Review of David
Foster Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/16/05
David Foster Wallace is one of those really bad writers who decided, long ago, that he would hide his lack of talent, acumen, and skill behind a blizzard of words, then laugh at anyone unwilling to engage them as not understanding his genius. This is a symptom of what is known as Postmodernism. The fact is, though, that PoMo has been passé for nearly twenty years. It was in its last throes when he first got going, in the late 1980s. It’s always bizarre to read –ismic devotees who are waiting at railyards that no longer are served, and this is what DFW is, in spades. Basically, if you want to be PoMo you must lack humor, love clichés, be rapt by stilted conversations and stereotyped caricatures, and be able to type on a word processor as quickly as you can for as long as you can and then hope someone with an even more horrid life than yours will sort through your genius. In 1996, this method resulted in a reputed three thousand plus piece of lard first draft that DFW turned into an editor, as he was apparently oblivious to what was good or bad within, which was eventually trimmed to about two thousand in a penultimate draft, which was then cut to about twelve hundred pages, and this became his infamous novel, Infinite Jest- a work that has already made the lists of some of the worst books ever published, even as others decry it, what else?, genius. That book, however, is not the subject of this review because I’ve not read the book in toto- only a few dozen pages here and there, and what I’ve seen makes me sick. Yes, I’ve read Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, and Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, start to finish, and parts of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, before being bored out of my gourd by both, as well as assorted other experimental rot, and none of them really qualifies for high literature, despite the fact that few critics are willing to actually stick their necks out and call them self-indulgent pieces of crap. The best of the aforementioned lot, by the way, is the earliest of the works- The Faerie Queen. That said, I’ve nothing against experimentalism, per se, but it needs a core- in the art, not just an idea. And, it should be ‘experimental’, not a mere masturbatory indulgence. It should enlarge the circle of literature, not be a bizarre dead end that serves only the insecure author’s ego. Otherwise you end up with something like the Abstract Expressionist hoaxes of mid-Twentieth Century painting, or the LANGUAGE poetry of the past thirty years, in which, just as in Jack ‘The Dripper’ Pollock’s paintings, words are tossed willy-nilly, just to be tossed, and a reader is chided for not getting what the LANGUAGE poet didn’t even intend. Really, that’s the core of it. Similarly, PoMo is a fraud, and its practitioners doomed to a limbo with only Tom Clancy novels and Donald Hall poems to read, and from what I read of Infinite Jest it doesn’t even come close to the crap that is Finnegans Wake or The Cantos.
This is because PoMo writing is the only prose writing that does not concern itself with words, but the ideas that the words do not convey. The words, in a sense, are merely a masque for something deeper that the work conveys ‘under’ the words. Now, I detest readers who read words only, but have no ability to cohere a strong narrative if provided, but PoMo is the reverse- it vilifies the attempts of readers to cohere meaning. In fact, it even vilifies being coded, and given an -ism. For example, it claims to be self-referential, although most PoMo works, in literature or not, are mere studies in solipsism, or the opposite, works that avoid dealing with anything real or ideative. It is all about outline, with no center. In this sense, it can be metafictive or not, which negates its own definition. See what I mean? Another ‘tenet’ is intertextuality- such as a Roy Lichtenstein painting on comics or an Andy Warhol print of a celebrity. Although, intertextuality can also mean paraphrase or retelling, such as Joyce’s Ulysses taking Odyssean adventures and re-casting them into 1904 Dublin, Ireland. Two tenets in, and the muddle is clear, right? Then again, maybe not, as PoMo is also beyond categorizing. Imagine a John Cage sonata without a single note, or T.S. Eliot’s masturbatory footnoting at the end of The Waste Land. Oh, wait, that’s Modernism, although it is also, technically PoMo, too. Ain’t it great to smash categories by not having them? It’s like a pastiche of ideas, and pastiches are another PoMo tenet- think of reality tv shows that mix genres. PoMo is also about punning, except when the puns get in the way of the message underneath the words which need no rational order since they’re not the point anyway. PoMo is also pop- that is lowest common denominator, except when it’s snooty, elitist, and deriding those who don’t get that its LCD leanings are really a way to sneer down at real LCD trash because the PoMo artist is so far above such tripe for superior vacuity beats inferior tripe in their book- which is not a thing that holds words that have no meaning in a PoMo intertextual sort of way. PoMo is also fictive, metafictive, yet seeks a deeper truth, unless it doesn’t, which is always the last right, resort, and refuge of the PoMo charlatan, such as DFW. A good example of this is from one of the stories in the book under review, called Lyndon. It is a really bad story, if you want to believe in things as stories, that casts President Lyndon Johnson as a homosexual who sleeps with a gay African who was stricken with what would nowadays be called AIDS-like symptoms.
