Girl with Curious Hair (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
Among the young writers who made their debut in the mid- 198O’s, David Foster Wallace stands out as one of the most willing to take risks. He continues his experimentation in his second book, Girl with Curious Hair. The first story, “Little Expressionless Animals,” begins with two briefly related incidents: Two small children are abandoned at the side of a road, and a woman sitting with her daughter in a movie theater is silently molested by a man sitting behind her. The setting switches to an office of Merv Griffin Enterprises, a few minutes prior to the shooting of an episode of the television game show “Jeopardy.” Apparently one of the contestants has not shown up yet. Through flashbacks it is revealed that this contestant, Julie Smith, has reigned over 740 consecutive episodes of “Jeopardy.” Her knack for the game came from being locked up as a child with her autistic brother, her only amusements being to study LaPlace’s Data Guide and to teach her brother to read the same. As the “Jeopardy” queen she has become, in the words of Griffin’s spokesman, “the mystery of the game show incarnate.” Obviously she cannot reign forever, and Griffin wants to ensure that an equally compelling contestant takes her place. Thus, her brother has been brought out of his institution to Hollywood. Because her brother knows animal questions best—Julie’s only weak spot—and because the field of questions has been unfairly arranged to play to his strength, Julie, who shows up at the last minute, loses.
At the heart of this farce is a serious examination of expressiveness. A facial expression is a revelation of what is inside a person. For Julie, animals lack expression because they lack personhood. Men are little better than animals; their faces only “move through different configurations of blankness.” During the early days of Julie’s reign, her face lacks expression until the game begins; then she lights up, giving the answers an “intellectual caress.” It is not until she has had a two-year relationship with Faye, a member of the “Jeopardy” staff that she begins to be able to express love. Neither woman, however, is willing to reveal the true reasons for her lesbianism; instead, both make up humorous excuses. Only when they have faced up to the actual reasons—the traumas of abandonment and sexual abuse which begin the story—does their love take on its fullest expression.
The next story, “Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR,” takes this merging of trauma and expressiveness into the male world of big business. The Account Representative is a thoroughly efficient, unemotional man, comfortable behind the invisible wall between himself and others. This wall is abruptly torn down one late evening in the near-empty basement garage of his workplace when a coworker suffers a heart attack. The story ends with the Account Representative attempting to save the man’s life, crying out for help with no chance of being heard in the streets above. The reader is left with the sense that this cry, which transcends the immediate situation and applies to all areas of the Account Representative’s life, is ultimately too little, too late.
The title story, “Girl with Curious Hair,” is a disturbing tale cheerfully narrated by a lapsed Young Republican who enjoys burning people with his cigarette lighter. This fetish arose when his father, catching him committing incest with his sister, burned his penis. His repression of this incident resulted in an unnatural cheerfulness. Again, the theme of trauma is central, but this time with the suggestion that the psychological damage left by some traumas is irreversible. The story takes place at a Keith Jarrett concert. The narrator and his punk rocker friends, who are high on LSD, squabble among themselves. At one point, they become entranced with the yellow hair of a young girl sitting with an older man a few rows away. The story ends during the concert’s intermission when they chase the man, who is carrying the young girl asleep on his shoulder, through the lobby of the theater. One of them stabs the man, and the narrator leaves the reader with the impression that he has lit the girl’s hair on fire.
The story is slyly dedicated to William F. Buckley and Norman 0. Brown, satirizing the former’s conservativism and the latter’s suggestion that “the penis is the head of the body,” meaning that artistic creativity is entirely sexual. The narrator’s punk girlfriend, perhaps the sickest of the bunch, has a hairdo shaped like a phallus. She claims that given a piece of the little girl’s curious hair she will become fire—an emblem of creativity. Meanwhile, Keith Jarrett, whose hair seems to shoot electricity, plays on—the figure of true creativity, albeit an improvisational creativity which reflects the improvisational timbre of much of Wallace’s own artistry.
(The entire section is 2015 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
California. XIV, October, 1989, p.140.
Kirkus Reviews. LVII, June 15, 1989, p.874.
Library Journal. CXIV, August, 1989, p.166.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, November 5, 1989, p.31.
Publishers Weekly CCXXXVI, July 7, 1989, p.47.
The Washington Post Book World. XIX, August 6, 1989, p.4