David Foster Wallace is an important writer in my life, someone I feel a rare connection with. That is based almost entirely on his nonfiction (and times I’ve seen him interviewed and such), as the only fiction of his I had read before this book was his magnum opus Infinite Jest. I did not find that book as excruciating to get through as a “postmodern” novel of that length could easily have been, and indeed there are certain things I found interesting or worthwhile about it and I’m glad to be able to say I’ve read it in its entirety, but certainly it did not touch me or make me feel a kinship with him the way his nonfiction often has.
Girl with Curious Hair is fiction as well, his first of three collections of short stories. In style it seems similar to Infinite Jest, though I’m sure critics or more sophisticated readers could point to various distinctions.
There are ten stories in all, starting with Little Expressionless Animals, which is about a contestant on the game show Jeopardy! Already in this first story there are themes that recur in later stories, or in some cases in his writings beyond this book.
One that I’m still not quite sure what to think of is how when Wallace fictionalizes something from real life, he routinely gets it “wrong,” I’m assuming on purpose. That is, what we read of in this story is a version of Jeopardy! that exists in some alternate universe, like the real one in some respects and unlike it in others.
I don’t mean it’s unrealistic in the way that, say, science fiction is unrealistic, like if Alex Trebek turned out to be a space alien in disguise or something. It’s more that various mundane facts about the show are changed, as if the story were written by someone only vaguely familiar with it.
Some of the questions and answers (like asking about Eva Braun’s shoe size) are not the sort that occur on the show. In claiming that the main character won the maximum amount it’s possible to win, the dollar amounts of all the standard questions are simply added up, which doesn’t work because that would mean the Daily Doubles are missing. A befuddled Alex Trebek cancels Final Jeopardy! on the grounds that the player who swept both boards has an insurmountable lead, something that would never happen—an insurmountable lead is not uncommon on Jeopardy!, and it does not entail canceling Final Jeopardy!—and if the mistake did occur it would be edited out before the show aired. A contestant gives Trebek the finger and it’s aired, again something that would obviously be edited out in real life. And on and on.
Again, I assume Wallace knows these details are wrong. If so, then what’s the point?
If I had to hazard a guess I’d say maybe it has to do precisely with violating literary conventions. Usually if you write something like this based on a real thing—science fiction, fantasy, satire, etc.—the idea is for it to only differ from the real in ways that are in some sense essential. So as mentioned above, you might make Trebek a space alien, but there would typically be no reason to change what time the show airs, what year it first came on the air, how many contestants are on each show, etc.
By violating the convention, Wallace makes us aware of it on a conscious level instead of just vaguely expecting it to be followed, and makes us aware that it’s not a necessity but is just something people are used to that in principle could be questioned or changed.
I’m not sure what the value of doing that is, but the way it kicks things up to a metalevel, causing you to think about structural matters and such rather than the substance of the story, seems to fit what little I know about postmodernism.
Another common Wallace theme we find in this first story is his interest in (usually highly intellectual) people who had unconventional (mostly in bad ways) childhoods. It feels like there’s a lot that’s autobiographical about that—that he knew that he had an extraordinary intellect and an ability to think outside the box, and that he spent a great deal of time trying to wrap his mind around his own childhood and the way it may have given rise to his later mental problems—though I get the impression from what I’ve read of Wallace’s life that his family members were mostly pretty good people, and not particularly fucked up. (As opposed to the mother of the Jeopardy! contestant, who decides her daughter and her autistic son are inconvenient to her dating life and so simply abandons them by the side of the road one day.)
Another thing common to Wallace’s fiction is that his characters often don’t talk like real people, at least not people I’m familiar with. Their speech is more poetry than prose, full of elaborate metaphors, obscure references, and in general intellectual, or pseudo-intellectual, opaqueness.
The stories themselves are typically obscure too, no more willing to be real and come right out and say what they mean than these characters are. It’s not to the point of being completely surreal or completely incomprehensible, but you have to struggle to acquire a general idea of what’s going on by taking educated guesses at the missing context and such—or at least I do.
Not that Little Expressionless Animals is completely uninteresting, or has no discernible story. It’s sort of about emotionally damaged women becoming lesbians, but some of the characters make the connection in more of a mocking way, so maybe it’s Wallace’s way of poking fun at the commonplace notion that being gay requires some kind of (maybe traumatic) explanation that being straight does not.
In Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR, two characters referred to only as “the Account Representative” and “the Vice-President in Charge of Overseas Development” encounter each other in a parking garage. Suddenly, one has a heart attack, and the other comes to his aid.
