David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, 1997.
This collection of essays is my first foray into reading Wallace. I’ve been meaning to spend some time with his work for a while now, and am now both glad that I have and hoping to find more time to spend with Consider the Lobster and Infinite Jest.
The writing is fun: recursive, exuberant, given to marvellous and unexpected comparisons as a way of bringing a scene to life, and richly evocative: “an unshot skeet’s movement against the vast lapis lazuli dome of the open ocean’s sky is sun-like—i.e. orange and parabolic and right-to-left—and that its disappearance into the sea is edge-first and splashless and sad.” What I found most remarkable were the two travel pieces, “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” about the Illinois State Fair, and the title piece “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” about a Caribbean cruise. They feel at first like deeply personal travelogues, essays that describe the scene and bring you into the author’s experience complete with all his entertaining and identifiable neuroses, and seem to lack coherence other than that given by the passage of time. In reading them, though, I came to see that the seemingly-relaxed structure is a front: Wallace has very deliberate points about what it means to be human and what it means to experience, that are worth discovering in his meandering and footnoted-way. And oh, the footnotes 1 in all their parenthetical and humorous delight, never detracting from the piece but always adding something. One has to read the footnotes!
The only piece in the collection I found myself skimming rather than reading was the essay on David Lynch, and while it examines what makes Lynch a different sort of auteur than many directors, my lack of familiarity with and interest in Lynch himself wasn’t overcome by Wallace’s engaging writing.
Captivating but difficult is the essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” a piece I wish I had read many years ago. Arguing that television exists as a medium wholly invested in irony, Wallace builds on the brilliant Lewis Hyde to argue “… irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks” and thus television can never be a truly effective tool for the novelist: authors of fiction have an obligation to use modern references, to be sure, but to transcend irony to create something else. He quotes Hyde’s idea from “Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking” that “Irony has only emergence use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” I’m excerpting an idea from a complex piece, but it serves to present Foster Wallace as someone who, in this postmodern age, felt that fiction is more than a player in the great game of deconstruction.
I look forward to the next bit of time I’ll be able to spend with his writing.
1 and the footnotes to the footnotes 2
2 and so on