Tag Archives: David Foster Wallace

Final Essay

David Foster Wallace: Linking “Little Expressionless Animals” to “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” through Convexity and Distortion

The artistic process is often winding, taking turns in ways even the artist could never imagine. Many a time an artist’s finished product looks nothing like his or her original vision. Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” explores the way in which distortion, a key element to the convex image the painting presents, relates to the human identity. Just as artists explore the nuances of an idea throughout the creation process, so humans delve in and out of various understandings of life throughout their existences. The convexity of the mirror distorts the artist’s view of himself, and this distortion is further enhanced when the artist attempts to copy the image that he sees in the mirror. The poem takes the reader on a journey of exploratory reflection over the self-portrait in the convex mirror, ultimately presenting the possibility that reliance on mechanisms such as mirrors to grasp one’s identity, as evidenced by the portrait artist’s attempt to capture himself from his image in a mirror, is a futile practice; humans lack the ability to completely asses their identities based upon subjective, distorted qualities such as those presented in a mirror.

David Foster Wallace introduces his short story “Little Expressionless Animals” with the explanation, “Part of ‘Little Expressionless Animals’ makes use of the third stanza of John Ashbury’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’,” (Wallace 5). In attributing “Little Expressionless Animals” to Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, Wallace draws a direct link between the distortion created by the convex mirror in the painter’s self portrait and the distortion created by a misguided reliance on television and the media that permeates Wallace’s story. Wallace’s criticism of television’s impact on today’s American society stems from the sentiments he later expresses in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”. In his essay Wallace attempts to provide the “comprehensive diagnosis” that television “fosters relationships with illusions or simulations of real people” (“An Interview with David Foster Wallace). Throughout “Little Expressionless Animals”, various characters wrestle to find peace with their identities. Many of these characters seek the comfort of television and mirrors, but their searches are in vain. Just as the self-portrait painter futilely struggles to accurately depict himself and his surroundings with the assistance of a convex mirror, so Wallace’s characters futilely struggle to achieve peace with the assistance of television and mirrors. The parallel between Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” and Wallace’s “Little Expressionless Animals” allows Wallace to cite Ashbury’s poem as inspiration for his own story.

The very nature of the television screen replicates the distortion that the convex mirror connotes. A screen in its original state is designed to conceal, protect, or shelter something from something else. In this manner, television screens conceal, protect, and shelter television viewers from reality. Television screens create a barrier that projects illusions realistic enough to prevent people from feeling entirely isolated, but the comfort television viewers receive stops short of guiding them to an enlightened, peace-laden sense of self. The shortcoming of television screens replicates the shortcoming of mirrors that is explained by the narrator in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”: “The surface / Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases / Significantly; that is, enough to make the point / That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept / In suspension, unable to advance much farther / Than your look as it intercepts the picture” (Ashbury). In these lines Ashbury’s narrator explains that though the convex mirror treats the soul “humanely”, it does not assist the soul in further advancing its vision of self. Thus, convex mirrors, like television, screen the viewer and prevent him or her from reaching complete understanding of self.

The reader is first confronted with television screens in “Little Expressionless Animals” when Wallace describes the eerie way that Julie’s mother attempts to find comfort at a movie theater, only to be struck with fear. The scene describes how the woman and her child sit watching the cartoon, and how the “child’s eyes enter the cartoon” (“Little Expressionless Animals” 7). While the child, Julie Smith, is blinded by the illusions created by cartoon television, a man sitting in the darkness behind them violates her mother by running his fingers through her hair. Wallace describes, “The cartoon’s reflected light makes faces in the audience flicker: the woman’s eyes are bright with fear,” (“Little Expressionless Animals” 7). The television screen of the cinema thus acts as a screen separating Julie from her mother; because Julie is caught up in the distortion that is contemporary cartoons, she is unable to see the wrongs being committed right beside her. Her vision and perception is distorted by television. Television distracts Julie enough to completely miss the fact that her mother is in a state of intense fear. Conversely, Julie’s mother enters the movie theater in an attempt to forget her tumultuous life and throw her mind into the illusions of the cartoon word. However, the cartoon world is not powerful enough to assist Julie’s mother is forgetting her unfortunate realities. No cartoon can mask the fact that a man is physically running his fingers through one’s hair. In the initial television screen descriptions of his story, Wallace conveys to the reader that television lacks the ability to bring true inner peace to its viewers; Julie’s perception of her mother’s existence is distorted by the images on the screen, while Julie’s mother’s attempts to find peace are thwarted by her futile reliance on television for salvation.