My take on it is that it takes something of that magnitude to break through their perverse, artificial corporate personae to what little remains of their individuality and personhood underneath that, to enable the one man to show that he’s still capable of responding as a human being to a human being when reality forces its way into their interaction. For up until that point, the picture that has been painted of them is that they have the kind of bland, generic jobs you’d expect from those job titles, and are living dead end, pointless lives. Both are described as being in pain though the reasons aren’t specified in detail, so maybe it’s just their corporate-dominated existence in general that’s sucking the life out of them (and our society).
Wallace had a phobia/fascination with white collar jobs like that, seeing them as the epitome of boredom. (Me too, though more phobia than fascination in my case.) I believe that was one of the themes of the novel he had almost completed when he committed suicide, which was published posthumously as The Pale King.
The title story—Girl with Curious Hair—is a good example of how dark and weird Wallace’s stories can be. They aren’t necessarily surreal in the sense of a lot of supernatural things going on or whatever, but there is frequently something unconventional and creepy about the characters, their psyches, or just the way Wallace chooses to describe them.
There is, again, often a focus on damaging events in childhood. The protagonist of this story, for instance, is unable to have “normal” sex, but is obsessed with receiving “fellatio” (as he always calls it) and has a fetish for burning people, all because when he and his sister were tiny their father caught them experimenting sexually, and in a rage he burned the boy’s penis with a lighter as punishment.
Wallace’s stories tend to be about dysfunctional people, or about really fucked up people who function quite well, raising the question of just how sick the world is if these people fit so well in it.
The main character, also the narrator, may well have been more damaged by the conventional parts of his childhood that most people would look upon with approval than by his father’s physical abuse. He was raised in a very politically conservative, wealthy family of Marines, and enough strings were pulled to get him an elite education and a job as a corporate attorney.
In his spare time, he hangs out with a group of nihilist punk rocker druggy criminals. He can’t go all the way and look like them in terms of hair, tattoos, mode of dress, etc., because he and they need him to keep his position in the conventional world and keep drawing a large income.
I’m not sure quite what we’re to make of his mental status. The narration is of a Vonnegut-like literalness and childlike simplicity. He seems retarded in a way, but on the other hand his prose is perfectly literate. There’s something vaguely autistic in his detached, neutral descriptions of people. He describes their speech and behavior, but not really anything he infers about their inner life.
Early on the language struck me as more comical than anything—“I very much enjoy seeing Negroes perform in any of the performing arts. I feel they are a talented and delightful race of performers, who are often very entertaining”—but the deeper it gets into the story and the more time we spend with him, the creepier and more psychopathic he seems.
Lyndon is a story about former President Lyndon Johnson. Well, sort of anyway, since, like the Jeopardy! story it’s more like something from a parallel universe with a character who overlaps to some extent with the real LBJ and has the same name.
In Lyndon, Johnson as President has a gay aide whose lover is dying of something suspiciously like AIDS. That’s not the only anachronism; Johnson is said to have worked in the “Dirksen Building” in the 1950s, whereas in reality the Dirksen Senate Office Building got that name in 1972. The former anachronism is almost certainly intentional; the latter is more likely than not intentional also, but it’s the kind of small point that I wouldn’t be shocked if Wallace simply made a mistake.
Johnson is presented as crude, which is certainly accurate, but beyond that I don’t know that there’s really much resemblance between this character and the real LBJ. Johnson, Lady Bird, and other characters often speak in an obscure, philosophical manner, which as usual sounds more like Wallace than like I can imagine these historical figures speaking. Johnson (the character) is evidently sympathetic toward gay people, and makes some weird deep connection with the aide’s dying lover.
Taken at face value, it’s mostly quite silly. But I still wonder what the purpose is of giving these fictional characters the names of real people.
Hoping to understand that better, I read a commentary online from someone who loved this story, and who writes of what an intriguing way to play with reality it would be if Wallace could actually alter readers’ perceptions of Johnson, if not in terms of specific acts and statements, then at least in terms of his personality and such.
Um, no, that would be appalling. I don’t know if that was in any way Wallace’s intent—to change people’s beliefs or attitudes about the actual historical figures and institutions in his stories—but if it was I strongly disapprove. It’s not intriguing; it’s Orwellian. It’s a bit less offensive—because less effective—than something like Goebbels or Fox “News,” because it’s presented in a format that is admittedly fiction, but if it’s really supposed to fool people then it’s still objectionable.
It would be bad enough if it just affected how readers see Johnson as far as his personal life and values, like if they come to believe he was the kind of person who could bond like this with a gay man. (I don’t know enough about him to know if he was or wasn’t.) But what I find worse is that Wallace attributes certain political and ideological positions to Johnson, which could have more serious deleterious consequences if readers actually believed him.
