Human Costs, Fractional Selves, and Neoliberal Crisis in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
In Brief Interviews, Wallace’s most mathematically driven work of fiction, the central lesson is how to value the other in such a way that she is not killed off – not mown down by being remade as a number in the punning meaning behind the Wallace story that gives this chapter its title, “Other Math.” I place this crucial dynamic of combining selves in the context of the many systems of human and economic valuation – from coins, gifts, and contracts to viewing a spouse as “my other half” – that knit together a collection too often read as a disparate assortment of stories. In Brief Interviews Wallace makes his fullest use of paratextual features of story-numbering, series, and page numbers to arrange for the reader an encounter with the stochastic mathematics that drives “Adult World,” which I regard as a take-down of Plato, a watershed in Wallace’s history of unbridled markets and neoliberalism, and the collection’s centerpiece (over the many who have focused on “Octet”). As in chapter 2, a crisis in the value of currency fires Wallace’s imagination, here in a response to the so-called Asian Flu of the late 1990s. Interweaving a genealogy of Wallace’s probability-driven formal experimentation with a history of stochastic math’s importance to modern finance, I describe the dialectic of computerized complexity and balance-scale simplicity that underlies this book’s moral vision.
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