Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace

In 1985, Richard Feynman presented a suite of ideas to a Japanese audience about the future of computing, the text of which was included in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, the second half of this paired review, coming to a blog near you, um, real soon now. Feynman, of course, was a remarkably clear thinker, and is remembered for being rather accurate in his predictions about these things (or at least enough prognostication hit the mark that lectures could be plucked 15 years later to support a reputation of prescience). He talked about miniaturization, which was obviously an early trend (and a safe prediction in '85!), and parallel computing is also something we adopted before so very long, although more interested scientists than me can tell me how closely and how well he called that one. One of the ideas he threw around that was new to me were about using (more) reversible processes for low-energy computing. Imagine the inside of your computer shredded down to the very cells: at the component level, the basic functions of almost all the devices--transistors and diodes--are to control the flow and direction of an electrical current, open and shutting like little informational ratchets. When they are powered, they're meant to be irreversible. As you wire these up together into little logic structures and present inputs, as shown in the NAND gate from his lecture (could have been any of them: NAND returns 0 if both inputs are 1, and returns 1 otherwise), it presents a new output and then neglects what brought it there. If the output were allowed to roll back through the gate, then it would become meaningless--you have to run each device at energies many orders of magnitude higher than thermal diffusion, so that the gate does not do that. You have to supply enough power to make sure your computation rolls down to the very end.

If, on the other hand, your output function preserves information which produced the decision, then, said Feynman, rolling back over the little hills wouldn't be a big deal. So shown here is his picture of a reversible NAND logic gate. Letting the system diffuse backwards is no longer so disconcerting, it can slosh back and forth at the local scale, so long as there is a net energy gradient pushing the whole thing forward. It may well end up being slower than CMOS, but it'll use far less energy.

[And let's do have fun thinking about that a sec. Imagining a characteristic clock cycle or distance between gates, could computation still occur very well as we encroached on that spatial or temporal period? Couldn't we have a low-activation energy irreversible computer? Presumably that would run along a cascade of chemical reactions—would that DNA computer I talked about a few years ago qualify? Would you bother to make a reversible logic gate out of transistors, or would you find some other element?]

I suppose that's the way that statistical (thermodynamic) processes tend to work in nature, cumulatively, but since we're talking computers, doesn't that seem like how we think too? I mean that as a personal observation and not a scientific statement, that is, I don't know if amounts to a servicable model of neural behavior, but as far as the way thoughts roll along in my tiny brain, the surging forward and racing back like waves, caught in loops as they chase their imaginary tails, maybe making some forward progress but only with effort and a great deal of redundance, making conclusions but only after gently wearing in the path and trucking the assumptions along, then it seems to be right on. I'm happy that it does go forward, at least sometimes, and maybe it's as useful a scale of intelligence as we'll get. I can almost hear the engine roaring along for some people while the clutch fails to engage, and it may be Feynman's genius that he was better able than most people to keep it clicking forward (and was fearless enough to let the path take him where it led).

And this may well be one of the pleasures of fiction too, to extract the linear trends out of the highly recursive subjective experiences. I think it's good writing to engage a deeper understanding of what cognition and communication really feels like in the extreme close-up, but on the other hand, there's a reason we've been lying to ourselves about it for 6000+ years. We humans seem to find this intellectual muddling forward to be just a touch unpleasant and like to make our stories about sequences and decisions. And then let's throw into that bubbling stew some other human frailties--depression, negative comparisons, failed standards—and a deep awareness of the process can start to be a real bitch. Self-loathing can achieve a very special circularity among smart people, where it leads to an analysis of your own character, which leads an understanding of why you're miserable and how you've failed to change it, which is loathsome. It may be astute, but how much of this does anyone really want to read?

This is the spirit that suffuses almost everything in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. (There are many such brief interviews, and the whole book includes those among a long series of other vignettes and shorts.) The title of the book is the punchline: the many depressed or disturbed characters are exposed by the text as, in fact, horrible people, despite their lies and notwithstanding their occasional awareness. I hate that I got sick of them halfway through, and after a while I stopped distinguishing them so well, particularly in the "hideous men" sections, where everyone shared the same mannerisms (unpunctuated quote unquote speech qualifiers and so forth) and a universally easy intellectual access to the world of the therapist's couch, whatever the actual varied settings of the interview. Too much self-help styled recrimination hanging under a very affected textual experiment. Eventually it all started to sound in my mind like the relentless thumps and scratches of David Foster Wallace flogging himself.

I don't think it had to connect in such a leaden fashion with me. There are points of this book that are funny, which would have worked even better if he had made his jokes and kept things short. I wish there were more of them. I remarked to Schmutzie that some of the sections could read a little like a comedy routine, and a feeling of external context would have done wonders for that, but I didn't often have enough in the text itself to spot Wallace's humor cues (and it wasn't quite satisfying enough to run the experiment assuming it's humor). Some of the situations are sufficiently absurd (there's an episode of intimidation by literal dick-waving) that they're worth a bemused chuckle, and some of the characters attain a self-negating Humbertish pomposity that is entertainment gold (god help me, I thought the episode where the old man elaborates on his deathbed his resentment of his offspring—babies are such users—was hilarious). But that's not an author comparison I'd have preferred to make, because while I can accept the discomforting marriage of felicity and nastiness, it's got to balance, and Nabokov comes off as a far better writer in the matchup, while Wallace leaves me heavy on the hideousness. Likewise, the contrast of their stated equanimity to everything else they reveal in their interviews was well-positioned and entertaining when it was covered the first dozen times, but eventually the mode got too well-used. I do wonder how those parts would have grabbed me as a teenager, when I was more willing to entertain that "what women want" could be compartmentalized from their existence as human beings.

Wallace tried to break the short story form often and consciously in this book. Breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader worked much less well than taking apart the language and monkeying with it. There is a story—told disjointed, tinted, and almost poetic—that elevates a personal tragedy into something almost beautiful and dreamlike. I also enjoyed the freewheeling retelling of a California drama in the style of some futuristic mythic versificator. The skills are there, and more playfulness and less hideousness would have gone a long way toward my enjoyment. I don't want the self-loathing spiral to seem even more shallow and yet inescapable.


Michael said...

Good stuff K. I'd like to read your take on Infinite Jest.

Keifus said...

Thanks, man. If I had more time and willpower, I'd put it up against Gravity's Rainbow (finally finding an excuse to read both).

Cindy said...

You gotta do it, K.

You're a natch!