Wallace presents television as a false companion, too often mistakenly relied upon by those seeking to forget their problems, in his portrayal not just of Julie’s mother, but also in his portrayal of Faye’s mother, Dee Goddard. Dee is a woman heartbroken over her divorce and her ex-husband’s subsequent remarriage to a mutual coworker of theirs. Essentially, Dee is a lonely, depressed woman overcome by her misfortunes. Wallace’s portrayal of television during the passages of his story in which he describes Dee demonstrates how many people falsely view television as a friend upon which to lean: “’Let’s all be there’, says the television. ‘Where else would I be?’ asks Dee Goddard… ‘We bring good things to life,’ says the television. ‘So did I,’ says Dee. ‘I did that. Just once’,” (“Little Expressionless Animals” 11). The dialogue between Dee and the television personifies the television as a being capable of human interaction. The fact the Dee responds to that which the television says indicates that Dee has categorized the television as something to which she can relate. Thus, Dee feels that the television is a viable companion and legitimate replacement for her ex-husband. Dee’s relationship with her television exemplifies Wallace’s idea presented in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” that he happens “to know lonely people who regard television as a veritable deux ex machine for voyeurs,” (152). The fact that lonely Dee regards television as a replacement for her ex-husband is problematic because it does not truly solve the problem of her loneliness and soul searching. Dee drinks heavily, and her daughter Faye remarks that this drinking is “for the pain”. Dee’s feelings of pain indicate that though television can distort Dee’s thinking enough to allow her to superficially believe herself to be mentally sound, television cannot solve the deep-seated psychological issues that Dee faces due to her divorce. Thus, television, like the convex mirror, distorts human perception and prevents humans from achieving a true understanding of personal identity.

Scholar Aytemis Depici writes that Wallace’s work serves to present the criticism that “television serves to distract individuals from the real world and create blankness in their inner world which conveys a loss of self” (327). The “blankness” that Depici describes relates to Julie’s personality and inner turmoil. In “Little Expressionless Animals”, Wallace describes the transformation that Julie undergoes when the cameras are pointed towards her: “Faye and Dee watch Julie as the red lights and Trebek’s face falls into the worn creases of a professional smile. Something happens to Julie Smith when the red lights light. Just a something. The girl who gets a three-score and who stares with no expression is gone. Every concavity in that person now looks to have come convex,” (20). The lack of expression in Julie’s off-camera stare parallels the “blankness” that Depici describes in his analysis. Furthermore, Wallace’s focus on the convex versus concave nature of Julie’s face again relates his story to Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”. The concavity of Julie’s off-camera person visually signifies her mental “blankness”. Conversely, the convexity of Julie’s on-camera person is a distortion created by the television screen. The television, like a convex mirror with the self-portrait artist, artificially fills out Julie’s concavities.

Wallace’s portrayal of the characters Julie’s mother, Dee Goddard, and Julie Smith herself reflect his view that television prevents people from achieving an enlightened sense of peace and true sense of identity. Julie hides herself in television’s distortion, allowing television to mask her tragically concave identity with its concavity. Dee Goddard attempts to find comfort in television, but her relationship with television does not remove her pain. Instead, television merely distorts Dee’s pain and masks it from both she and others. Because television cannot solve Dee’s psychological problems, Dee abuses alcohol in order to dull her pain. Julie’s mother also seeks to use television to forget her problems, and television’s inability to solve these problems is even more apparent that Dee’s situation: Julie’s mother never gains even temporary solace. Rather, Julie’s mother is perpetually afraid, fleeing from her problems with men. The distortion that television first creates and then encourages in “Little Expressionless Animals” parallels the distortion of the convex mirror in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” in that both the television and the mirror prevent the viewer both from ascertaining his or her true identity and from achieving a peaceful sense of self. Wallace’s choice to draw inspiration from John Ashbury’s poem is successful in its ultimate portrayal that humans lack the ability to completely asses and come to terms with their identities due to their reliance upon subjective, distortion-creating, man-made mechanisms such as convex mirrors and television.

