5/21/21 — This Week’s Reading Review

I’ve got lots to talk about this week. Lots being a euphemism for too much, and to talk about being a euphemism for fail to write about. I re-read — the time elapsed between initial and re-reading here is almost seven years — David Foster Wallace’s Girl with Curious Hair. This was his first short story collection, coming out two years after The Broom of the System. Wallace began writing a lot of the material that appear in Girl with Curious Hair during his time at the University of Arizona’s MFA program. The result is something predictably uneven. This is, like TBOTS, an apprentice work of fiction in many ways. Wallace is trying things out, speaking in other people’s voices, and struggling to achieve narrative self-consciousness. Despite that, the stories here are more finely crafted than anything in The Broom of the System, and the reader can tell Wallace is not only probing open wounds but venturing diagnoses of the issues that obsess him.

A story concerning the winningest Jeopardy contestant of all time, “Little Expressionless Animals” opens the collection. Like so much of Wallace’s other writing, the story focuses on the difficulty of emotional sincerity and that difficulty’s relationship to popular culture. It’s also a queer love story, one that ends with the (co-)protagonist, Julie, explaining the origin of her lesbianism. (It is, in potentially -phobic fashion, explained as the offshoot of the negation of the potential for male attraction. -Phobic, yeah, but still worth considering as part of the knotted mess of Wallace’s relationship to gender and sexuality.) Faye tells the story of the day her mother — a woman with a habit of falling for “These blank, expressionless men” (10) — abandoned her and her autistic brother along the side of the road. As she and her brother fruitlessly waited for their mother to return, Julie found herself enraged as she observed a cow who watched her “the same way it watches anything” (41). What this all has to do with lesbianism is that Julie found that if you “look closely at men’s faces” you’ll soon find that “all the faces do is move through different configurations of blankness” (41). This animal-like blankness is the origin of Julie’s refusal of men. (It occurs to me now that I should say, regarding the lesbianism thing, that taking this as a story about lesbianism is imposing a bit on the text. We are not told how either of the characters identify. Faye says she “might be a lesbian”; Julie is only identified as a lesbian by Alex Trebek to his therapist, her main statement on the matter being “lesbianism is simply one kind of response to Otherness” (32). This bit of Lacanian indulgence seems to be the engine powering Wallace’s story. Televisual entertainment, presumably, is another relationship of Otherness.) Julie’s lover, Faye, has her own past event that traumatized her to men: witnessing her mother have a mental breakdown after being sexually harassed by a man in a movie theater. Both of these stories, we’re meant to understand, are true, but they originate in a game Julie and Faye like to play wherein they create fictive backstories for their lesbian relationship (most of which usually consist of a mythic negative experience with a man).

Queer concerns somewhat aside, I’m always interested in Wallace’s depictions of and musings on what I believe the academic community calls shitty men. Wallace himself, of course, could famously be a shitty man. Which makes the attitude towards (shitty) men in his writing — an attitude that falls somewhere between ambivalence and (self-)loathing — all the more complex. I have, I think, managed infinitely more successfully than Wallace to be a non-shitty man. But I still identify with the attitude his work often takes towards maleness: that it is, at best, a lacuna where the subjectivity of ~50% of humanity vanished; and, at worst, a faculty for abuse and a vehicle towards an early grave. And in all cases, it’s something with the undeniable potential for darkness. Anyway. It’s a strange thing. While one could argue that a shitty man adopting such an attitude towards shitty men in his writing is its own form of evasion — I deny that there’s validity to that argument — it must be admitted that this is far from the typical approach. Usually, it takes something more like the form of Roth’s endlessly neurotic exhibitionism, or the bland woe-is-me non-apology of so many abusive men. Again, anyway. I am certain people smarter than me have thought about this all for far longer than I have. I hope to read their work as I continue my researching into Wallace’s writing. For now, I’ll let this thread and the story it is tied to go.

Until next week,

Michael Ducker

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