seducers, who are equated as same.   

Published in 1999, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was Wallace’s first collection of fiction after the tremendous success of Infinite Jest.  A radically experimental collection, it consists of perhaps ten microfictions, a controversial novella entitled “The Depressed Person,” a series of direct “interrogations” of the reader (culminating in “Octet”), and the titular Brief Interviews, of which there are a total of 18 distributed throughout the text.  These interviews are conducted over a four-year period by an unnamed female who questions (the reader is not provided access to the questions, which are represented simply by “Q.”) a succession of men about their sexually motivated exploitation and manipulation of women.[6] 

Infinite Jest’s Orin Incandenza represents a precursor for the multifarious roster of hideous men, implying the trope may have been in Wallace’s head as early as the 1990s.[7]  Emotionally damaged by a suffocating mother, the adult Orin finds sexual satisfaction by serially seducing and rejecting young single mothers.  His “seduction strategies” are numbered, practiced, and expert.  For example, his standard operating procedure for breaking up with a Subject is to mail her child an expensive toy and change his number (Infinite Jest 46).  However, his conquests are emotionally unsuccessful—he envisions sex not as an intimate, conjugal relationship, a conjoining, but rather a situation in which he “has won her as if from someone or something else, something other than he, but that he has her…that he is both offense and defense…That he is the One” (566).  

Wallace elsewhere diagnoses him as a man who “can only give, not receive, pleasure, and this makes a contemptible number of them think he is a wonderful lover, almost a dream-type lover”; but in fact, it is not the woman who pleases him, but rather “the Subject’s pleasure in him [that has] become his food” (596). Ultimately, like the postmodern metafiction that Mark Nechtr describes in “Westward the Course of Empire Goes Its Way,” Orin “is untrue, as a lover.  It cannot betray, it cannot reveal.  Itself is its only object…It’s lovers not being lovers” (“Westward” 332). 

The hideous men interviewed in Brief Interviews provide even more exotic, imaginative, and sociopathic examples of “lovers not being lovers.” For example, in “B. I. #36,” the interviewee explains how he has learned to love himself after receiving counseling for various (unspecified) acts of domestic abuse.  “I’ve halted the shame spiral,” he says; “I’ve learned forgiveness.  I like myself” (Wallace, Brief, 34).  In response to the interviewer’s “Q.” (which the reader performs as “what about the women?”), he responds, “Who?” (ibid.) In “B. I. # 40,” the interviewee explains at length how he has taken advantage of his deformed arm, which he refers to as “The Asset,” as a ploy to make women pity him and engage in sexual acts in order to prove they are not disgusted by his deformity.  He describes how when he shows them the arm, which he treats with ointment-like applications to make appear “even wetter and slimier,” they immediately start crying and pretend to not be disgusted.  By this point, he brags, “they’re in way over their head.  They’re, like, committed into a corner of saying it can’t be that ugly and I shouldn’t be shameful and they see it and I see to it is ugly, ugly ugly ugly and now what do they do?  Pretend…These are not girl wonders of the brain.  It breaks them down every time” (85-86)

   The most explicit connection between the hideous men’s manipulation and disrespect for women and (bad) postmodern writing’s manipulation of the reader occurs in “B. I. #31.”  In this case, interestingly, the interviewee is not himself unconsciously hideous, but demonstrates awareness of male ploys, telling the anonymous interviewer about men who consider themselves to be “Great Lovers.”  These men, he counsels, need to think of themselves as great lovers just as a mechanic needs to think of himself as a great mechanic—in neither case is the activity for the woman or automobile, but rather only to it, and for themselves.  “They think they’re being generous in bed,” he says, but “the catch is they’re being selfish about being generous” (32).  The interviewee continues, in terms reminiscent of the passages of “Westward” above, draw an implicit connection between manipulative writing and manipulative relating, explaining that to be a truly Great Lover, or Great Writer, one must open oneself up to a response from the Other: “This son of a bitch isn’t a lover, he’s just putting on a show.  He doesn’t give a shit about you.  You want to know my opinion?  You want to know how to really be Great Lover?  The secret is you got to give the little lady pleasure and be able to take it, with equal technique to both and equal pleasure…Don’t forget it’s also about her” (33; emphasis added).