Does the tale illumine the real LBJ? Does it cast an interesting spotlight on gay issues? Does it make a statement heretofore unknown about AIDS? Does it dazzle the reader with wordplay? Does it sear you with indelible characters or moments? Does it make you guffaw at the satire? No to all the above. Here’s how the tale ends, when the speaker of the piece finds his gay black lover in bed with LBJ- and note that this is perhaps the most coherent and best story in this sorry ass collection:
….On the stripped bed- neatly littered with papers and cards, my notecards, a decade of stenography to Lyndon- lay my lover, curled stiff on his side, a frozen skeleton X ray, impossibly thin, fuzzily bearded, his hand outstretched with dulled nails to cover, partly, the white face attached to the long form below the tight clean sheets, motionless, the bed flanked by two Servicemen who slumped, tired, red, green. Duverger’s spread cold hand partly covered the Presidential face as in an interrupted caress; it lay like a spider on the big pill of the man’s head, the bland, lined carnivore’s mouth, his glasses with clear frames, his nasal inhaler on the squat bedside table, the white Hot Line blinking, mutely active, yellow in a yellow light on Kennedy. Duverger’s hand was spread open over the face of the President. I saw the broad white cotton sheet, Duverger above and Johnson below, the sharp points of Johnson’s old man’s breasts against the sheet. the points barely moving, the chest hardly rising, the sheet pulsing, ever so faintly, like water at a grat distance from its source.
I wiped mucus from my lip and saw, closer, the President’s personal eyes, the eyes of not that small a person, eyes yolked with a high blue film of heartfelt pain, open and staring at the bedroom’s skylight through Duverger’s narrow fingers. I heard lips that kissed the palm of a black man as they moved together to form words, the eyes half-focused on the alien presence of me, leaning in beside the bed.
Duverger’s hand, I knew, would move that way only if the President was smiling.
‘Hello up there,’ he whispered.
I leaned in closer.
Now, put aside that this is from an absurdly bad story, and just look at the words, naked and alone. There is manifold excess description- the same thing over and again, yet what is described over and again is not so memorable to really demand that description, nor is the wordsmithing so indelible that it allows it. This is just one of hundreds of examples of DFW’s self-indulgence in this book, and self-indulgence is just that, not excellence. But, as I said, it gets worse than this tripe- MUCH WORSE!
The book’s first tale, Little Expressionless Animals, is about a Jeopardy game show champ that rules for three years and the unseemly lives of host Alex Trebek and some other game show hosts. It’s a pointless exercise that also tosses in lipstick lesbians to boot, as well having the retarded brother of the champ ultimately defeat her. Given the recent run of champion Ken Jennings on the show, last season, you would think that the tale might hold up well, but even fifteen to twenty years later its pop cultural references are as hermetically meaningless as the courtly intrigues of John Dryden’s verse.
The tale Luckily The Account Representative Knew CPR is a tale with potential to be passable, due to a few nice descriptions, and shows that at least DFW possessed some potential, unlike Dave Eggers. But, then self-conscious posing does it in. This tale’s main virtue, it seems, is its brevity. In My Appearance a tv actress worries over a David Letterman appearance. The titular tale, Girl With Curious Hair, contains the other writing sample I will burden you with. In it the speaker is a retro-bigoted sadomasochistic Young Republican lawyer (larded with all the clichés the term implies) who thinks his biases are cool and meets a girl with curious hair at a club. Oh yeah, and punk nihilists he thinks are really deep. Here is the excerpt:
That night Gimlet and Tit fellated me, and Boltpin did as well. Gimlet and Tit made me happy but Boltpin did not, therefore I am not a bisexual. Gimlet allowed me to burn her slightly and I felt that she was an outstanding person. Big acquired a puppy from the alley behind their house in east Los Angeles and he soaked it with gasoline and they allowed me to set it on fire in the basement studio of their rented home, and we all stood back to give it room as it ran around the house several time.
