Letter 17: “Girl With Curious Hair”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

As I came to the last page or two of “Girl With Curious Hair” and realized where you were going with this one, I began having flashbacks to “Tell-Tale Heart.”  I had my suspicions about the narrator, “Sick Puppy,” from the beginning, but by the end they were all confirmed:  Sick Puppy is a freakin’ psychopath.

However, he doesn’t come across as mentally deranged at first.  He is such an enigma of a character, a far more subtle psychopath than the narrator of Poe’s popular short story.  His opinions of Keith Jarrett and other “Negro” performers and his unabashed description of his fetish for English Leather cologne commercials paint him in a rather odd, perhaps quirky light.[1]

But when Sick Puppy and Gimlet and the rest of the gang arrive at the Jarrett concert, things slowly but surely go downhill.  The peculiar behavior from Gimlet and Cheese and Big is to be expected.  They are, after all, a bunch of LSD-popping[2] punkrockers.  One would expect them to be hallucinating and to be growing paranoid about those sitting around them.  But in the midst of their almost comical shenanigans, the enigma that is Sick Puppy becomes more and more peculiar.  What once seemed to be simply personality quirks become evidences of pure psychopathy.

Not only does he have bizarre sexual fetishes, but he is obsessed with burning people with his golden lighter.  He also works as a corporate liability lawyer and finds a sick satisfaction with winning cases against litigants who have a legitimate case and were genuinely hurt by the products produced by the companies he defends.  He cherishes those victories with an almost child-like glee.

The enigma only deepens when you consider how well-dressed and well-spoken he is.  He goes to the concert in professional business attire surrounded by those with multi-colored hair and stereotypical punkrocker clothing.  He uses his share of five-dollar words, but his vocabulary is often stilted and awkward.  His word choices work, but just aren’t quite the right word for the occasion.[3]

The mystery begins to unravel as Sick Puppy reveals his back story in a conversation with Cheese out in the lobby.  He comes from a thoroughbred military family, but is denied enlistment based on failed personality tests.  Not even pleas from his father – a high-ranking official in the Marines – are enough to overturn the decision.

He then goes on to describe his hatred for his father because of the severe physical punishment he endured when his father caught him engaging in an incestuous act with his sister.  This experience might explain – in part – his fascination with burning people, and it might explain – in part – his psychopathic tendencies, but it also provokes more questions.

In Poe’s story, there really is no explanation given as to why the narrator is obsessed with his housemate’s eye and why that obsession leads him to murder.[4]  He is simply a very disturbed, obsessive young man who is driven crazy by another man’s physical deformity, and then driven further into madness by his guilty conscience. 

But with Sick Puppy, we are given some possible clues into the causes of his neurosis.  Is it because of the incident with his sister and the traumatic punishment by his father?  Did this push him over the edge?[5]

Or was he already disturbed to begin with?  Was this incident that could have been written off as childhood curiosity a sign of deeper psychological problems?  He did fail two military personality tests after all.

Or is it the LSD?  He claims that he isn’t affected by the drug like his friends are, but is that the drugs speaking?  Which perhaps brings much of his story into question?  How much of what he says about anything can be trusted?

Unlike Poe, you give a very complex portrait of psychosis.  The human mind is extremely enigmatic.  Actions deemed normal can seldom be traced to a singular cause or motive, and even more rarely can this be said of an aberration or abnormality.  Is the cause of Sick Puppy’s “sickness” one of the things mentioned above?  A sum total of the parts?  Or is it something not even mentioned here that is being covered up by an unreliable narrator on an acid trip?

As with most neurosis, we will probably never know.

[1] And this is, after all, a DFW story.  It doesn’t take long to come to expect such “quirkiness” in your stories.

[2] Does one “pop” LSD?  I have neither taken drugs nor gone through a DARE program, so I am not sure of the appropriate verb to describe one’s ingesting of LSD.

[3] Which seems to be a bit of an ironic twist that the writer who can always find – or even create – the right word for the right occasion is able to create such awkwardness in a character’s diction.

[4] At least I can’t remember if there is an explanation given.  It has been several years since I read the story.

[5] And should further blame be placed on his father for keeping adult magazines in a place where his young children can find them?

Letter 16: “Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

So you decided to go with the obvious for the title of this one?  I could see where the title “Little Expressionless Animals” came from after reading the story.  It comes from a line of dialogue, but also points to the theme in its own way.  The title of the title story, “Girl with Curious Hair,” also comes from the story, and works thematically as well.[1]  But with this story, you check all subtlety at the door.  I think even some of my dullest students would be able to pick up on the importance of the title.

One of the first things that struck me about “Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR” was the way in which the entire encounter between these two anonymous corporate executive plays out almost like an intricately choreographed dance piece.[2]  At first, their movements toward the elevators seem to mirror each other in nearly perfect harmony.  Then as they make their way from elevator to vehicle, and then as the Account Representative watches the Vice President fall slowly and gracefully to the floor, it reads almost like the narrative of a Russian ballet.[3]

Aside from the synchronized movements of the two participants, the story’s dripping irony is a little hard to miss.  While I could go paragraph by paragraph, explicating the irony, I choose to focus on these two characters and the irony of the importance of being important.

