“The sportcoat had appeared to be the real McCoy from above his back in the Irving Concert Hall, however now in the lobby it appeared to have unattractive narrow lapels and also nonEuropean tailoring, which are fashion features I dislike,” (Wallace 73).
Mankind frequently surprises itself. The notion that things are not as they first appear often obsesses artists and pervades literature. David Foster Wallace’s short story “Girl with Curious Hair” heightens these surprises with colorful character descriptions. Sick Puppy’s descriptions of the people who surround him and of himself highlight the paradoxes that exist between what one expects and what truly exists. The relationships that Wallace creates between the Sick Puppy and the other characters, as well as the reader, demonstrates that humans cannot achieve complete understanding due to the immovable barrier of distance.
The barrier is a tangible distance in the case of the Sick Puppy and the “older and distinguished gray-haired and authentic man in the sportcoat” (Wallace 73). Sick Puppy initially believes the said sportcoat to be of superior quality, but he is later disillusioned when he comes to see the cost more closely. Sick Puppy could not determine the quality of the coat when he was sitting at such a distance. Even when closer, distance still exists, as evidenced by Sick Puppy’s use of the word “appeared”. Never does Sick Puppy say that the coat “is” a certain quality. Rather, Sick Puppy uses the word “appeared” even when he is describing the coat after viewing it from a closer range. The concept of appearance versus reality in relation to distance permeates the entire story. Sick Puppy’s attempt to determine the real quality of the sportcoat exemplifies this dynamic.
Just as Sick Puppy wishes to understand the reality of the sportcoat, so Cheese wishes to understand Sick Puppy and his “happiness”. In a state of desperation, Cheese offers that he will allow Sick puppy to burn him and his fiancée a little at all times. Though tempted, Sick Puppy does not divulge the sought-after information because of distance. The distance between Sick Puppy and Cheese is less tangible than the distance between Sick Puppy and the man wearing the sportcoat; Sick Puppy explains that he cannot tell Cheese what makes him unhappy because it is “a sign of ill breeding to discuss private family matters in public” (Wallace 72). Sick Puppy’s upbringing and socialized sense of propriety creates a distance between himself and Cheese. This distance is perhaps further enlarged by Sick Puppy’s self-conscious feelings regarding his past. The possibility suggest itself when Sick Puppy grows angry over Cheese’s intense stares and finds himself wanting to hurt Cheese. Sick Puppy’s shocking reaction suggests that Cheese’s stares make him self-conscious because he is forced to think about his past. Thus the distance is created by Sick Puppy, rather than by physical space.
Wallace also creates distance between Sick Puppy and the reader. Through the novel the reader searches for clues of who Sick Puppy is and why he is in his current situation. This questioning creates a distance between Sick Puppy and the reader. When Sick Puppy explains his back story and troubled past, the reader begins to feel this distance lessen. However, the distance expands drastically at the end of the novel, when Wallace leaves the reader with Sick Puppy’s ambiguous statement: “And here’s what I did” (Wallace 74). The ambiguous nature of this sentence leaves the reader feeling disoriented and spreads wide the distance between himself or herself and Sick Puppy. Wallace’s restriction of information about Sick Puppy, like Sick Puppy’s restriction of information about himself from Cheese, leaves a wide gap between the reader and Sick Puppy. The reader is left confused over the true nature and mental stability of Sick Puppy. Thus the distances portrayed throughout Wallace’s story demonstrate how complete understanding is impossible for humans acquire due to the distance, both tangible intangible, that exists between humans and their surroundings.