While this is immature self-conscious writing, it also gives no insight to its cartoonish speaker and comments in no way on the action. And this sort of masturbation is the sum of the story times a hundred. It is just masturbation, pure and simple. And so go the rest of the tales in the book, and the last one- a novella called Westward The Course Of Empire Takes Its Way, combines all the flaws of the prior tales into one ridiculous piece whose self-consciousness doesn’t even succeed in self-parody, with such subtitles as Foreground That Intrudes But’s Really Too Tiny To Even See: Propositions About A Lover. I won’t even get into the supposed narrative of the tale since that’s not the point of the writing- it’s really a comment on non-narrative cast as narrative about nothing- got it? Its only real points are to seem cool, and woo gullible coeds with warm pussies to drip- and from all published reports DFW has indeed ridden this charade to multiple ejaculations with his comeliest students. DFW rocks, dude!
Yet, the need for charade lingers on. In online interviews DFW claims that art needs to engage a range of experiences, yet, to read DFW is to read one long FUCK YOU! to the art of fiction. He is certainly free to do so, but I call him on it, and have thus battered him as I have with his own pet dildo. Everything DFW writes about is about himself. Now, certainly all art reflects its artists, if in nothing but the range of interests his art focuses on. Yet, DFW’s art is just mememememememe ad nauseam. In one interview DFW even admits as much, albeit in a delusive way, by showing he is utterly clueless about his own art: ‘When you read that quotation from Westward just now, it sounded to me like a covert digest of my biggest weaknesses as a writer. One is that I have a grossly sentimental affection for gags, for stuff that’s nothing but funny, and which I sometimes stick in for no other reason than funniness. Another’s that I have a problem sometimes with concision, communicating only what needs to be said in a brisk efficient way that doesn’t call attention to itself. It’d be pathetic for me to blame the exterior for my own deficiencies, but it still seems to me that both of these problems are traceable to this schizogenic experience I had growing up, being bookish and reading a lot, on the one hand, watching grotesque amounts of TV, on the other. Because I liked to read, I probably didn’t watch quite as much TV as my friends, but I still got my daily megadose, believe me. And I think it’s impossible to spend that many slack-jawed, spittle-chinned, formative hours in front of commercial art without internalizing the idea that one of the main goals of art is simply to entertain, give people sheer pleasure. Except to what end, this pleasure-giving?’
To rebut: DFW lacks humor, is in no way concise, and does not entertain. Just reread the two selections above if you doubt me. I’m sure he was stroking himself over how laugh out loud it was to have the ‘vision’ to toss LBJ in bed with a gay African, but who else thought it a riot? Fortunately, not as many people as one might fear. Yes, there are critics that called one of the stories a stunning experiment in dialect, even though the piece in question, John Billy, was virtually dialect free- its ‘experimentation’ is minor typographical play, as dialect is not a visual quality, but a word quality. That said, the tale is William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, if written by someone without talent and vision, and addicted to B sci fi films- i.e.- DFW! Yet, despite all the words attached to him in a negative vein- exasperating, asinine, poseur, overwritten, overwrought, and silly, the best and most comprehensive word I can think of is underwrought. DFW is clearly one of those people who just type as fast as their sticky fingers can take them, with no thought to structure. He lacks any graceful command of language- see above, ye doubters. In poetry, this is known as a stale sub-genre called FOUND POETRY. He merely tosses whatever pops into his little head, and has no idea that revision and editing are the most important parts of writing. His works read like really dull and poorly wrought first drafts that have no good ideas, nor form, nor bite. He has no sense of realistic characters, as all of his people seem lifted from B films. He is an example, yet again, of an artist whose work could have zing, were these tales merely a piece here or there in a larger oeuvre that included genuine works of accomplishment. A few Pollocks can be interpreted as an attempt at something, but drip painting after drip painting is laziness, pure and simple, and DFW’s word drips are just that. As you can see in the Lyndon excerpt, he will say the same thing over and over, but