From Girl With Curious Hair (1989). Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 61.
[Apparently, The Pale King has already been released through some online pre-orders. Regardless, I will continue to count down to my own encounter with the novel by re-reading Wallace's short stories.]
It's a curious thing; not the curious girl with the curious hair whom the punkrockers and their disturbed yet well-dressed Young Republican friend obsess about in "Girl with Curious Hair," but curious in that Wallace would choose Girl with Curious Hair as the title of his collection, given how different this story is from most of his other work (though he will play with altered first-person narrators in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and, memorably and successfully, in the yrstruly section of Infinite Jest). Curious, too, in that it's not a particularly good story, so much as it is a means for Wallace to show us some far-out characters (in what should be a rigid setting -- the upscale Irvine Concert Hall -- that has been given over, for the night, to pianist Keith Jarrett and his improvisatory music), one of whom -- the narrator, called Sick Puppy by the group, because he likes being fellated and lighting things, including stray dogs, on fire -- we'll gain some small level of empathy for, when we learn that his military father caught him imitating some porn magazines he'd found as a eight-year-old . . . on his ten-year-old sister . . . the punishment for which involved his penis being slowly burned with a gold lighter.
Given a surface of such comically over-the-top descriptions, notably of hair ("Gimlet only has hair at the center of her round head, and it is very skillfully sculpted into the shape of a giant and erect male penis, otherwise she is bald like Cheese. The penis of her hair is very large and tumescent, however, and can introduce problems in low spaces or for those people behind her who wish to see what she can see") and reactions to the LSD ("there were secret worms and snakes in the small blond child's curious hair which were incessantly moving and spelling out the names of Gimlet's family"), it's hard to accept that there's anything serious going on, especially when the story seems to end before the climax: "And here's what I did." But to Wallace's credit, that fits the larger point he's trying to make about violent nihilists like these (Gimlet), those sucked into their world (Sick Puppy), and those trying to use drugs to rebalance and find happiness (Cheese):
He divulged his position that punkrockers were children born into a very tiny space, with no windows, plus walls all around them made of concrete and metal, often despoiled with graffiti, and that as adults they were trying to cut their way out of the walls. They were attempting to move quickly along the very thin edge of something and accomplished this feat by failing to care if they fell over the edge or not. Cheese stated that my punkrocker clique all felt as if they had nothing and would always have nothing therefore they made the nothing into everything. However Cheese stated that I was a Sick Puppy who already had everything, thus he wished to inquire as to why I traded my big everything for a big nothing.
You can couple this with the other existential musing of this piece, in which Sick Puppy explains that the reason he dresses in smart suits with American-flag ties and wears a carefully parted hairstyle that's feathered at the sides so as to show his "exceptionally attractive ears" is because he works as a six-figured "corporate liability trouble shooter," a legal profession in which appearances are more than everything, which is good, because he likes to defend his clients even when it "really happens that a manufacturer's product has a bug and has injured a consumer, because then it is even more challenging to try to convince a jury or a jurist that what really happened didn't really happen."
I think, given what we know now about Wallace's depression, this story is grappling with whether or not happiness exists, and if so, if it is possible for happiness to exist without killing it -- consider, for instance, that the object/title of this story -- the happiness/obsession -- is the girl with curious hair, and that the story ends with Mr. Wonderful and Gimlet chasing the father/molester of the girl (who is sleeping his his arms) with a knife or pair of scissors, intent on separating the hair from the girl. Hence Cheese desperately questioning Sick Puppy about the source of his apparent happiness, and the revelation we get in that his happiness exists only so long as he remains fully in the present, dissociated from his memories and, to some extent, dissociated from himself (drugs: though he claims they do not alter his consciousness, he is a bit unreliable). Here, his happiness begins to fade almost as soon as he becomes cognizant of it, just as Gimlet's enjoyment becomes something entirely other as she continues to fixate on, and obtaining, it.
All that hypothesizing aside, it's still a weaker Wallace story; the narrative relies too heavily on repetition and shock, which makes the voice less believable/empathetic than Wallace's usual third-person-technical, which conveys an almost moral authority. More importantly, by bringing up what one might call philosophical arguments directly in conversation -- i.e., setting them apart from the happenings of the story and only at the very end attempting to thread a connection between them -- Wallace draws too much attention to the machinery of the story (like a happiness that vanishes, Eurydice-like, as soon as we look at it).