Title: Girl With Curious Hair
Rating: 3 Stars
I’d read this collection many years ago. I didn’t remember a whole lot from it, so I gave it another shot.
The good news is that I enjoyed the short stories. My favorite was Lyndon, which probably tells more about my minor obsession with presidents than it does the quality of the story.
It’s the story of a fictionalized aide to LBJ, rising from the lowly mail room to being in LBJ’s constant presence. It briefly touches upon his senate and presidential actions, but it focuses on LBJ the person. I’ve read a review that describes Wallace’s fictionalized depictions of real world people as being holographic. That’s pretty apt. Somehow, within the span of a short story, Wallace can draw a character and it seems to breathe life. All of LBJ’s bravado, crudeness, and insecurity are on display here.
My Appearance is the story of a fairly successful actress getting ready to appear on the David Letterman show. Bear in mind that this collection was written in the late 1980’s, when David Letterman was doing his late show and was considered the arbiter of all that was cool. The actress, the lead in a television series, had just started making hotdog commercials. Her husband and her friend are terrified that Letterman will rip her apart and ruin her career over this. There are very intense strategy sessions to try to figure out how to respond to his questions in a knowingly (but not too knowing!) ironic manner to demonstrate her knowingly unknowing ironic self awareness (but not too self aware!). The fact that very successful, very highly paid people are obsessively working out the calculus of a five minute television interview is humorous. Letterman, sketched with few words but again with holographic clarity, is, in his own way, completely non-ironically authentic, making a mockery of all of the stratagems that the actress’ handlers were trying to employ.
Predating Ken Jennings, there is a story about a woman who has a three year winning streak on Jeopardy. This is used to get behinds the scenes of a game show. As with My Appearance, it takes a fairly benign television event, and you see intelligent, very highly paid people taking it extremely too seriously. Merv Griffin is presented as some kind of mysterious guru sage dispensing advice only to his initiates. Alex Trebek, Pat Sajak, and Bert Convy, all faces of popular game shows, obsess over their appearance and try to fill the days between their easy work schedules.
My other favorite story was the Girl With Curious Hair. In this story there is a collection of punk rockers who have become friends with a wealthy conservative young Republican businessman. The anti-social actions of the punk rockers mesh with the sociopathic nihilist tendencies of the young man to disrupt a jazz concert. It contrasts the social violence of the punk rockers with the actual deranged violence of the young man (he burns people for sexual enjoyment). This marriage of two different violent attitudes bringing forth possibly even greater violence led me to Alex recovering his violent tendencies and getting into league with the government at the end of A Clockwork Orange (I’m ignoring the 21st chapter which the American edition excluded and that the Kubrick movie also conveniently ignored 🙂 ).
The collection closed with a novella named Westward The Course Of Empire Takes Its Way. For me, this was the weakest work in the collection. I haven’t read too many reviews of it. I’m guessing that it’s probably the most technically skilled of all of the stories. It’s the story of an advertising executive who has the McDonald’s account gathering together all actors that have ever appeared in a McDonald’s commercial to appear in one more commercial that will be the apex of all McDonald’s commercials and possibly be the fin de siecle of advertising in general.
To me, this work is a dress rehearsal for Infinite Jest. It has the elements of post modernism that Wallace is famous for. There is the visible author of the story forcibly injecting himself into the work. There is the immediate now cultural references. There is gender confusion (is Magda really Dr Ambrose’s ex-wife or is she actually Dr Ambrose in drag?). There is the cognitive dissonance of literature (ie art) meshing with consumerism. There are obscure call outs to post modernists before him (eg John Barth).
And, oddly enough, there is Jack Lord. Yes, that Jack Lord, the star of the television series Hawaii Five-O. Bizarrely enough, about a year or two after this work came out, Thomas Pynchon released the long awaited Vineland, his first novel since Gravity’s Rainbow (I was literary aware then and it was kind of a shocking event since most people thought that the reclusive Pynchon had given up writing). Sure enough, in Vineland, Hawaii Five-O and Jack Lord make an appearance.
What is up with post modernists and Hawaii Five-O? Is it the overt colonialism (white man overhead in helicopter directing / imprisoning brown people)? Is the square jaw of Jack Lord some symbol of authority that they’re rebelling against? I haven’t read Vineland in a long time either, but I’m pretty sure at one point, just like here, someone says “Book-em, Danno”.
Anyway, this story, possibly a precursor to Infinite Jest, is definitely not Infinite Jest. It appears to be an early offering of an author trying to find his way. There really is nothing like a plot, it’s really just a group of people driving around in a car. The writing exhibits the worse traits of “look ma, no hands” kind of writing that Wallace made to much better use later (although, even here, as the omnipresent author, he amusingly acknowledges this self indulgence).
That’s not to say that Wallace’s genius doesn’t shine through. I don’t think it’s in him to actually write a bad story. Even in the novella and strewn throughout the other stories, there are almost throw away lines that made me laugh out loud.