David Foster Wallace is best known as a novelist, but A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is a collection of his early nonfiction essays, mostly written as magazine articles for such publications as Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly.
Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley is about growing up in rural Illinois, mostly the climate of it (lots and lots and lots of wind, and not infrequent tornados), and his childhood tennis playing (ranked high for his age in the country, but more because of his strategy, emotional steadiness, and ability to intellectually grasp and immediately act on such things as the geometry of the game and the effects of the wind, than for his actual physical abilities, which were surprisingly modest for someone who achieved his level of success).
My initial impression from this very first essay was that I already had a clear sense of why Wallace is regarded as an extraordinarily talented and wonderful writer, but also why he’s the type of writer that only fits my tastes to a limited degree.
Wallace is one of those writers who packs the maximum description, creative metaphor, references obscure and otherwise, and bon mots into every sentence. It’s impressive and as intellectually intimidating to imagine trying to do as climbing Everest would be physically intimidating, but for me a little of this goes a long way.
It’s exhausting to read. It’s not difficult in the same sense that jargon-filled academic writing can be difficult. It’s more just that there’s so much going on that you have to make sure you catch every phrase, every word or you’ll feel guilty because you’ll miss something he put a lot of effort into crafting just so. There’s a lot of unconventional phraseology, surprising and unfamiliar metaphors, etc. to keep you on your toes.
But as a reader I’m fine with not being perpetually on my toes. I’m OK if things are expressed in the “expected” way that I’m used to and can understand without a lot of effort most of the time, with then the more clever wording and turns of phrases rationed out to where I’ll appreciate them more because they’re not constant.
This type of writing can be just a little too self-consciously clever. It can distract from the substance of what’s being said. Especially when one develops the suspicion that that substance is being treated as malleable so that the writer can work in these terrific turns of phrase that he really wants to use.
Not that the substance is bad, or lacking, but the prose is so busy and intellectual that it requires more of my attention than usual, leaving less attention available to take in and appreciate the actual meat of what’s being said.
It’s definitely not writing that’s stylistically elaborate but substantively empty though. The substance in fact often strikes me as quite insightful.
But even here I’m sometimes left with a gnawing feeling that he’s telling his autobiographical stories in a novelistic fashion, making witty and confident observations because they flow well in the story rather than because they’re true.
When he analyzes why his opponent in a tennis match reacted this or that way to some occurrence, it sounds insightful and to some extent likely is, but is there really enough evidence, especially when it’s housed in decades old memories, to warrant these confident assertions? It’s as if a certain amount of doubt or qualifying or humility would somehow ruin the effect.
Or what about the idea that he somehow was able to perceive his surroundings as an outsider because he had moved to rural Illinois as an infant rather than being born there? At first it makes you nod along at how interesting an observation it is, to recognize that he can discern things in the environment that others can’t, and to think it through well enough to come up with an explanation as to why, but is there in fact any merit to it?
Is there some kind of psychological evidence establishing that people who change environments as infants have this ability to see and describe the “new” environment particularly vividly or unconventionally years and decades later because it wasn’t always a familiar backdrop to their lives to take for granted? Or is it just something that sounds good?
I get the sense it’s in the essay because it sounds clever and has some prima facie plausibility, rather than because it’s somehow been investigated and established as a fact of child development.
I don’t mean to pick on that claim as being somehow objectionable. It’s just an example of where I find myself a little reluctant to get swept up in thinking every intelligent speculation skillfully written is something more than intelligent speculation.
He writes of the time near-tornado force winds lifted him and a companion off the ground of their tennis court and thrust them into the chain link fence that surrounded it. “[T]he fence had two body-shaped indentations like in cartoons where the guy’s face makes a cast in the skillet that hit him.”
Really? Maybe. But I’d guess it’s at least as likely that the metal of the fence was bent out of shape in certain places in a way that was in no way discernible as an impression of two human bodies (and that for saying that I’d be resented as a spoilsport for not just going along with such “good writing”).
E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction is an extended meditation on the effects of television on our culture, lifestyles, and literature.
I’m not going to pretend to understand this piece in full. I read it once, fairly quickly, and while I’m a pretty smart guy, my brain doesn’t work nearly as well as when I was younger. I did not pick up a clear, logically structured argument for a specific conclusion or set of conclusions, though it’s entirely possible the essay is more of that nature than I realize. But it seems like more a series of loosely connected points, not quite stream-of-conscious, but not fitting as nearly into an understandable argument as I would like.
Many of the points are interesting though.
