"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles,
'LOVE IS A FEDERAL HIGHWAY'
Date: November 5, 1989, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
Section 7; Page 31, Column 1; Book Review Desk
Byline: By JENIFER LEVIN; Jenifer Levin's most recent
novel is ''Shimoni's Lover.'' She teaches creative
writing at the University of Michigan's Residential
GIRL WITH CURIOUS HAIR By David Foster Wallace. 373 pp.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company. $17.95.
With this collection of stories, David Foster Wallace,
the author of the novel ''The Broom of the System,''
proves himself a dynamic writer of extraordinary talent,
one unafraid to tackle subjects large and small. Ever
willing to experiment, he lays his artistic self on the
line with his incendiary use of language, at times
seeming to rip both the mundane and the unusual from
their moorings, then setting them down anew, freshly
Mr. Wallace is particularly interested in flux as a
partial definition of human nature, in distance as a
component of love and -- most important to him, perhaps --
in the obvious as well as the subtle linking of seeing
and vision, masks and the truth behind them.
Mr. Wallace is nothing if not audacious. Real-life
heroes, villains, historical figures, sports legends,
television personalities - even dinosaurs - appear in
these stories alongside his fictitious characters, who
themselves run the gamut from banal to psychotic. In
''Little Expressionless Animals,'' for example, a young
woman with an incredible winning streak on the
television game show ''Jeopardy!'' is finally defeated
by her psychologically disturbed brother - the whole
encounter engineered when the producers become too
touchy about her ongoing lesbian love affair. In
''Lyndon,'' David Boyd, a fictitious mail clerk who
joins Lyndon Johnson's Senate staff, tells the story of
his companionship with Lady Bird and describes his own
arranged marriage to a wealthy alcoholic and his long
homosexual union with a Haitian ''with diplomatic
immunity.'' More than mere storytelling, his is an
attempt to probe the meaning of love and responsibility
to individual people and to his country against a
background of multiple declines: Johnson's from heart
disease, Boyd's and his lover's from AIDS, America's
''Love is simply a word,'' says Mr. Wallace's fictional
incarnation of Lady Bird Johnson. ''It joins separate
things. Lyndon and I, though you would disagree, agree
that we do not properly love one another anymore.
Because we ceased long ago to be enough apart for a
'love' to span any distance. Lyndon says he shall
cherish the day when love and right and wrong and
responsibility, when these words, he says, are
understood by you youths of America to be nothing but
arrangements of distance.'' She goes on to explain that
her husband's ''hatred of being alone is a consequence
of what his memoir will call his great intellectual
concept: the distance at which we see each other,
arrange each other, love. That love, he will say, is a
federal highway, lines putting communities, that move
and exist at great distance, in touch. My husband has
stated publicly that America, too, his own America, that
he loves enough to conceal deaths for, is to be
understood in terms of distance.''
In another story, the witty ''My Appearance,'' a
successful television actress agonizes over her upcoming
spot on the David Letterman show, pops one tranquilizer
after another and muses (with emotionally disastrous
results) over the differences between the way things
appear to be and the way they really are. And in the
title story, ''Girl With Curious Hair,'' the narrator -
a successful young corporate lawyer, the graduate of a
military academy and several Ivy League universities,
the second son of an honored military family who also
happens to be a psychotic sociopath -- reveals the
childhood source of his sadistic sexual compulsions
while reminiscing about a Keith Jarrett concert that he
attended with a group of savagely lost punk-rocker
If Mr. Wallace's characters include the transcendent as
well as the maimed, his style is similarly varied,
running from prosaic to lyrical. ''I've just never liked
it,'' one of his characters says of poetry. ''It beats
around bushes. Even when I like it, it's nothing more
than a really oblique way of saying the obvious.'' To
which her friend replies, ''But consider how very, very
few of us have the equipment to deal with the obvious.''
Mr. Wallace might as well be commenting on modern
fiction in general here. He himself is more than capable
of dealing with the obvious. However, he is obsessed not
only with the appearance of things but with their true
nature, with objects and relationships as they really
are, beneath the veils that hide them. Interestingly
enough, his ability simply to describe is superb. And it
is when he allows his observations to speak for
themselves, when he does not permit himself to become
pedantic by overstating the obvious, that he is at his
most effective. When showing rather than telling, Mr.
Wallace allows his characters to function in both a
symbolic and a living context. When showing rather than
telling, he is tender enough and strong enough not to
shy away from love - whether he's attempting to define
it or (better yet) simply daring to expose it.
Mr. Wallace is such a bold writer that his failures can
be almost as interesting as his successes.
Unfortunately, he sometimes slides into a kind of
showboating, a smug display of sheer knowledge and
cleverness. And so the pieces that don't work (''Luckily
the Account Representative Knew CPR'' and a ponderous
novella, ''Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its
Way'') come off as the sort of inside jokes that might
play best in a creative writing seminar; they're
meaningful and witty, perhaps, to those who are willing
to sacrifice substance to stylistic or symbolic
experimentation, but tiresome to the rest of us.
And yet, when Mr. Wallace is at his best he is
undoubtedly among the very best. The most successful
fiction in ''Girl With Curious Hair'' has the quality of
a dream: powerful, fixating, explosive and mysterious.
Mr. Wallace brings us, time and again, to hidden, mythic
places that are strange yet oddly familiar, larger than
life yet inexplicably known -- and knowable. He is
definitely interested in what a television executive in
one of the stories calls ''the capacity of facts to
transcend their internal factual limitations and become,
in and of themselves, meaning, feeling.''
This is especially true of the extraordinary story
''John Billy,'' a luminous explosion into the realm of
myth in which a bandylegged Oklahoman is transformed by
a near-fatal brush with death (and evil) into a creature
of both darkness and light, one whose damaged eyes
extend like the waving ends of antennae from his head,
capable of finally seeing things. Those eyes are his
undoing, for they show him the wasted and bleeding
countryside, linking him (like the Fisher King of myth)
to the death of the land.
In this daring exploration of the mythological and
metaphysical context of fiction -- and thus of life
itself -- Mr. Wallace demonstrates his remarkable talent.
He succeeds in restoring grandeur to modern fiction,
reminding us of the ecstasy, terror, horror and beauty
of which it is capable when it is released from the
television-screen-sized confines of minimalism.