offer no parallax- it is just repetitive, indicative of a bankrupt mind, and a schtick that was tired long before he picked up a pen. DFW is also not in any true way creative- he’s a Functionary file drawer mind with no vision whose occasional drawer spillings are what accounts for his ‘stories’. In short, he’s a PoMo poseur at a time when that is long passé and even its biggest devotees are seeing that you can’t fool all the people all the time, despite the hipster interns at the major publishing houses who somehow snooker their bosses into spilling this pabulum to the public. From what I’ve read, each successive DFW book has garnered him bigger bonuses and returned less in profit. If you want to know why even the few good writers out there get only 15% royalties on their intellectual property it’s because slugs like DFW, whose former students are now in control of the slush piles, need to have their unreadable, and DULL and unoriginal work financed. I see no real talent in his work, at least that here, although he is good at advertising, that soundbitten realm- where many PoMo writers could actually excel, and unless he took a sharp U-Turn in the future, which I doubt by looking at the reviews of later works, he is destined to increasingly ridiculous praise, lessening sales, an irreversible slide to irrelevance, and the unremitting scorn of critics in a hundred years who will be laughing at the literary poseurs of today, and their sycophant critics, the way the Salonistas of 19th Century France are reviled for their ignorance of the Impressionists. PoMo is merely code for trite, directionless, and pointless writing, for nothing can really happen in a PoMo tale, lest eviscerate its very PoMo status. The very concept is about making art simply by calling something art, even if it lacks any craft or insight. DFW does nothing to alter these definitions, he indulges them, and therefore is the only person in the world who really cares for his art, and the only one who really ‘gets’ it- not intellectually, but coolly. His writing is not complex, nor difficult, just cluttered- and that’s an important distinction. Complexity and difficulty require connections to be made between characters and events in a narrative, even if obliquely, as in the worst of Joyce, which still requires craft and effort, which is not what DFW, nor PoMo, is about.
Instead, there is an infantile need for hipness, dull, turgid exercises in avant gardening, to tell a story about a story that references a story about a pop trend that is ephemeral, rather than tell a tale with fully developed characters that do not behave in clichéd ways- ah, metafictive non-narrative! Instead, let your readership explicate what the tale is about, and no matter what is said, even if contradictory, merely assent to its correctness. What is good or bad, right or wrong interpretation, anyway? How many times, when reading a review of PoMo writing, does one encounter a claim of what a thing is about, even though the thing is not about that at all, and the claimant cannot even point to a single point to support their claim? There is a difference between saddling a reader with all the work of extracting meaning from work that has none, and rewarding readers with multiple (but not infinite) interpretations if they do some work. And, please, do not even think of trying the old dodge of claiming I’ve quoted DFW’s crap out of context, because PoMo negates context! And when I say what something’s about, in his work, I really mean that in a vague sense, as PoMo is never really ‘about’ a thing. Thus, his work lacks connections to the outer world, despite the name dropping, and is suffused with detailed minutiae that serves no purpose, and is so ill-written, that even were there a sense of purpose under the lard, no one would care to extract it. In short, self-indulgent writing is merely self-indulgent writing, not daring, much less innovative, and to even call this writing trash is to demean the hardy biosphere of vermin. Fluff is the heart of his work, and solipsistic nihility its soul. DFW is, at best, ‘potentially mediocre’, and that might be attained in twenty or thirty years, if he gets cracking now. Of course, history shows that in about fifty or so years this sort of crap will be openly seen as the long practical joke it is. Good, and especially great, writing forces connections upon a reader by bringing things up from the depths to the pellicle of its engagement, and allowing the reader to pop the bubbles or not. PoMo and DFW have no such aspiration, and therefore no bubbles surface in their anaerobic cesspool. Now, breathe out, slowly….
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 7/05 Hackwriters website.]
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