He writes about the vicious circle of TV, how it influences us to think that other folks are having fuller, more stimulating, more active lives, but by succumbing to the temptation to live vicariously through these fictitious people’s lives by sitting staring at TV for several hours every day, we lessen our opportunities to get out into the world and have fuller, more stimulating, more active lives.
What those pretty, popular, interesting people we’re supposed to emulate don’t do, after all, is spend the bulk of their time watching TV.
TV undercuts many potential responses to it and criticisms of it by the fact that it pre-emptively uses irony and self-reference. It’s so adept at making fun of itself that it ceases to be an effective target to make fun of. Even TV commercials are sophisticated enough to ironically ridicule the very notion of people being manipulated into buying products by TV commercials. They flatter us that of course we could never fall for such crude brainwashing, which makes us like them, which makes us more likely to buy their products.
We have become a nation of watchers but not a nation of voyeurs. Unlike voyeurs, we only watch performers who know they are being watched, and who are accomplished in the art of making their performances seem unlike performances, as if unaffected by the awareness that they are being watched by millions.
Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All is the author’s account of his trip to the Illinois State Fair, sometimes alone, and sometimes with a childhood friend from the area he refers to simply as “Native Companion.”
The State Fair in downstate Illinois attracts six figures worth of people, including virtually zero blacks.
Wallace openly mocks many of the people attending and working at the fair, but mitigates the superior attitude this would normally imply by 1) Being at least as self-deprecating as other-deprecating throughout the article, 2) Noting that while he’s a big shot Ivy League educated East Coaster now, this is where he comes from and he knows these people from the inside, so he’s not simply issuing ill-informed putdowns based on superficial observation, and 3) Admitting upfront what he’s doing and how unkind and inappropriate it may be.
It does sound pretty accurate, by the way. If I’m ever momentarily puzzled how such-and-such politician was ever elected, why “the market” has favored this-or-that product, service, marketing ploy, etc., or why opinion polls come out this way or that way, I need merely remind myself that the folks he refers to as “Kmart People” are pretty much how I’ve perceived a large number, possibly a majority, of Americans for most of my life.
The title of the essay comes from his observation that when you’re in New York or Boston or some congested, huge East Coast metropolitan area, your day-to-day life consists of crowds, waiting in line, seeing crazy people, seeing the “best” of everything (museums, universities, architecture, etc.), so a vacation means to get away from that to somewhere with far fewer people, perhaps somewhere in nature. Whereas if you live in a place like rural Illinois, a vacation is your one chance to see lots of attractions, be jostled in crowds, wait in long lines, etc., so something like a state fair seems like a big deal.
(There’s probably some truth to that, but note that people who live in horribly crowded cities also routinely vacation at places like horribly crowded Disney World.)
He notes that it’s curious how you have separate little subcultures at an event like the Illinois State Fair, with a lot of people who experience one type of event and never stray into the other areas.
One big area is all the livestock and agricultural exhibits. Another is the area of rides and attractions run by the carnies who sound like the worst stereotypes of inbred white trash from a horror movie. Yet another is the area with all the hucksters selling useless gadgets and kitschy decorative objects, which is where the bulk of the “Kmart People” flock.
It sounds like the fair is huge crowds of mostly unappealing people, even less appealing animal smells, heat, humidity, and huge quantities of unhealthy food.
But in spite of all that (or perhaps in part because of the last), it strikes me as the kind of event I would experience as mixed rather than all negative. Among the things he describes are a fair number that I either would enjoy or might enjoy.
There’s also something kind of nice about the sincerity of a lot of the fair. At least as he describes them, these are mostly people without pretentions of being any more than they are. They aren’t attending the fair with a sense of irony. They aren’t needing to constantly remind everyone within earshot that they of course could never really enjoy something as crude and common as all this, that they are just here because (fill in the blank).
Granted there’s a certain amount of corporate sponsorship from megavillains like Walmart and McDonalds, but there’s also a Norman Rockwell charm to it.
There are 11 year old boys who’ve spent every spare moment for months tending to a pig in the hopes it will win a ribbon at the State Fair, 10 year old girls nervously waiting their turn at the baton twirling exhibition which may well be the one time in their life they’ll ever perform in front of hundreds of strangers and receive an ovation.
(The baton twirling, by the way, is the funniest part of this essay, as routinely the batons fly off into the crowd and injure people.)
I’m glad he didn’t pull his punches and refrain from making fun of people who frankly are pretty stupid and easy to manipulate in a lot of ways. But I’m also glad he was able to capture how genuine and admirable some of these same people, especially the children, are as well.