These examples demonstrate that what makes these men hideous is their inability to fathom the importance of the Other as a universal, not relative, subject.  Furthermore, because of this failure, they exploit and manipulate the Subjects like objects with no unique characteristics, as evinced by their practice of referring to the women not by their name but as “Subjects.” Instead of responding to the singularity of each woman, hideous men control the Subjects with false erudition, elegant lies, psychological manipulation, and trademarked “moves”—in other words, they treat their Subjects as dumb, as incapable of functioning on an equal level in a relationship with them.  This behavior, and the emotional sadness and loneliness which engenders it, requires correction, Wallace implies, and he provides it in the spectacular last Interview in the book, “B. I. #20.”[8]

   Numerous Wallace scholars have remarked on how crucial a piece “B. I. #20” is, both for the collection and perhaps for Wallace’s work in general.  In his magisterial Understanding David Foster Wallace, Marshall Boswell writes of “B. I. #20,” “Wallace saves his most ingenious bit of sleight-of-hand for the final Brief Interview, a lengthy and audacious piece that also, for all intents and purposes, concludes the book” (193). Likewise, Charles B. Harris, a colleague of Wallace’s at Illinois-Bloomington in the 1990s, argues “the narrator of the fourth and final ‘Brief Interview’ is rescued from a life of emotional and linguistic solitude by a young woman…Her story about reaching out in love and empathy to a rapist serial-killer at a moment of extreme danger saves him” (175). Both identify the corrective or rectifying function of this final Interview, as I do; however, I hope to also articulate its operation as a kind of template or updated manifesto of the kind of writer Wallace aspired to become, one which would resist the violence of rhetoric and “seductive” writing.[9]  

   In “B. I. #20,” the interviewee’s first lines explain to the interviewer how “I did not fall in love with [my girlfriend] until she had related the story of the unbelievably horrifying incident in which she was brutally accosted and held captive and nearly killed” (287).  He proceeds to explain how he met this girl, whom he describes condescendingly as a “Granola Cruncher, or Post-Hippie, New Ager” at an outdoor concert and, “knowing her type,” concocted a story about a vibration he felt drawing him towards her blanket on the lawn (288). This calculated seduction succeeds, and therefore the next part of the story involves the girl post-coitally relating an anecdote to the man while he schemes ways to leave his apartment.  As he admits, “I should tell you that I was planning right from the outset to give her the special false number when we exchanged numbers in the morning, which all but a very small and cynical minority want to. Exchange numbers. A fellow in Tad’s study group’s great-uncle or grandparents or something have a vacation home and are never there, so when someone you’ve given the special number to calls it simply rings and rings” (293).

   While the man plots his exit, the girl continues to relate her anecdote about being nearly killed by a serial killer, surviving solely due to her ability to connect and empathize with him.[10]  The precise pivot of the story occurs here, where the man admits to feeling his “first hint of sadness, or melancholy, as I listened with increasing attention to the anecdote” and realizes that “the qualities I found myself admiring in her narration of the anecdote were some of the same qualities about her I’d been contemptuous of when I’d first picked her up in the park” (297).  In response to the interviewer’s “Q.” (which the reader performs as “what qualities?”), he explains, “chief among them—and I mean this without irony—that she seemed, quote, sincere…in a way that helped me focus almost entirely on the anecdote” (297). 

   Around this point in the girl’s story “B. I. #20” opens up and diverges in two opposite directions.  On the one hand, the man learns to attend responsibly to the other by “doing justice in a creative response to the uniqueness of a person” (Attridge, The Singularity of Literature 129).  In this way, the man portrays how we should treat not just other human beings, but other literary acts, or events, as well.  As he lies in bed, listening to the girl while she “[leans] with her upper body to follow the oscillation of the fan so she’s moving in and out of a wash of moon,” he represents the ideal reader (295; emphasis added).  By respecting the singularity of both the girl, as a human being, and her anecdote, as a literary act, the man endorses Attridge’s observation that “to act morally towards another person, it hardly needs saying, requires as full an attempt at understanding them and their situation as one is capable of” (Attridge, 138-139).  Wallace, similarly, requires readers to practice a kind of aesthetic morality where the primary virtues are empathy and imagination. Wallace emphasizes the man’s success at being both an ethical reader and an ethical person by having him admit “I realized that I had never loved anyone.  Isn’t that trite?  Like a canned line do you see how open I’m being here?...I knew that I loved.  End of story” (313, 318).

