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Critical Review by Jenifer Levin
SOURCE: "Love Is a Federal Highway." in New York Times, November 5, 1989, Sec. 7, p. 31.
In the following review, Levin finds Wallace's collection of short stories evidence of both an impressive talent and a tendency toward excess.
With this collection of stories [Girl with Curious Hair], David Foster Wallace, the author of the novel The Broom of the System, proves himself a dynamic writer of extraordinary talent, one unafraid to tackle subjects large and small. Ever willing to experiment, he lays his artistic self on the line with his incendiary use of language, at times seeming to rip both the mundane and the unusual from their moorings, then setting them down anew, freshly described.
Mr. Wallace is particularly interested in flux as a partial definition of human nature, in distance as a component of love and—most important to him, perhaps—in the obvious as well as the subtle linking of seeing and vision, masks and the truth behind them.
Mr. Wallace is nothing if not audacious. Real-life heroes, villains, historical figures, sports legends, television personalities—even dinosaurs—appear in these stories alongside his fictitious characters, who themselves run the gamut from banal to psychotic. In "Little Expressionless Animals," for example, a young woman with an incredible winning streak on the television game show "Jeopardy!" is finally defeated by her psychologically disturbed brother—the whole encounter engineered when the producers become too touchy about her ongoing lesbian love affair. In "Lyndon," David Boyd, a fictitious mail clerk who joins Lyndon Johnson's Senate staff, tells the story of his companionship with Lady Bird and describes his own arranged marriage to a wealthy alcoholic and his long homosexual union with a Haitian "with diplomatic immunity." More than mere storytelling, his is an attempt to probe the meaning of love and responsibility to individual people and to his country against a background of multiple declines: Johnson's from heart disease, Boyd's and his lover's from AIDS, America's from Vietnam.
"Love is simply a word," says Mr. Wallace's fictional incarnation of Lady Bird Johnson. "It joins separate things. Lyndon and I, though you would disagree, agree that we do not properly love one another anymore. Because we ceased long ago to be enough apart for a 'love' to span any distance. Lyndon says he shall cherish the day when love and right and wrong and responsibility, when these words, he says, are understood by you youths of America to be nothing but arrangements of distance." She goes on to explain that her husband's "hatred of being alone is a consequence of what his memoir will call his great intellectual concept: the distance at which we see each other, arrange each other, love. That love, he will say, is a federal highway, lines putting communities, that move and exist at great distance, in touch. My husband has stated publicly that America, too, his own America, that he loves enough to conceal deaths for, is to be understood in terms of distance."
In another story, the witty "My Appearance," a successful television actress agonizes over her upcoming spot on the David Letterman show, pops one tranquilizer after another and muses (with emotionally disastrous results) over the differences between the way things appear to be and the way they really are. And in the title story, "Girl with Curious Hair," the narrator—a successful young corporate lawyer, the graduate of a military academy and several Ivy League universities, the second son of an honored military family who also happens to be a psychotic sociopath—reveals the childhood source of his sadistic sexual compulsions while reminiscing about a Keith Jarrett concert that he attended with a group of savagely lost punk-rocker companions.
If Mr. Wallace's characters include the transcendent as well as the maimed, his style is similarly varied, running from prosaic to lyrical. "I've just never liked it," one of his characters says of poetry. "It beats around bushes. Even when I like it, it's nothing more than a really oblique way of saying the obvious." To which her friend replies, "But consider how very, very few of us have the equipment to deal with the obvious."
Mr. Wallace might as well be commenting on modern fiction in general here. He himself is more than capable of dealing with the obvious. However, he is obsessed not only with the appearance of things but with their true nature, with objects and relationships as they really are, beneath the veils that hide them. Interestingly enough, his ability simply to describe is superb. And it is when he allows his observations to speak for themselves, when he does not permit himself to become pedantic by overstating the obvious, that he is at his most effective. When showing rather than telling, Mr. Wallace allows his characters to function in both a symbolic and a living context. When showing rather than telling, he is tender enough and strong enough not to shy away from love—whether he's attempting to define it or (better yet) simply daring to expose it.
Mr. Wallace is such a bold writer that his failures can be almost as interesting as his successes. Unfortunately, he sometimes slides into a kind of showboating, a smug display of sheer knowledge and cleverness. And so the pieces that don't work ("Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR" and a ponderous novella, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way") come off as the sort of inside jokes that might play best in a creative writing seminar; they're meaningful and witty, perhaps, to those who are willing to sacrifice substance to stylistic or symbolic experimentation, but tiresome to the rest of us.
And yet, when Mr. Wallace is at his best he is undoubtedly among the very best. The most successful fiction in Girl with Curious Hair has the quality of a dream: powerful, fixating, explosive and mysterious. Mr. Wallace brings us, time and again, to hidden, mythic places that are strange yet oddly familiar, larger than life yet inexplicably known—and knowable. He is definitely interested in what a television executive in one of the stories calls "the capacity of facts to transcend their internal factual limitations and become, in and of themselves, meaning, feeling."
This is especially true of the extraordinary story "John Billy," a luminous explosion into the realm of myth in which a bandy-legged Oklahoman is transformed by a near-fatal brush with death (and evil) into a creature of both darkness and light, one whose damaged eyes extend like the waving ends of antennae from his head, capable of finally seeing things. Those eyes are his undoing, for they show him the wasted and bleeding countryside, linking him (like the Fisher King of myth) to the death of the land.
In this daring exploration of the mythological and metaphysical context of fiction—and thus of life itself—Mr. Wallace demonstrates his remarkable talent. He succeeds in restoring grandeur to modern fiction, reminding us of the ecstasy, terror, horror and beauty of which it is capable when it is released from the television-screen-sized confines of minimalism.
This section contains 1,158 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)