Thursday, August 27, 2015

What I Read: Girl With Curious Hair

Courtesy GoodReads

Speaking of my favorite authors over in the Blogger Book Drive post, here's a David Foster Wallace collection that I finished on vacation.

I first came to Wallace after a friend whose taste I trust recommended Infinite Jest. "You guys are both Writing and Philosophy double majors, you're like soul mates," he said, or something similar. So I picked it up and after a slow start I was sucked in. It was something else.

I became thirsty for Wallace. I read articles online and picked up collections of essays and short fiction. There isn't much left in his collected works I haven't read (I'm not touching A Pale King; I don't believe in posthumously publishing novels), so when I saw Girl With Curious Hair in a used bookstore I had to buy it. It was a good traveling companion for the last leg of my journey out of the Pacific Northwest and back to Sweden.

In a nutshell: it is weird. It is weirder than his other short fiction, in that there often isn't a concluding or satisfying logic to these short bits of world there is in his later work. one of those works I can appreciate it from a fan perspective (observing the evolution of his style) and even a literary commentary perspective (what he does with narrative and language and etc.) but I can't viscerally enjoy it. A lot of times when I read something, whether it's a whole novel or even just a short story, I usually leave with the sense that I can answer the question, "Why did the author write this story?" Such was not the case here; most of the stories in this collection I struggled to find that driving force.

This isn't surprising. Girl... is a very early work and Wallace was still polishing his voice and style. I can forgive the rough edges because they're a necessary part of the artistic process.

But the neat thing about a collection of short fiction is that I can give you a nutshell review of each selection in addition to my impressions of the whole thing!

"Little Expressionless Animals" is maybe the strongest piece in here, by which I mean: the one that is the most satisfying, narratively. It's up there with "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," which makes me wonder if Wallace's editor followed the old stand-up comedy advice of putting your best joke last, your second-best first, and then ping-ponging your way through the set until the worst is in the middle.

"Little Expressionless Animals" starts out a bit rough but ultimately you can put the pieces together and it's a fucked up and yet entirely believable story. Also it's a lot about Jeopardy!, which I love (and miss). Through the lens of American game show entertainment we eventually get a very clear portrait of one woman's life.

"Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR" is well-polished in terms of pacing and language, a very tight and focused little story that nonetheless lacked that "...but why?" urgency.

And now the eponymous selection, "Girl With Curious Hair." It has that same fucked-up surreality as "Little Expressionless Animals" (childhood tragedy seems to be a theme across Wallace's fiction), with the freak-out factor cranked up to 11.

Afterwards we have "Lyndon," which I appreciate as a fictional character study (not being an American presidential history buff I have no idea how much in this story was pure imagination and how much was based on extensive LBJ research), but not much more.

"John Billy" is a remarkable piece if only for the deft control of language and dialect Wallace exhibits.

"Here And There" is a tough nut to crack. I found this one probably the hardest to get into and I don't really have much else to say about it.

(Interestingly, if my "stand-up routine order" hypothesis is correct, this would suggest that Wallace or his editor or someone else thought that "Here And There" and "John Billy" were the weakest in the collection. I think I agree.)

"My Appearance" returns to a more or less linear form and, even if it's an unremarkable story in this collection, it's at least complete in a way many of the other stories are not. That completeness but also that theme of television appearances (this time Letterman instead of Jeopardy!) tie this story pretty strongly to "Little Expressionless Animals," at least for me. Never mind that it goes without saying that an "unremarkable" David Foster Wallace story is still really good.

Biographical snapshots continue with "Say Never," though outside the purview of television and instead from the perspective of perfectly normal and caring (though quickly aging) parents. Again, that earlier comment about "unremarkable" applies.

"Everything is Green" is a sudden, though not unpleasant, brief little thumbnail (it's just one page, front and back; the shortest in the book by a significant margin). I love what can be done in such short fiction, but this is a case where a few extra words would have imparted a lot more meaning.

Finally, we have the granddaddy of the whole collection:  "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way." It's over a hundred pages and takes up a good third of the book. Do I have more to say about it? Um. In a nutshell, it's about a bunch of people trying to make a grand opening of a new (fast food?) eatery based on Barth's (here fictionalized as Ambrose) Lost in the Funhouse. I haven't read any Barth (and was not sure the title even existed until I Googled it after reading), so there was a lot in this sucker that eluded me. I'll come back to it, one day, but today is not that day.

Like all of Wallace's writing, the stories in Girl...are dense, nested, and complicated. They demonstrate a remarkable technical control and you can even see the seeds of later work in them. But is it of interest to anyone who isn't already a fan of David Foster Wallace? Is this the first book of his that you should read? Probably not, and no. But for the fan, it is essential.

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