Works Referenced

Ashbury, John, ed. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. N.p.: n.p., 1975. Poem Hunter. Web. 3 May 2014. <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/self-portrait-in-a-convex-mirror/>.

Depici, Aytemis. “Self Reflection in Convex Lens in ‘Little Expressionless Animals’ by David Foster Wallace.” Journal of History School. Journal of History School, Dec. 2013. Web. 3 May 2014. <http://www.johschool.com/Makaleler/555485327_11.%20aytemisdepci339.pdf>.

Finocchiaro, Peter. “What David Foster Wallace got wrong about irony: Our culture doesn’t have nearly enough of it.” Salon 27 Apr. 2014: n. pag. Web. 3 May 2014. <http://www.salon.com/2014/04/27/what_david_foster_wallace_got_wrong_about_irony_our_culture_doesnt_have_nearly_enough_of_it/>.

Giles, Paul. The Global Remapping of American Literature. Princeton: Princeton U, 2010. Print.
– – -. Sentimental Posthumanism: David Foster Wallace. N.p.: Hofstra U, 2007. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” ProQuest Information and Learning Company. Center for Book Culture, n.d. Web. 3 May 2014. <http://jsomers.net/DFW_TV.pdf>.

– – -. Girl with Curious Hair. N.p.: Norton Paperback Fiction, 1989. Intexblogger.com. Web. 3 May 2014. <http://m.friendfeed-media.com/d8aef6c3b9514e089600afcf794360f62fb1be05>.

– – -. “An Interview with David Foster Wallace.” Interview by Larry McCaffery. Center for Book Culture. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 May 2014. <http://samizdat.cc/shelf/documents/2005/03.07-dfwinterview/dfwinterview.pdf>.

Situating David Foster Wallace’s “Girl With Curious Hair”

            I’d like to start off by explaining what I’m trying to do in the blog post before I dive into it. Instead of doing another close reading, I chose a bit more of a radical path, although not quite as radical as a deformation. I’m going to try to situate the text of David Foster Wallace according to my knowledge of the time period in which “Girl With Curious Hair,” was written: 1989.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, or the two opposing superpowers, never engaged directly in full-armed combat on any scale. However, each side was heavily prepared to arm or rather bomb the other in what came to be known as a nuclear war. Yet, because the Manhattan Project stressed the idea of the atomic bomb, the mass destruction that it would manifest, neither side wished to use their arms. Nuclear possession became known as nuclear deterrents. While proxy wars involving third parties around the globe fought the battle that the two superpowers did not, the only kind of war that actually occurred was the war of the mind. The threat of mutually assured destruction along with propaganda and psychological warfare was enough to craze that generation of youth but also to simply make people crazy.

The reader first of Wallace’s “Girl With Curious Hair” comes to see the psychological state of the main character known as “Sick Puppy” on the first page of the story. Sick Puppy explains why he wears the cologne that he does, but then he transitions into a rather erotic spiel about the commercial that advertises the cologne. In this moment, the reader can see that the propaganda of the Cold War era is affective and influential above the norm, but he can also see that Sick Puppy is deeply disturbed, a fact that is realized when Sick Puppy gives the reader his name. Wallace plays with the name Sick Puppy and his disturbance when Sick Puppy’s punkrock friends allow him to burn a puppy after pouring gasoline on the poor thing, POOR SICK PUPPY. But sick puppy has now the pejorative connotation of a mentally disturbed or insane who does or says revolting, disgusting, bizarre, and perverted things. Sick Puppy is crazy.

