Among my favorite writers there is no-one whose writing sometimes does nothing for me more frequently than David Foster Wallace. There are reasons for this, including that some of the stories and essays are dated such that I can’t connect with them. More frequently is that what I admire about Wallace’s writing are his powers of observation, his penchant for remarkable phrases, and a panache that flaunts convention and format. These same traits that I admire can also have the effect of making the stories alien and difficult for me to appreciate even as I admire their technical features. The second issue I have is that I often struggle to invest in short stories in the same way I do with longer works, which is a “me” problem more than his writing. This is all by way of preamble for some thoughts on Girl With Curious Hair, Wallace’s first short story collection, the second I have read.
Girl With Curious Hair was published in 1989, and the stories all in some way intersect with the worlds of advertising, media, communication, relationships. My favorite story, the eponymous “Girl with Curious Hair,” is a detached account of a young east coast man, his sexual predilections, and his punk friends on acid going to a concert in Los Angeles. “Here and There” tells of a long-distance relationship that results in both parties being tortured, albeit for very different reasons, and “Say Never” of an infidelity over the question of fit. One story that felt particularly dated to me was “My Appearance,” about an actress appearing on a young David Lettermen’s show–I liked the story itself, but I don’t understand the connection people have or had with David Lettermen, particularly now that he has retired. (I have heard from some people about how much of a revelation Letterman was, but I’ve never really seen it myself.) None of these anodyne descriptions do credit to Wallace’s curious characters who inhabit the same world we live in. The best example of this is in the final story, “Westward the course of empire takes its way,” much of which literally takes place in a clown car careening through the tall corn of central Illinois on its way to a reunion of everyone who ever appeared in a McDonald’s commercial.
Ultimately, I didn’t love most of the stories in this collection, but almost every one had striking or haunting moments. I preferred Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, another Wallace short story collection, to this one because I was more enamored of the stories themselves, which were both a little closer to my lifetime and were, in my opinion, more artfully constructed. These felt, probably with good reason, like a collection completed as part of a portfolio in a writing program, which brought their own strengths—more unified themes behind the stories, stories that were polished and tidy (albeit with the final story offering a critique of such analysis), and being kept from wandering too far into the wilderness of prose style. Of course, I prefer Wallace’s essays to either story collection.