Girl with Curious Hair is my first crack at David Foster Wallace. It's hard to come at him with fresh eyes; he's become so quickly legendary--something his suicide probably encouraged. It's hard to ignore the way in which he became like a character in one of his own stories, navigating the reality of celebrity and the problems it poses to sincerity and mental integrity. In the story "My Appearance," Wallace asks, is David Letterman really the same person he seems to be? Are any of us? The modern maelstrom of television, pop culture--we would say social media, which Wallace never really got to weigh in on, I think--exacerbates those kinds of questions.
As in "My Appearance," one of Wallace's tried-and-true methods is to depict a real-life celebrity. Besides Letterman, there's Alex Trebek in "Little Expressionless Animals" and Hawaii Five-0 star Jack Lord in "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way." Some of these depictions are more insightful than others. Wallace's Trebek and Letterman in particular seemed to me to be treading the same ground, and canceling each other out in a way. The most successful of these, for me, is "Lyndon," an account of LBJ's intimacy with a loyal and fictitious gay staff member. Unlike the satirical edge of "My Appearance" or "Animals," "Lyndon" plays it mostly straight, which is why its investigation of the overlap between sexual love and other kinds of intimacy is so powerful. It helps that Wallace's LBJ really seems like LBJ--not like a parodic simulacrum, which is the case for the others.
You can see the young Wallace trying his hand at several other strategies over and over. There are at least three stories here from multiple viewpoints, two of which are about a failing relationship, and neither of which is very successful. There's a lot of mimicry in different shades. One story, "John Billy," adopts a Shakespearean kind of West-Texas drawl that produces lines like,
How Chuck Nunn Junior's color was that of the land and how his sweat smelled like copper and how the good ladies of Minogue got infallibly behooved to sit down whenever he passed, walking as walks a man who is in communion with Forces, legs bandy and boots singing with the Amarillo spurs he won himself at the '65 State Fair in O. City for kicking the public ass of a bull without but one horn, but a sharp one.
The title story is a parody of Bret Easton Ellis, in which a Yuppie sadist pals around with a group of crusty nihilist punks making violent havoc at a Keith Jarrett concert. (It might be the reason why Ellis hated Wallace so much.)
The collection ends with a long novella, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way." The plot is difficult to summarize, because it's so self-consciously stupid: A pair of creative writing students fly to central Illinois to take place in a massive reunion for everyone who's ever been in a McDonald's commercial. The adman responsible for the reunion is also bankrolling a series of Funhouses based on their creative writing professor's story "Lost in the Funhouse" (an actual postmodernist story by John Barth, on whom the professor is modeled). "Westward" is meant to be a parody, too, of Barthian postmodernism, with its obsession with form and its suspicion of realism or sentimentality. But while Wallace craves a literature without irony, that can communicate human truths without illusive games of feints, these stories show little ability to provide it. The problem with "Westward" is that the parody is at times indistinguishable from Wallace's own work. The novella ends up being largely tedious and obscure, and its observations about fiction are mostly a loop of postmodern anxieties with no exit ramp. It is neither, as Wallace writes about one of the characters in "Westward," valuable nor free.