As Sick Puppy obsesses with fire, it comes to be a physical motif of the story. He associates fire and his “golden lighter” with sexual arousal seen by his interactions with Gimlet, his sexual partner, and the desire to burn the backs of her legs (63). Her tumescent hair plays with his desire. At a Young Republican’s Party, Sick Puppy uses his gold lighter to set a man’s beard on fire simply because he did not like the man’s demeanor or reaction to Sick Puppy’s story about his family. The reoccurrence of the gold lighter becomes much more than representation of sexual arousal and passion; it becomes related to Sick Puppy’s past. Sick Puppy had told a story about his family’s military history. His father is prominent in the Marines and his brother is honored in carrying the black box of nuclear codes for the president. However, Sick Puppy was not admitted into the military like the rest of his family because he failed two tests for reasons unknown to the reader. Besides the logical conclusion that he is disturbed or has some kind of psychological disorder, his personal past is tied up with a contextual one of the nuclear era, deployed and unused troops, and the psychological effects of the Cold War.

While the members of Sick Puppy’s clan trip on LSD and are pulled over by a police officer near the beginning of the story, Gimlet attempts to throw a revolver at a tree, claiming it is radioactive. When Gimlet sees the curious blonde girl with the hair in the Irvine Concert Hall later in the story, she repeats herself: the hair “represented radioactive chemical waste product anti-immolation mojo” (63-64). The definition of immolation is to kill or destroy something or SOMEONE by fire. Here Gimlet is trying to extinguish both the power of the gun and the power of immolation despite her intoxicated state. At once, it seems that she is trying to extinguish the Cold War and the psychological effects that have taken over Sick Puppy as a result. But at the same time, these two scenes seem to mock the Cold War for being something so powerful that never materialized.

A sadistic pyromaniac, Sick Puppy was part the product of his upbringing. His father burned his private parts with that gold lighter as a child after a disturbing sequence of incest (72). Because Sick Puppy is always happy until he recalls any of his history, he almost attempts to use the lighter on his new friend Cheese who has reminded him of it at the concert hall. The relaxing of tension that occurs when he refrains mirrors the détente policy of the Cold War or the relaxing of nuclear threat. The images of both ice and sunrises in Cheese’s eyes refer to this “un-freezing” or “thawing” that occurs. However, it is a mistake to think that the Cold War was nothing because it had barely any casualties. Hence, the attempt to discount or to deny the existence of the Cold War is as “challenging to try to convince a jury or a jurist that what really happened didn’t really happen and the manufacturer’s product did not injure the customer” (65). The “Cold” War was a war of inner fires, and the psychological warfare and damage that resulted was in a way much more long lasting than quick death.

Sick Puppy’s Appearance in “Girl with Curious Hair”

“I am fortunately an entirely handsome devil and appear even younger than twenty-nine.  I look like a clean cut youth, a boy next door, and a good egg, and my mother stated at one time that I have the face of a heaven’s angel.  I have the eyes of an attractive marsupial, and I have baby-soft and white skin, and a fair complexion.  I do not even have to shave, and I have finely styled hair without any of dandruff’s unsightly itching or flaking.  I keep my hair perfectly groomed, neat, and short at all times.  I have exceptionally attractive ears” (65).

Sick Puppy’s self-descriptions establish many of the odd contrasts within Sick Puppy’s characters.  He appears to be a “clean cut youth,” but the company he keeps and the activities he enjoys contrast sharply with this image.  Sick Puppy maintains that he only dresses the way he does because he has to for his profession, but he clearly takes pride in his appearance when he says that he has “exceptionally attractive ears” and “finely styled hair.”  He douses himself with “English Leather Cologne,” which acts in a way as a subtle substitute for the mohawks and leather that his friends wear (55).

Sick Puppy also describes himself as a “handsome devil” and says that his mother described him as having the “face of a heaven’s angel,” which may be referring to a fallen angel, or the devil.  Again, Sick Puppy is describing himself as entirely likable and clean-shaven on the surface, yet suggesting that his appearance is not representative of his true nature.  Sick Puppy also says that he has “the eyes of an attractive marsupial,” which creates the idea, especially when combined with his nickname, creates the idea that he has some animalistic tendencies.  Sick Puppy’s self-descriptions in “Girl with Curious Hair” demonstrate the contrasts within his personality and appearance.

Distance in “Girl with Curious Hair”

“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.