Most egregiously, he has Johnson looking back on his Great Society programs and declaring them a mistake, on the grounds that by alleviating suffering his programs had spoiled young people and made them irresponsible. It’s an asinine point—as if the modest social programs of that era eliminated suffering, and no one any longer suffered in poverty or from discrimination or in Vietnam, etc.—but it’s especially offensive to attribute it to Johnson, making it sound like one of the leaders most responsible for 20th century liberalism eventually admitted liberalism is wrong.
John Billy is the story of a Superman/Christ figure in rural Oklahoma—imagine someone as implausibly superior as Sidd Finch, but in all areas of life instead of just one specific thing like pitching. He’s dominant in sports, is irresistible to women, achieves phenomenal success in business, etc. As a soldier he uses psychology to get the enemy to kill themselves rather than him.
The story has a convoluted structure, which I take it is a mark of postmodern fiction. The narrator recounts how he told the story to someone who had just returned to town, so it’s sort of a story about a story within a story.
The most striking thing about John Billy is probably the language. It’s like a combination of that weird, stilted, intellectual or pseudo-intellectual way the tennis kids in Infinite Jest and numerous other characters in Wallace’s fiction talk, and the speech of an uneducated, semi-literate hillbilly.
In other words, it’s language you would never hear from a real person, which I think is supposed to be funny. Indeed, probably the whole story is intended as humor—except the confusing, poetic, supernatural ending, which I’m guessing is intended seriously—but it didn’t work for me on that level.
I couldn’t make any sense of that ending, by the way.
The story that I would guess is the most autobiographical is Here and There, as it is about a guy from Bloomington (though Indiana rather than Illinois for some reason) who goes to an Ivy League school, and is extraordinarily gifted at both math and technology type things and literature and poetry, and wants to combine them in some innovative, revolutionary way.
The story is about his breakup with his girlfriend from back home. Again the structure is unconventional. It is written as a series of quotes, from him, her, and at least one third party, like a therapist. At one point he and the third party refer to his having decided as a literary and therapeutic exercise to fictionalize the relationship and its aftermath.
So you don’t know how much of this is about Wallace himself, how much is fiction within fiction, etc. If the narrator is fictionalizing the story, is the explicit reference to his doing so within the story something that “really” happened or is the occurrence of that reference itself fiction? If he’s writing this as an exercise, are all the parts really by him?
It does not appear that this is three—or more—people all talking to each other in the same place. The quotes are not in a completely random order, but they are also not in the clearest logical or chronological order. For example, if one person asks a question of another, the next quote is typically not an answer from that person. So, still more oddity or playfulness with the structure.
The language is not as goofy in that showy intellectual way as in some of the other stories, and even to the extent that it is like that it’s less grating because it’s from a person or people in academia who might actually communicate something like that.
Once I got past the unconventional structure—which you can think of as brilliantly and hilariously innovative, or pointlessly gimmicky; I’m somewhere in between, closer to the latter—substantively it’s a somewhat interesting take on the emotional imperfections and immaturities of youth, and of the fear and pain the Wallace-like protagonist feels during this turbulent time of his life.
My Appearance is another TV story, this time about a television actress being coached before her appearance on David Letterman’s show. This gives Wallace an opportunity to present his views on TV, which he also did in nonfiction essay form, as ironic, self-referential, laughing at itself before you can laugh at it, etc.
This Letterman show doesn’t feel any more real than Wallace’s Jeopardy! If I knew nothing about this piece, I would never mistake it for a nonfiction account of guesting on Letterman.
The Top Ten lists, for instance, aren’t Letterman-style. The real Letterman Top Tens are ten made-up gags, such as “Dan Quayle’s Top Ten New Year’s Resolutions,” or “Top Ten Signs You’ve Gone to a Bad Doctor.” In this story the Top Tens are things like “Top Ten Worst Commercials,” which are actual commercials that are then shown. That’s just not the format of the bit.
Similarly, this Letterman’s pushing his actress guest on the ethics of doing commercials sounds nothing like the real Letterman. Letterman was never political in that sense.
Actually there were parts of Lyndon—for instance, many of the quotations from alleged historians and such interspersed in the narrative—that do feel real and that I would not have been surprised to find out are real. (They aren’t. But that’s the point; I had to look that up online to be sure.) But not at all with these TV pieces.
But I’ve already dwelled too much on how the Wallace version of some of these things doesn’t match reality. It’s OK to describe that phenomenon, but probably not to complain about it, as then I suspect I’d be as unhip as people complaining that modern art doesn’t create representations as accurate as photographs.
Moving on, Say Never is one of the more confusing stories in a book of confusing stories. It jumps around among multiple narrators. Eventually you can make out at least the basic story, which has to do with a guy cheating on his wife with his brother’s younger, hotter girlfriend. He writes a long letter about it to all their family and friends, maybe as a preemptive thing since he knows the news will get out eventually anyway and he wants to be able to give his version first, maybe as a way of punishing himself through the humiliation of a public confession, I’m not sure.
