David Foster Wallace | Critical Review by Douglas Siebold

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of David Foster Wallace.
This section contains 738 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Douglas Siebold

SOURCE: "'Maximalist' Short Fiction from a Talented Young Writer," in Chicago Tribune, January 21, 1990, Sec. 14, p. 7.

The following review highlights Wallace's distinctiveness from his predecessors, "the metafictionists," and his contemporaries, "the minimalists."

David Foster Wallace is probably the most talented of the writers under 30 who have been forced on the reading public over the past five or so years by publishers excited by the commercial success of such books as Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City and Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero.

Most of the work of these writers has been forgettable, in some cases even regrettable. But if the work of Wallace's contemporaries mostly consists of thin, under-nourished volumes that together form the body of the so-called "minimalist" school of American fiction, his work is resoundingly maximalist.

A 1985 graduate of Amherst, he developed his senior thesis into The Broom of the System (1987), a novel distinguished by the sprawling vigor of its prose as well as by its author's obvious ability, ambition and disdain for literary fashion.

Broom suggested that Wallace was an heir to such "metafictional" writers as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon. But in Girl with Curious Hair, his new collection of stories, Wallace makes irrelevant any distinction between schools. With his irrepressible narrative energy and invention, he is unafraid to extend his talents and take risks.

The Broom of the System (the title is from Wittgenstein) revealed that Wallace already had achieved a precocious mastery of metafictional techniques and conceits. In the nine stories and the concluding novella of Girl with Curious Hair, he demonstrates that his impressive facility with language and philosophical concepts (the son of a University of Illinois philosophy professor, Wallace himself is now doing graduate study in philosophy at Harvard) extends as well to literary styles.

One story, "Everything Is Green," fulfills every cliche associated with minimalist writing; it almost reads as though Wallace were attempting to define the stereotype by example. But the story, a gem of a thousand words at most, is one of the best and most affecting in the collection. In writing it, Wallace demonstrates that those minimalist conventions have become cliches only through their repeated abuse at the hands of less imaginative and less passionate writers. Many of the stories here deal with television, a subject Wallace handles with intelligence, understanding and respect. He recognizes the way television both informs and deforms our lives—particularly those of younger Americans who have grown up with television occupying as much as a quarter of their time.

In "Little Expressionless Animals" Wallace creates the greatest champion in the history of the game show "Jeopardy." "My Appearance" treats the fear and trembling faced by a middle-aged actress preparing for a guest shot on David Letterman's talk show. Wallace neither condescends to television nor underestimates its significance in the lives of his characters and readers. It also provides the context for some of his funniest stuff.

In the climactic novella, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," the TV show "Hawaii Five-O" and its star, Jack Lord, figure tangentially, as the story's characters (including its maddening narrator) address such larger issues as the possession of stories, the frying of roses, their greatest fears, the Vietnam War, archery, advertising and much, much more—mostly while packed into a car bouncing over the back roads of central Illinois.

"Westward" takes up somewhere near where The Broom of the System left off in terms of Wallace's involvement with "the apocalyptically cryptic Literature of Last Things, in exhaustion in general, and metafiction," in the words of the story's heroine. As Wallace has it, parts of the story "are written in the margins of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse and Cynthia Ozick's Usurpation (Other People's Stories)." The piece is erudite, extremely funny, and infuriating in its open-endedness, a Zeno's arrow that never quite reaches its target. The effect is impressive but unsatisfying—it's a work of virtuoso throat-clearing.

Wallace concluded a recent essay on his fledgling literary generation with an acknowledgment that many of his writing contemporaries—and perhaps those who may become the best of them—are as yet unpublished, learning and refining their craft. But among the young writers who are developing in public view, Wallace appears to be doing just fine. And though it may not amount to much more than apprentice work, Girl with Curious Hair is evidence that, as good a writer as he is now, he is getting better.

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This section contains 738 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Douglas Siebold
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