It’s rare that I throw books. I abuse books all the time, sure, leave them dog-eared and bent and spine-cracked and pen-marked, but rarely do I turn them into projectiles, launching them across the room in anger or self defense or what-have-you. Upon finishing Girl with Curious Hair, David Foster Wallace’s collection of short stories, I pitched that sucker at the carpeted floor of my semester-abroad-Dublin-apartment as hard as I could, in a fit of relief and devastation and anger and just about everything else one can feel.
I’ll say this: I didn’t love every second of this book. But I loved this book.
Wallace is best known for his goliath novel Infinite Jest, but in many ways just as complex and gratifying, are his short stories. First off, the man has a way with words. There are bits of prose in this collection that will leave even the most jaded, world-weary 20 year old English major breathless and tongue-tied. Not only that, but each story comes from one drastically different narrator after the next. John Billy is an old-west tall tale that’s being recounted in a saloon by a good old Oklahoma boy who says things like “was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nunn Junior done wronged the man that wronged him and fleen to parts unguessed,” while the title story, “Girl with Curious Hair,” is told from the perspective of a sociopathic Los Angeles aristocrat who speaks with a kind of dictionary-English that makes evident the influence Wallace has had on the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer, etc.
Over the course of these stories, we hear from an Eastern-European grandmother, a teenage lesbian, Lyndon Baines Johnson, an MIT “poet of technology,” a middle aged television actress on Xanax, Los Angeles punk-rockers on LSD, a divorced account executive, and, of course, Alex Trebek, among others. Each voice is crafted carefully and fully, treading bleary lines between the hyper-realistic and the surreal.
The aspect of this collection that’s at once infuriating and enriching, I think, is just how smart Wallace is, and how fond he is of making the reader work for a reward. Interlaced through the book are theories on linguistic philosophy and the nature of perspective that take a few readings to even understand grammatically, and Wallace doesn’t shy from taking risks like throwing in stories within stories within stories, or having the pieces in the collection range in length from one page to one hundred and forty pages. That’s right, the last story in the collection, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” is almost half the book in and of itself, and is a spiraling, almost plotless foray into metafiction and literary philosophy. It’s tough. It’s tough by design. But it’s worth it.While, in moments, this collection can be almost excessively difficult, it’s also hilarious, beautiful, thought-provoking, and absurd. And where it’s difficult is where the book really draws you in, Wallace forcing you to work through the problems he’s working through, to be as confused and engaged with the mediated and ever-evolving world as he is. This is clearly a labor of love for both the writer and the reader, but I promise that it’ll leave you looking at the world in a very different way from when you embark on it. You may want to throw the book at something. I’d encourage it.