   On the other hand, the man stresses that it is the girl’s simple, sincere, and direct way in telling the story that creates the possibilities for his epiphany.  As he describes it, the girl, who by now in her narrative has been taken into a desolate area and tied up by her captor, “wills herself not to weep or plead but merely to use her penetrating focus to attempt to feel and empathize with the sex offender’s psychosis and rage and terror and delusion to touch the beauty and nobility of the human soul beneath” (302).  By creating this “mind-bridge,” as it were (the phrase is Nabokov’s), the girl too acts as an ideal reader.

Furthermore, by telling her anecdote in a sincere and direct manner, without rhetorical flourishes or tangents or metafictional digressions, she represents the ideal writer, a post-postmodern writer.  As the man admits, it is this simplicity of expression that attracts him. Since the girl’s narrative characteristics follow from her personal and ideological beliefs, she is simply expressing a certain truth; this is the opposite of the performances littered throughout the Brief Interviews collection.  Again, Wallace’s interview structure, because of the absence of any mediating or judging narrator, mandates, like Levinas’ “interruptions” and “interrogations,” that the reader determine for herself when someone is expressing a truth worthy of our attention or performing some simulacrum of truth intended to get something from her.  The responsibility to create meaning and determine whom to trust is opened up to the reader.

     In “B.I. #20,” Wallace creates a narrative that functions as a supreme example of his conception of the ethics of the author-reader relationship.   Following a sequence of interviews depicting ignorance of Levinas’ belief that the ethical is the primary relation, the terminal interview corrects these views and proposes how to read, write, and love.  Perhaps more importantly for Wallace’s future writing, the girl relates her anecdote directly and sincerely, without the self-conscious narrative asides that constitute Brief Interviews, metafiction, and even some of Wallace’s own early fiction, which he later abjured.  Perhaps this was why he described this interview as “the best of the interviews…and one I identify the most with” (Interview).

For Wallace, the Granola Cruncher, as she has come to be known, represents the Ideal Writer.  At the time Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was published, Wallace had already admitted that he wanted to write in a more “simple and direct” manner, without the syntactical flourishes, computerized vocabulary, and penchant for footnotes that characterized much of the superficial response to Infinite Jest.  Through the next decade, his fiction swayed greatly from attempts to mimic the Granola Cruncher to those that continued to repeat the most idiosyncratic and electric elements of his style.  However, the Granola Cruncher’s influence can be read in various stories in Oblivion and, most especially, in certain sections of The Pale King, particularly Chris Fogle’s and Meredith Rand’s narratives, both of which exemplify Wallace’s ethical aesthetics that seeks to, and succeeds in, overcoming the violence of rhetoric.




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 12, May - December 2015, ISSN 1552-5112




Attridge, Derek.  The Singularity of Literature.  London: Routledge Press, 2004.   

---.  J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 

Bissell, Tom.  Michael Sheehan Interviews Tom Bissell on Brief Interviews.  Sonoma Review, 55 (2009): 13-23

Boswell, Marshall.  Understanding David Foster Wallace.  Columbia: U of South Carolina Press, 2003. 

Clarkson, Carrol.  “Embodying You: Levinas and the Question of the Second Person.”  Journal of Literary Semantics.  34, 2 (2005): pp. 95-105. 

Critchley, Simon.  The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas.  Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. 

Diakoulakis, Christoforos.  “Quote Unquote Love…A Type of Scotophobia: David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.”  Consider David Foster Wallace.  Ed. David Hering.  Los Angeles: Sideshow Media Group Press, 2010. 

Eaglestone, Robert.  Ethical Criticism: Reading after Levinas.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh U of P,

Gibson, Andrew.  Postmodernity, Ethics, and the Novel: From Leavis to Levinas.      London: Routledge, 1999. 

Harris, Charles B.  “David Foster Wallace: ‘That Distinctive Singular Stamp of Himself.’”  Critique, 51 (2010): 168-176.  

Kelly, Adam.  “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction.”  Consider David Foster Wallace.  Ed. David Hering.  Austin/L.A: Sideshow Media Press, 2011. 

Levinas, Emmanuel.  Totality and Infinity.  Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1979. 

McHale, Brian.  Postmodern Fiction.  New York: Methuen Inc., 1987.  Press, 2008

Shaw, Joshua James.  Emmanuel Levinas on the Priority of Ethics.  Amherst, NY: Cambria, 1971.

Smith, Zadie.  “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace.”  Changing My Mind.  New York: Penguin Books, 2009.   

Van Ewijk, Petrus. “‘I’ and the ‘Other’: The relevance of Wittgenstein, Buber, and Levinas for an Understanding of AA’s Recovery Program in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.”  English Text Construction, 2.1 (2009): pp. 132-145. 