The shortest piece in the book is Greatly Exaggerated. Wallace has an academic background in philosophy, and this is a review of a philosophy dissertation converted into a book. The author of the dissertation seeks to find some middle ground between the postmodernist claim that the meaning of a text does not come from an author, and the rest of the world’s claim that the postmodernists are cuckoo.
What he has to say about the book mostly sounds sensible to me, but I’m completely out of practice thinking about these things, this is not an area of philosophy I studied much even when I was a full time philosopher, I haven’t read the book in question, and I really didn’t go through this essay slowly and carefully and reread it to make sure I was following his points correctly. So my impression is certainly a superficial one.
On the topic itself, my thought off the top of my head is that the claim that the meaning of a text doesn’t come from the author is probably one of those claims that’s false or trivial depending on how it’s interpreted. Or actually maybe not quite trivial, since in some cases it might actually be of some substantive worth to realize that ascertaining an author’s intention isn’t the right approach to understanding a text.
Take a Constitutional amendment, for instance. It would be pretty futile to try to base an interpretation on an author’s intent, since, for one thing, it would be pretty challenging coming up with an author at all. (The Congress collectively? The Congress and all the States collectively? Whatever member of Congress or whatever other person first proposed this specific wording? The first clerk or whoever that first wrote it down in this specific wording? All the voters of the country collectively?)
And if you did agree on an author, chances are they worded it a certain way for political reasons. Maybe they wanted it to apply only to white men but they didn’t specify that because they feared it wouldn’t pass if they did, but they hoped that when it was enforced it would informally be limited to white men after all. So what’s the intent? That it apply only to white men even though it doesn’t say that?
In a case like that, you have to rely almost solely on the text, and only in a very limited way step outside it to examine the author(s) intent when interpreting it.
On the other hand, if I write a non-strategic, personal letter to my friend, for the most part what I intend to communicate is what the letter means. There’s not the same kind of ambiguity about who the author is, and there’s not the same kind of political or other factors resulting in my not writing what I mean or not meaning what I write.
So the degree to which there’s an author for a text and the degree to which that’s important in ascertaining what a text means will differ on a case by case basis. Grand pronouncements about the “death of the author” are probably as silly as most things postmodernists say.
But again, I haven’t read this book, and I’ve read extremely little of postmodernism. So my remarks might have little or nothing to do with the points in dispute.
Actually, one other thing that occurred to me while reading this is a Van Morrison interview I saw where he said in his opinion the most important common error made by critics—not just fans, but people whose job it is to have informed opinions—is to attribute everything in a creative work to the artist. For someone to write as if every aspect of a Van Morrison album—the way the songs were arranged, which songs made it onto the album, the order of the songs, the cover that was used, which songs were released as singles, etc., etc.—is the way Van Morrison chose it to be and that he deserves all the credit or blame simply indicates, he says, that they know nothing about the music business.
What’s ironic is that Morrison more than most artists fights to make his art his own and resents all the intrusions of record company weasels and such into his affairs. But even his work ends up being far from totally his own. Imagine how it is for the “artists” who simply do what they’re told and put up zero resistance to being shaped by others.
What Morrison’s art is, and therefore what it “means,” is a matter of much more than what was in his head when he was writing songs. It’s also a product of all the other people and institutions who had a hand in its creation, and more broadly the social milieu out of which it arose.
But even that’s still talking about just the input. I believe the postmodernists want to go beyond that to say at least some of the meaning of the text—Morrison’s albums in this case—is supplied by the people on the receiving end as well.
David Lynch Keeps His Head is one of the pieces I enjoyed the most in the book. It moves smoothly from an assessment of director David Lynch, to an assessment of his films, to an account of spending time on the set of Lost Highway, to various other elements, and all around again.
Everything is well written, at least moderately interesting. The most purely entertaining parts are his observations while on the set. The gossipy stuff is quite brief, but funny. (Patricia Arquette drives her rich person car the few feet from her trailer to the set each day, forcing the crew to scramble around to clear a path for her each time. Balthazar Getty—whom I had never heard of and wouldn’t have been able to guess was male or female from the name—is a complete and total asshole.) His descriptions of the crew, the hangers-on, and the various other people he encountered (including two different people named “Balloon”) are consistently sharp and witty.
The more abstract stuff—the analyses of Lynch’s movies and such—is about as clear as one can realistically hope such material will be, but I’m not going to pretend I closely followed all of it, or am in a position to know how accurate it is.
