Monday, May 19, 2014

A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, by David Foster Wallace

For some time, I had been feeling guilty/poorly read for not having ventured into the oeuvre of David Foster Wallace, the late author who was a darling of the literati. Because my son had told me that Infinite Jest, regarded by many as Wallace's masterpiecewas "bewildering" and "difficult to get through on the first try" but "genius," I decided to start with something easier: this charmingly titled collection of essays.

The collection is something of a hodgepodge: two essays primarily about tennis (and with, it seems to me, little broader to say); two essays that delve into literary theory, one directly and one through a discussion of the relationship between television and contemporary fiction; one very lengthy analysis of the work of David Lynch; and two pieces that report on American culture (and reveal much about Wallace's neuroses) through descriptions of the Illinois State Fair and a seven-day cruise in the Caribbean.

I am not really qualified to critique Wallace's comments on contemporary literature (though I can say that the essay on television is somewhat dated); however, I found myself somewhat less likely to take him seriously because of the ridiculous theory he propounded regarding rural Illinoisans' alienation from the natural environment because of the commodification of the land. Having grown up as a rural Illinoisan, I feel quite strongly that this is the richest of natural fertilizer. I must admit that I'm not sure whether he was making this argument seriously or in jest, but if it was intended to be humorous, I failed to see the humor. Wallace could be very funny, particularly when making fun of his own misadventures, such as when a nine-year-old girl destroyed him in a game of chess or he tried his hand at skeet shooting. On the other hand, he sometimes went over the top in his efforts to amuse; for example, he often repeated phrases for, I imagine, comic effect. Unfortunately, repeatedly referring to zinc oxide as ZnO is not amusing. Similarly, while he came up with a variety of interesting analogies and metaphors, some of these seem well over-the-top; for example, the process of boarding the cruise ship was variously compared to the scene in East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down, the fall of Saigon, and the transport of Jews to the death camps. Really?

Some of the essays are excessively long--particularly those on television, David Lynch (in all fairness, I have never seen any of Lynch's movies, so I have less than average interest in the topic), and the cruise ship. Footnoting was evidently a hallmark of Wallace's style and was used extensively in this book, but because I was listening to the audio version, I couldn't tell what was a footnote and what was text. This may account for some of what I perceived to be rambling and repetitiveness. I was also somewhat taken aback by Wallace's willingness to talk about how much he disliked particular people, including the actor Balthazar Getty and tennis player Andre Agassi. Honestly, I did not expect a major novelist to be so petty/snarky.

Overall, I was not terribly impressed with A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again. I'm still going to take on Infinite Jest, but my date with that massive novel got pushed back a little farther.

Favorite passage (maybe this isn't my favorite passage, but reading it after Wallace's suicide gives it a power that is actually slightly frightening--and it is not the only passage that seems to foreshadow his death):
I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I'm starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life's sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful.

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