Thursday, October 2, 2014

Girl with Curious Hair: On David Foster Wallace as Storyteller

David Foster Wallace never seemed to care if a reader engaged with his writing or not. So much of his work seemed to strive for clever performance at the expense of readability, shunning those willing to go along for the ride.

There’s a sense Wallace was writing for himself, and in retrospect, we now read his work and see in it the construction of the edifice of DFW. It is a façade: how much of the criticism of DFW is just cutting through to all of the talk that surrounds him now? It is difficult to remove the tragic writer from the work. There are hints of it, couched as often funny fabulist asides in, I’ll venture, nearly every story. This is the way a desperate act of negation casts its shadow over everything. As this piece on his copious book annotations makes explicit, it seems that, in our lifetimes, we’re never going to cease to see him as a Kurt Cobain of literature. We needed him. We need him. We read him because he’s become this figure.

So much of what’s in here now seems well assimilated into the fictional culture. The collection is now 25 years old—in writing terms, that’s barely enough to claim generational impact—but that we know the impact of mythic DFW. In fact, for so long, anything strange I had written could seem to have had a foreshadowing in Wallace’s work: where was I getting this influence if I had not even read him yet? Of course, there are collections I’ve liked which I could say indirectly crept into my “style” (Joshua Cohen’s Four New Messages, certain Ben Marcus stories, etc.) and certainly these writers were influenced by Wallace.

With a writer of this caliber, because of all of the mythos, the dissertations and symposia that will likely go on for some time, he will be read and scrutinized. This is what will make people return to his work. Yet, on the basis of hit or miss work, it makes you wonder why he’s so beloved. As if because of how he writes, or that there’s a sense that some esoteric fiction appeals to people who only claim to fully grasp it. It may be “how” he writes, but it’s not necessarily that engaging for what he writes.

I could have used a reading guide on the more arch and intricate stories in Girl with Curious Hair. I’ll even go so far as to say, much of the writing is tedious—in which there was nothing to grab hold of, nothing for a reader to feel compelled to read on. I suspect that what’s so amazing about Wallace’s talent is on display here, but overall, on the basis of this collection, this isn’t enough to elevate him into the stratosphere.

It’s clear that, from the basis of a handful of successful stories in Girl with Curious Hair, that Wallace could write an earnest and powerful story. Where he trips up is not caring enough about a reader’s experience. For as much of Girl with Curious Hair that is unbearable, there is an equivalent of writing that inspires awe, shock and surprise. There is immense readability, and riches, in the first four stories that make up Girl with Curious Hair.

It’s a relief, and a joy, really, to read much of Girl with Curious Hair. With its formal invention, sly gimmickry, one-upmanship, and wonderful characterizations (if a bit too unmercifully graphic) of Lyndon Johnson, et. al. The stories are well-formed, if however at times, elliptically. And what he achieves at times is sheer readability and comprehension, unlike much of what I’ve read from him (I stalled two thirds of the way through Infinite Jest, though I intend to finish it). When it works, he seems to have understood his mastery and control, and uses it to literature’s ends.

I found myself reading, and enjoying, these stories initially, with very little flagging. I was on a roll until “John Billy”, which trips up by its syntax and unrelieved monotone. As well, the stories occasionally veer into condescending portrayals of stereotypes. Is it still exceptional in some way—technically? Perhaps. Is it audacious? Undoubtedly so. It is just one story I could not read through to the end without feeling my eyeballs hurt.

The first four stories, and “Here and There”, carry their own ecosystems within them. In each there are passages that reveal a careful ear and eye; in “Lyndon”, I sensed that kind of transport of the alchemy of fiction, and this is enough to recommend the book  (“Lyndon” is about as perfect a short story as we’ll have from Wallace, along with “Forever Overhead”, the one story that doesn’t fit in the collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men), even if some felt to me confusing and hermetic—a hermeticism that I felt excluded from. Or perhaps that I’m seeing the workings of Wallace’s mind in those words, and it’s a place I’m not always certain I want to go, but for the fact that letting him take me there at other times has proven occasionally enlightening or entertaining.

And yet, this is the all too common register for Wallace. From it one gets the sense that he knew how to show off—and when you come to the end, the stories frequently feel less like literature and more like exercises. It’s as if all that writing that he admired and pronounced on, he could not take seriously within himself enough to treat of the material with equanimity. Even in “Lyndon” and parts of “Little Expressionless Animals”, he resorts to fabulism and absurdity. He might have made arguments endlessly about life in our television obsessed culture, but this doesn’t excuse that much of his story writing is unenjoyable. I’m not attempting to say that entertainment is the only end result of the fiction enterprise, but you get the sense the bombast was a default mode for Wallace, and it can get old fast. Maybe his preoccupations with pop culture/consumer/corporate culture, could be a little too much an obvious item to point one’s finger at (or maybe only in the quarter century retrospection). Sure, he could riff like a maniac in some of his characterizations, but it’s hard to take him seriously. Or rather, it’s difficult to always appreciate the workings, the greater goal of literature, because of the showy nature of it. Because, even though he tries to come off as an entertainer, his work is bogged down by an endless need to impress and perform. The performance only works when it is not self-conscious. This is what many critics of fiction would call being clever. The idea being that the writer only thinks they are clever, but no one else does.

What’s clear is that Wallace didn’t know—and maybe didn’t care—when he was boring. But this awareness is part of, I believe, being a successful fiction writer. It’s interesting that for someone who was such a perfectionist, this didn’t extend to making his work any more engaging. And it also makes me think of another writer who has been hyped to death posthumously, but whose work is equally hit or miss, Roberto Bolaño, though it seems fair to assume that Bolaño was less of a perfectionist.

Even as he nails a portrayal of David Letterman in “My Appearance” (another of the stories that work)—the reasons why are also obvious, I think, Letterman is a character in public consciousness—it feels less insightful and weird even than his Lyndon Johnson. Though in the portrayal of character, his Lyndon can seem like a cornpone caricature. For all that, the impact of the storytelling, its means and ends, gives “Lyndon” the greater depth and frisson as a piece of literary fiction.

In spite of all of this harsh criticism, I’ll admit there’s much bravura in this on—maybe half the time—collection.

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