I’ve seen four or five Lynch movies in my life, and have mixed feelings about his work. After reading what Wallace has to say about him, I’m probably a little more favorably disposed toward him.
Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness is the second tennis piece of the book, the first being the opening essay recounting the author’s experiences as a youth tennis player. Here he is in the role of observer, attending his first ever professional tennis tournament, in Montreal.
His focus is on the qualifying rounds (the pre-tournament tournament that determines which borderline players will get to play in the tournament), and within that on 22 year old American Michael Joyce, ranked in the bottom half of the top 100 in the world.
Of course his comments range more broadly at times as well. He loathes Andre Agassi, for instance. I don’t think a whole book of gossipy trashing of people would appeal to me, but I get a kick out of the 1% of this book where he openly admits he regards some celebrity as a prick. In the case of Agassi he doesn’t bother to offer even the amount of evidence he does against Balthazar Getty, almost like it should be self-evident why a person should find Agassi insufferable. (I gather, for one thing, he regards Agassi as a phony with an image crafted purely for commercial gain.)
I don’t know if I just got more used to Wallace’s style as I got deeper into the book, or if there really is a slight difference, but whereas earlier I felt like he was a little too “on,” straining a little too much for just the right turn of phrase to make the intellectual reader nod in appreciation, being self-deprecating more as a posture or a way to set up a joke rather than sincerely and humbly, by the time I read the Lynch essay and this one I felt I had warmed to him as a writer and that the pages were turning more easily as I looked forward to what he’d say next.
I don’t have any huge interest in tennis, but I have just enough background knowledge of it to connect more with this essay than if it were about surfing or cricket. (Then again, maybe the novelty of reading about a sport even more remote from me would have an interest of its own.) I played a fair amount of tennis growing up—purely informally, certainly not in any organized way—and I followed the professional sport moderately for a few years as a young adult. That’s all deep in the past, but at least I have some sense of the rules, the strategy, the big name players from a few decades ago, etc.
What he has to say about it is consistently interesting. He makes the case that it’s as difficult or more so to reach the top in tennis as any sport, and while at first I’m inclined to dismiss that as the kind of remark that partisan participants and fans of any sport say, it’s not that far-fetched. Just in terms of the total hours over the course of a lifetime you need to devote to training and practicing and competing in the sport to excel, it’s one of those things where you have to be obsessive about it and cut corners in just about every other area of your life. Maybe the best swimmers, golfers, and certain track and field athletes could say that too, but tennis is like boxing and only a handful of other sports in that one of the challenges you’re facing directly is another human being and his or her brains and strategy, and you’re doing it without teammates to share the challenge.
But as far as the need to be devoted to maximizing your potential in an obsessive way, in a lot of sports, including tennis, that pretty much has to start very young. As Wallace points out, tennis players typically have eccentric families who are unconventional enough (and wealthy enough) to strongly push their offspring to become tennis prodigies at ages when the element of choice on the part of the child is fairly minimal. The child doesn’t always grow up to hate their childhood having been structured in that way—Joyce, for instance, seems to see it as a positive on balance that he was shaped to be how he is—but maybe one of the symptoms of being warped in an unhealthy way is not being able to spot that you’ve been warped in an unhealthy way.
Wallace notes that regardless of how the choice to make the tradeoff occurred, the tradeoff itself is an intriguing one. When you do what you need to do to be at the top of a field like tennis, you give up a lot that’s valuable about a “normal” life, but you also get to experience certain psychological and emotional states that people with normal lives never will.
The final piece in the book—the title essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again—is the longest. It also is my favorite.
This is Wallace’s account of a luxury Caribbean cruise.
This is a winner in multiple respects.
One is a matter of tone. As I’ve noted, in some of the earlier pieces, I found Wallace’s style just a little affected, a little too self-consciously intellectual and witty, where the cleverness of the writing concealed rather than exposed the writer. There were times I wanted to say “OK, that’s kind of cute and entertaining, but can you stop being ‘on’ all the time, and relax and be yourself for a while?”
I found Wallace erudite and funny in those pieces, but somehow not as “real” as similarly erudite and funny essayists such as James Thurber and George Plimpton.
In the later essays, though, and especially this last one, I felt noticeably more connected to him, like he was letting the reader in.
Like the Illinois State Fair piece this is primarily comedic writing (and the single funniest essay in the book—this is another respect in which this one is a winner), yet interspersed throughout are serious and perhaps quite revealing remarks.
