Wallace, David. Girl With Curious Hair. Little, Brown New York. 1989. Electronic Kindle version. F;7/16
Published seven years before Infinite Jest, this short story collection shows Wallace’s range and brilliance getting started. Some of the stories are meditations on celebrities (Alex Trebek and Letterman) or political figures (LBJ), making fascinating troubled and lively private fictional figures out of people publicly well-known.
President Johnson is massively powerful and ambitious, Wallace walking the line of ambivalence between irony and respect and plain surprise at the man’s dense humanity. In Here and There we see another Wallace’s trademark: close, precise, and at once involved and detached examination of fear. A brilliant electronic engineer tries to fix a decades-old electric stove for his aunt and confronts his helplessness in the context of a romantic relationship that failed because of his preoccupation with academic work.
By far the longest story is Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. It is an inspired, tedious, rambling mishmash of characters and themes that reminds me of Wallace’s unfinished Pale King. I imagine this novella-length story might have been an embryonic novel that the author decided wasn’t going to be born as the Big Book. There are details, characters, and ironic over-folding that, having read Infinite Jest, show more than any of these other stories creative machinery warming up for the bigger task.
For me Wallace’s strengths are bright perceptions and tireless pursuit of ambivalence all the way down to wonderment about meaning itself. But more than that bad people, good people, people in trouble, honest and false, preoccupied, helplessly self-critical and frightened almost more real than people we know, than us ourselves, to see but not to judge.
I’m sure in the near future I will have read everything this wonderful author wrote. 8.6/9.4