Wallace, David Foster.  Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.  New York: Little Brown, 1999.

---.  Girl with Curious Hair.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1989. 

---.  Infinite Jest.  New York: Little Brown, 1996. 

---.  Interview.  Bookworm.  KCRW, California.  August 12, 1999.  Radio. 

---.  “David Foster Wallace on Life and Work: The Kenyon Commencement Speech.”  The Wall Street Journal.  09.19.2008.  Web. Accessed 09.17.2015.

---.  “David Foster Wallace’s 100-Word Statement on the Millenium.”  Rolling Stone, 830/831.  12.30.99.  Page 125. 

---.  Oblivion.  New York: Little Brown, 2004. 




[1] See Lewis Hyde, The Gift: The Work of Art and the Erotic Life of Property.


[2] I do not mean to imply that Wallace had personal vitriol or lack of respect for either of these individuals, but rather that he had severe reservations regarding their aesthetics.  For a discussion of Barth, see “Westward the Course of Empire Goes Its Way”; for Lerner, see Wallace’s review of Lerner’s “image-fiction” My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist in “E Unibus Pluram.” 


[3] For more on the connections between Levinas and Wallace’s work, see Van Ewijk, Petrus. “‘I’ and the ‘Other’: The Relevance of Wittgenstein, Buber, and Levinas for an Understanding of AA’s Recovery Program in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.”  English Text Construction, 2.1 (2009): pp. 132-145.

[4] Wallace makes a similar point about rhetorical betrayal in “David Foster Wallace’s 100-Word Statement on the Millenium,” where, in discussing the Greek sophists, he writes, “what's interesting to me is that this [rhetorical spin by the media and politicians] isn't all that new. This was the project of the Sophists in Athens, and this is what Socrates and Plato thought was so completely evil. The Sophists had this idea: Forget this idea of what's true or not—what you want to do is rhetoric; you want to be able to persuade the audience and have the audience think you're smart and cool. And Socrates and Plato, basically their whole idea is, " ‘Bullshit. There is such a thing as truth, and it's not all just how to say what you sayso that you get a good job or get laid, or whatever it is people think they want.’" 


[5] Wallace displays his conviction that simple awareness and empathetic effort may not be enough to bridge the tremendous gulf between Self and Other in many remarkable descriptions in his fiction.  For example, in “Good Old Neon,” the 2004 O. Henry Award story later collected in Oblivion (2008), the narrator muses “we are all trying to see each other through these tiny keyholes. But it does have a knob, the door can open.  But not in the way that you think.  But what if you could.  Think for a second—what if all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life turned out now to be somehow fully open, expressible…you can as they say open the door and be in anyone else’s room in all your own multiform forms and ideas and facets” (178).  Likewise, in “Mr. Squishy,” Wallace describes a control group in a marketing firm from the perspective of the lonely facilitator, who “ha[s] a quick vision of them all in the conference room as like icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknown and –knowable to one another” (31). 

[6] In his 2009 Hollywood adaptation of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, screenwriter-actor John Krasinski of The Office imagines the interviewer as a female doctoral student pursuing her dissertation on male behavior after being left by her “hideous” boyfriend (played by Krasinski, admirably).


[7] When interviewed by government intelligent services, Molly Notkin describes Orin as “clearly as thoroughgoing a little rotter as one would find down through the whole white male canon of venery, moral cowardice, emotional chicanery, and rot” (Infinite Jest 789; emphasis added). 


[8] Initially published in The Paris Review, Vol. 39, Fall 1997 with as “B.I.#6 E_  on ‘How and Why I Have Come to be Totally Devoted to S__ and Have Made Her The Lynchpin and Plinth of My Entire Emotional Existence.’”

[9] Christoforous Diakoulakos provides a fascinating reading of “B. I. #20” in “Quote Unquote Love…A Type of Scotopia: David Foster Wallace’s Breif Interviews with Hideous Men,” where he argues that “a declaration of love, the narrative that is ‘love,’ sets the story in motion: it makes the story possible.  And yet, by the same token, that declaration of love also causes the story to eventually fail, to miss itself.  As soon as the narrator names ‘love,’ he finds himself confronted with the question of love’s content” (154). 


[10] In his interview with Michael Sheehan published in The Sonoma Review, Tom Bissell wonders whether Wallace developed this story from an account of such an instance in this 1996 Time article:,9171,984340,00.html