Review: Girl With Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace

dfwIt must be known, it is known—David Foster Wallace is an incredible writer.

Still, David Foster Wallace is not perfect, and even though I enjoyed his essays in Consider the Lobster immensely, I found myself occasionally struggling to get through his first collection of stories, Girl with Curious Hair.
It’s never enough to simply say I dislike something, and I always like to pinpoint why, so let’s take a look at some of the more successful aspects of the collection before moving on to less successful ones.

Some of the first stories in the collection remind me of the writing of Raymond Carver in its exploration and depiction of humanity and emotion, but DFW takes a decidedly more post-modern edge in stories like “Lyndon” and “My Appearance,” in which DFW fictionalizes the lives of actual historical persons, a device called historiographic metafiction.

I can’t deny David Foster Wallace’s talent.  Even after reading stories where I was left scratching my head in regards to certain references or confusing sentence structures, DFW succeeds in depicting humanity in both its  beauty and hideousness.  DFW does not shy away from issues he considered central to life.  Celebrities and presidents are humanized in “My Appearance,” “Little Expressionless Animals,” and “Lyndon.”  In “Girl with Curious Hair,” a Republican associates with liberal punks, has an obsession with fire, and attends a Keith Jarrett concert.   In other words, DFW explores a dynamic of interiority and exteriority through how individuals appear and how they truly are, a dynamic that reoccurs throughout the collection.

In the complex novella that ends the collection, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” DFW makes use of temporal distortion, jumping from one point in the story to another, but also ensures the reader is aware that he or she is reading a story.  The use of metafiction is especially apparent towards the end of “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” where the narrator discusses the story that Mark will end up writing.  To the unitiated, like myself, DFW’s writing style can be jarring and a bit difficult to keep track of.

“Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” may be the most interesting piece in the collection, but I found that my understanding of it was half-baked at best, though I’m not sure what to chalk that up to. Girl with Curious Hair is my first experience with David Foster Wallace’s fiction aside from one short story from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, so perhaps there is a learning curve involved.  DFW’s erudition is readily apparent, and Marshall Boswell has regarded “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” as “a pretentious piece of juvenilia.”  DFW himself said something along the lines of “25 year olds should not be given pen and paper” in regards to “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.”  Of course, DFW is being hard on himself, but I did find the story difficult due to the intertextual nature of the piece and numerous references throughout.  It also seemed to languish at times.

I’d like to explore some of the writers that DFW referred to in the collection (including John Barth and Brett Easton Ellis) as well as Lacan and Wittgenstein, two large influences on Wallace.  I’m hoping that having some of the same background knowledge will help me to understand the stories at a deeper level.  Girl with Curious Hair may be amongst the more accessible of DFW’s works, but it is still not the easiest of reads.  One thing that is apparent, though, is David Foster Wallace’s immense talent, even in his mid-20s.

A challenging but enjoyable read from a singular talent.

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