These two men are obviously very important to the Company, both holding executive positions.  Yet they are nameless.  They are simply referred to as the Account Representative and the Vice President in Charge of Overseas Production.  They are simply titles, not – it would seem – real men.  There is more description of their brief cases and vehicles than of the men themselves.

Second, they are so important to this Company,[4] and yet they are the last to leave work on this fateful evening.  And it would seem that their leaving this late – after 10 pm – is a somewhat regular occurrence for them.  I realize that important people have important work to do, and that important work can take a long time to complete.  But if they are truly that important to this company, why are they stuck in the office after even the custodial crew has left for the evening?  Wouldn’t such important people have assistants to help them get this important work done by a decent hour?

Lastly, they are so important, and yet they are all alone in the very bottom level of the parking garage as one teeters between life and death while the other desperately tries to keep him alive.  There is no one else in the garage, and they are too deep below ground for the Account Representative’s cries to be heard.  And there is no indication at the end of the story as to whether the Account Representative is actually able to save the VP’s life.  He keeps pumping the VP’s chest and calling for help, but we know he can’t go on forever.

Sadly, when it matters most, their importance doesn’t really matter. 

[1] At least I think it does.  I just read it before writing this Letter, and I’m really not sure what to make of that one yet.  I think that one will take a little longer to digest than some of the others.

[2] Well, actually, the first thing to catch my attention was the overdose of irony throughout the entire story.  Was there a single sentence that didn’t have a touch of irony to it?

[3] Ok, I know nothing of ballet, especially Russian ballet.  But it seemed like a fitting analogy.

[4] The company itself is never named.  Nor do we know what this company does or makes, although they must produce something overseas because they have a VP in charge of said production.

Letter 15: Further Thoughts on “Little Expressionless Animals”

After taking a bit of time off from the Letters to DFW Project, I am back and hoping to resume a somewhat normal reading and writing schedule.  I am also realizing that attempting to complete this project in one year might have been too ambitious.  A person can’t just rush through literature of this caliber.  I continue the Letter Project with my follow-up thoughts on “Little Expressionless Animals.”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

 “Little Expressionless Animals” is one of those stories that just sticks with you for awhile.  I’m not sure exactly what it is about this story, but it left a lingering taste in my mouth for days afterward.[1]  As I continued to reflect on it, I realized that Julie and Faye are not the only ones with interpersonal relationship issues.  Everyone in the story has issues of some kind.

 The game show hosts – Alex Trebek, Pat Sajak, and Bert Convy – have been friends, coworkers, and competitors for years, and yet there is no depth or substance to their conversations.  They play practical jokes on each other, but can’t talk about anything any more personal than a discolored tooth.

 In several scenes, Trebek is visiting his therapist engaging in some free association.  Perhaps his senseless ramblings might be somewhat coherent to a licensed counselor, but in my estimation they made little or no sense.  He does mention a half-hearted romantic infatuation with Julie, but he isn’t even able to truly own up to those feelings.  He keeps even his therapist at arm’s distance.

 Other examples of this include Faye and her mother’s incredibly dysfunctional relationship and Merv Griffin communicating through his “man” to the executives and producers of his shows.  There is not a single functional individual or relationship in the story.  It is full of loneliness and borderline desperation. 

 This loneliness is best illustrated in a conversation between Dee and Muffy.  Muffy says:

“You hear stories, though… about these lonely or somehow disturbed people who’ve had only the TV all their lives, their parents or whomever started them right off by plunking them down in front of the set, and as they get older the TV comes to be their whole emotional world, it’s all they have, and it becomes in a way their whole way of defining themselves as existents, with a distinct identity, that they’re outside the set, and everything else is inside the set” (31).

 The irony is that this observation is made by a Hollywood “insider” who is part of the superficial world described above.[2]  It is a sad statement indeed if there are truly individuals out there who define themselves in relation to what they see on television, when this story shows that those in that world of television are incapable of maintaining functional relationships themselves.  These sad individuals find their identity and existence in a gossamer-thin illusion.

 The irony extends further in that the “big winner” in the end – at least in terms on the game show – is Julie’s autistic brother.  Granted, it comes out in the story that the producers basically fixed the show by feeding him questions they knew he could answer, but my point is not a criticism of the inner workings of Hollywood game shows.  I wonder what it is you are trying to say in that it is a socially stilted young man who disrupts the norm of this Hollywood microcosm.  He breaks his sister’s three-year run as reigning “Jeopardy!” champion, becoming the new talk of the town.  There has to be more to it than the simple fact that Julie’s own brother, who was also practically forced to memorize the LaPlace’s Data Guides, is the one to finally dethrone her. 

 Is it perhaps to say that we are all socially stilted in our own way?  Are we all, like Julie’s autistic brother, longing for real connections with those around us, but unable to break free from the little worlds in which we are trapped?  Are you trying to say that none of us have any hope of finding true intimacy with other human beings? 

 I guess that at least with Julie’s brother, there is a name for his social disorder that prevents him from making meaningful human contact; the unfortunate thing is there is no name for the social disorders that seem to plague us “normal” folks.

[1] Which has now turned into about two weeks because of my brief “sabbatical.”

[2] Albeit not very well. It’s been about two weeks since I’ve read the story, and about two weeks since I’ve written anything more than an email.  So I’m a bit rusty at the moment.