The protagonist writes in the intellectual style of the most insufferable of Wallace’s characters, which frankly I found more objectionable than his infidelity. I can’t say I got much out of this story.
The ninth story is Everything is Green, which is less than two pages long. The narrator is frustrated in his relationship with a younger woman. Evidently she’s lying to him about something, but more broadly he feels like he’s doing all the giving in the relationship and she remains too closed to him. At least I think something like that is what he’s saying, but like so much of this book it’s written in an obscure style that forces you to guess what might be going on.
I didn’t spend a whole lot of time trying to figure this story out, as by this time I was losing patience with the postmodern—or whatever it is—writing style of this collection. I want to think there’s something less masturbatory to this style than just obscurity for obscurity’s sake, but I don’t know.
The book ends with Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, by far the longest story—really more of a short novel.
It’s also probably the story I enjoyed the most of any of them, which may seem surprising given that it’s arguably the most gimmicky in structure and one of the least realistic in content of all. But it’s so ridiculous that I found it easier to just play along and appreciate it on the level of humor.
Maybe that’s what a reader is supposed to do with all these stories. Descriptions and reviews I read of the book routinely describe it as “hilarious” and the like; prior to this story I had a chuckle here and there, but I experienced most of what I read as less funny than creepy, psychologically insightful, boring, or, most often, confusing.
But I laughed out loud multiple times at Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way. (The title, by the way, is taken from a mural in the Capitol building in Washington.) Maybe the best such moment is when the postmodernist, high maintenance, bitchy, creative writing student writes a 20 page poem consisting solely of punctuation. (I suspect the character is only a slight exaggeration of real people Wallace came across in his many years in academia.)
I also liked the poor pesticide salesman whose product no longer works due to evolved immunity—or really worse than immunity; the corn pests through the generations have come to love the product. They have been “observed under research-laboratory magnification using their little legs and mandibles actually to spread the stuff with the even care of marmalade on a leaf or kernel before digging in.”
One line in the story in particular struck me as quite interesting in a more serious way: “Everyone who really wants to knows what’s true.” (The syntax is peculiar, but pause between the “to” and the “knows.”) As I interpret it, the claim here is that our myriad false beliefs and difficulties in seeing the world accurately aren’t so much a matter of reality being complicated and hard to grasp, nor even of people making things harder by routinely being deceptive toward us (though God knows there is that), but instead is a matter of our own psychological preference to see things as we want to see them rather than as they are. We might think we want the truth, but as often as not we really don’t.
Anyway, to summarize this utterly bizarre tale as best I can: It starts off with what seems to be an aside about some kids in a creative writing program, which then turns out to be the main story. Some (or all, I don’t remember) of them have acted in McDonald’s commercials in the past. One of their professors—the only one talked about in the story—has a vague connection of his own with McDonald’s. Evidently he wrote a story called Lost in the Funhouse (which is the name of an actual postmodern story and book, by the way), and in some unclear way that somehow led to or inspired McDonald’s to open a chain of discotheques called Funhouses where you enter through Ronald McDonald’s clown mouth. The advertising savant who handles McDonald’s has a brainstorm to gather together everyone who has ever been in a McDonald’s commercial for a reunion that will be filmed and made into a new McDonald’s commercial. So all those thousands of people, including the students from the creative writing class, gather at the site of the founding of the first McDonald’s (a completely unbelievable backstory of this founding is offered) in the middle of nowhere in central Illinois (i.e., in David Foster Wallaceland). The bulk of the “action” consists of the misadventures of some of the kids from the creative writing program, the advertising savant, and his buffoon son, who is costumed as Ronald McDonald, as they try to get from the tiny airport to where the reunion is being held, a journey that in Kafkaesque fashion drags on and on with one frustration after another and no resolution.
Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way contains plenty of tangents, stories within stories, the narrator saying what he’s doing rather than just doing it, and other structural oddities and deviations from conventional narrative.
I didn’t love the story, but as I say, this is one that I did have some fun reading. (Not that it doesn’t have a darker element here and there.)
But on the whole, Girl with Curious Hair didn’t reach me on a deep level. As I commented about Infinite Jest, this style is just not my cup of tea. I get into it to a limited extent, but I wonder how much of that is because I’m predisposed to like Wallace’s stuff due to the connection I feel with him through his nonfiction and what I know of him as a person. There’s a good chance for that same reason that I’ll eventually get around to reading the remaining books and stories of his that I haven’t read yet, but I don’t have high hopes that I’ll get more than a modest amount out of them.