Wallace—I found out in my background reading—battled depression his whole life and committed suicide at age 46. It’s hard to read this essay without thinking about that.
To be honest, it’s also hard not to see myself in this essay.
For one thing, he’s alone on the cruise. Who goes on a Caribbean cruise alone? (Me, I suppose, but I can’t imagine many other people. And I wouldn’t do so now. I might have when I was younger, but as I reached middle age I switched from doing most things alone to not doing them at all when I’d be otherwise stuck doing them alone.) Maybe there was some journalistic reason that was better, though I doubt it. From close observations, he ascertains that he is one of only two people on the entire ship who came alone, the other being “Captain Video,” an old man Wallace says is apparently making a Warholian film that will be the precise length of the cruise itself, since he never stops filming.
He writes of being an introvert and “semi-agoraphobic,” spending most of his time in his cabin and not even going ashore when the opportunity presents itself. He derives limited enjoyment from getting out and interacting with people, but it’s something he has to build up to, and something he finds quite draining. (Again, welcome to my world.)
He also has a lot to say about the basic phoniness and manipulativeness of so much of this whole activity, and it goes a lot deeper than “Ha, ha, look how lame this all is!” There’s a moral indignation about it that is very much in line with how I think about such matters.
He has a wonderful passage about how egregious it is for the cruise company to include in its literature an essay from a name author that is presented in such a way that it will not seem like advertising and will get past people’s defenses against advertising, when in fact of course it’s advertising.
If I ever mention anything like that (and mostly I’ve learned to keep such opinions to myself)—like about “news” stories that are simply the manipulative activities of corporations to get publicity that will increase their sales—people look at me like I have two heads, or just dismiss me as a naïf or an incorrigible malcontent who refuses to accept the way the world works because that gives me an excuse to be a failure.
No, as I think the Wallace of this essay would understand, there’s something soul-killing about accepting the way the world works, about willfully blinding yourself to how dishonest, corrupting and immoral so much of the way the world works is so that you can succeed on its terms.
When Wallace describes the general feeling of being in an environment heavy with such phoniness as despair-inducing, he means it. It may be surrounded by jokes, but it’s no joke, no throwaway line just to further set up the conflict of the humorously non-cruise oriented fellow on a cruise. It’s an observation about the world we’ve created through our failure to treat each other as Kantian “ends-in-ourselves,” made by someone who ultimately hanged himself.
But, indeed, it is the funniest piece in the book. Among many gems are his descriptions of the people assigned to the same table as him for meals. There’s the fat chick who incessantly mentions her Very Serious Boyfriend Patrick at every possible opportunity, so people will know she has a Very Serious Boyfriend, just in case anyone might have some doubt she could get a Very Serious Boyfriend. (VSB Patrick apparently lives with her in the apartment where she pays the rent, and shares her car with her.)
There’s the 18 year old spoiled bitch Mona who comes on this cruise with her grandparents every year. Each night they hand her a hundred dollar bill enclosed in a card reminding her they love her, and she rolls her eyes and never once says thank you or returns the I love you. Each year she lies and says her birthday is during the cruise week, so the restaurant crew will fuss over her and sing and give her dessert. Wallace hates her, and joins in an unspoken alliance of hatred with the fat chick, where they pantomime suicide for each other’s benefit whenever Mona opens her mouth.
I also enjoyed his account of the seemingly supernatural ability of the cleaning crew to clean his room on all and only those occasions when he is gone for at least 30 minutes, without ever being seen doing so. He is so fascinated—not to mention creeped out—by this, that he concocts various ruses to catch them and never can. If he comes back after 29 minutes, the room is always exactly as he’d left it; if he comes back after 31 minutes the cleaning has always been completed and no one from a cleaning crew remains. He decides that somehow they are watching him so closely and have deciphered his body language or something about him so well, that they always know if he’ll be away for at least 30 minutes.
The head of the cleaning crew is a goddess named Petra, who apparently speaks only enough English to respond to every question or comment with “Is no problem” or “You are a funny thing!”
Anyway, the examples go on and on. It’s a terrific piece, both for humor and for its underlying serious points.
On the whole, the more serious, abstract essays in this book seem of fine quality but didn’t inspire me to read and reread them closely enough to fully wrestle with them and appraise them. The more autobiographical humorous pieces were more appealing to me, especially when they mix in important serious observational points about human nature, and when they seem more revealing of the author as a real person with values and a capacity for outrage, rather than when they seem narrated by a carefully chosen erudite, selectively self-deprecating persona.