Friday, February 18, 2011

Review: Girl with Curious Hair, by David Foster Wallace

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 1989

It's about: This is a collection of ten short stories.
"Little Expressionless Animals" is about a love affair between a "Jeopardy!" researcher and a contestant. "John Billy" is a tall tale about how a small-town demigod's life jumped the rails. "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" is about an M.F.A. writing program and a reunion for everyone who ever appeared in a MacDonalds commercial. The stories vary widely in content and themes, but several of them feature real-life characters, like Alex Trebec, Lyndon B. Johnson, and David Letterman. None of the stories are told from these celebrities' point of view, but they are important characters.

I noted a few recurring plot elements in this book that David Foster Wallace also explored in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, his collection of essays that I read and loved about a year ago. They include literary criticism and theory, television, and the Midwest (especially Illinois, DFW's home state).

I thought: I set myself up for disappointment here. I loved A Supposedly Fun Thing so much, and I was also fascinated by Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is basically a transcript of David Lipsky's weekend spent with David Foster Wallace in 1996. I really, really like this writer, and I felt sure that I was going to adore his fiction.

And I did like some of the stories in this book. Some of them very much. "Here and There" is the clever, simple, and sad story of a relationship and subsequent breakup, told exclusively through dialogue without any "he said" and "she said" tags. I was extremely impressed by how fully the characters were developed in such an unorthodox format, and by how much momentum the piece had despite a rather ordinary storyline. "Everything is Green" was possibly my favorite of all. It's less than two pages long. Every word is purposeful and important and the effect is beautiful.

A few of the stories are told in the first person and feature misspellings and misused words. I'm not sure I've ever encountered this device before. It's as if we are reading another person's writing rather than hearing his thoughts or listening to him speak. I liked it.

In general, all the things I love about DFW's style are here. I love the smattering of medical/physiological adjectives he uses ("eidetic", "neurasthetic", "coccyx-punishing"). I love his cleverness. I love the specific, unconventional descriptions. He is a fantastic writer. But most of the stories didn't blow me away; I really only loved two of the ten. "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" is the longest story (it's basically a novella) and it has almost no plot. My respect for Mr. Wallace's writing alone couldn't keep my attention for the full 140 pages.

But I really HATED (and I mean HATED) the repulsive, disorientingly disturbing title story. HATED. And yes, I know that that is the point. It's told from the P.O.V. of a young, rich, sick Republican, and catalogs the various hideous things he and his punkrock friends do for kicks. I know that it's an exercise in absurdity, and I guess the goal was to produce a visceral reaction in the reader. So it's a success on all counts. But, well, one rotten apple can spoil the barrel. And that was the case here, maybe because it's the title story. Every time I look at this book, that is the story that comes to mind.

Verdict: In Between. I think I like David Foster Wallace himself more than I like his stories.

Reading Recommendations: Check out his essays!
You can download .pdfs of a bunch of his Harper's pieces here, including my favorite from this collection, "Everything Is Green." It might be slightly different from the version in the collection, but probably pretty close.

Warnings: MAJOR swears in a couple of them. Sex and violence in a few, too.

Favorite excerpts:
"D.L. was severely thin, thin in a way that suggested not delicacy but a kind of stinginess about how much of herself she'd extend to the space around her. Thin the way mean nuns are thin. She walked funny, with the pelvis-led posture of a man at a urinal; she carried her arms either wrapped around her chest or out and down at a scarecrow's jangly right angles; she was slatternly and exuded pheromones apparently attractive only to bacteria; she had a fatal taste for: 1) polyester; 2) pantsuits; 3) lime green."
(opening paragraph of "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way")

"I was convinced I could sing like a wire at Kelvin, high and pale, burn without ignition or friction, shine as cool as a lemony moon, mated to a lattice of pure meaning. Interferenceless transfer. But a small, quiet, polite, scented, neatly ordered system of new signals has somehow shot me in the head. With words and tears she has amputated something from me. I gave her the intimate importance of me, and her bus pulled away, leaving something key of mine inside her like the weapon of a bee. All I want to do now is drive very away, to bleed."
(from "Here and There")

"Was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nunn Junior done wronged the man that wronged him and fleen to parts unguessed. Brought up the Ranger to date on Chuck and Mona May Nunn's boy Chuck Junior, closest thing to handsome and semi-divine we got here in Minogue Oklahoma, good luck bad luck man, who everything that hit him stuck and got valuable, but on whom of this late time the vicissitudes of human relatings had wrought grief and retinal aggravation to such a extreme that C. Nunn Jr. lost his temper to a nameless despair and got him some vengeance."
(opening paragraph of "John Billy")

What I'm reading next: The Cider House Rules, by John Irving
(After so many in-betweeners lately, I feel the need for something I'm almost sure I'll love: John Irving.)