Friday, April 17, 2015

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This book is a collection of seven longish essays and articles by the late David Foster Wallace, perhaps best known for his novel, Infinite Jest. The title essay is a true classic, but the others are also intriguing and worth reading.

This was my first real exposure to Wallace, as he was too modern to rate inclusion in any of my literature courses - and in any event, didn’t really come to widespread attention until I was already in law school.

In addition to his writing, Wallace was also an English professor at a variety of institutions, culminating in several years at Pomona College. He suffered from depression for decades, although he was able to control it with medication. Eventually, however, it lost effectiveness, and other therapies were likewise unsuccessful, and he committed suicide at age 46. In a few key ways, his untimely end resembles that of Robin Williams, who likewise succumbed to despair that he was ultimately unable to overcome. I mention this primarily because that tinge of despair is never completely absent from his writing. 

"David Foster Wallace" by Steve Rhodes - originally posted to Flickr as David Foster Wallace. 
Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Because the essays are mostly unrelated, I discuss each separately.

“Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley”

This is one of the shorter essays, and it concerns Wallace’s days as a competitive tennis player during his school days. He was apparently good enough to compete in regional tournaments, but not so good as to rise to the highest echelons. He was persistent, but not overpowering; and patient, but not flawless.

His dispassionate and critical view of himself is one of the charms of the piece - and a microcosm of one thing that is delightful about his writing. Throughout all of his essays in this collection, at least the ones in which he appears, he is as critical of himself as of others. He subjects himself to even more scrutiny than his subjects - and he is hardly easy on those he writes about. It’s not so much self-effacing humor (although there is that) as his chagrin that he is even sillier than those he laughs at.

In addition to capturing the game in a memorable manner, this essay also contains plenty of the color of the rural Illinois of Wallace’s childhood.

“E UINBUS PLURAM: Television and U.S. Fiction”

This extended discussion of the relationship of television, postmodernism, and their combined effect on fiction writing, is one that I am not sure I have succesfully managed to wrap my brain around. For one thing, my knowledge of literary theory is pretty limited. (Probably the result of a high school curriculum that didn’t believe anything after The Grapes of Wrath was worth reading, and no serious literature class during my higher education.) Thus, some of the “postmodern” terminology required further research, and I’m still not sure how solid my understanding is.

However, I think that I understood the central point: fiction’s usual role in revealing the flaws and hypocrisy of culture has been usurped, because television both creates modern mass culture, and slyly mocks it even as it creates it. I’m kind of inclined to agree with Wallace, even as I fail to exactly resonate with his point. I believe this is due to a secondary gap on my part: I really don’t watch much TV, and have an extremely short tolerance for it. I’ll just admit that I like reading better, and don’t have the patience to sit through more than an hour or so a week. (Except occasionally on vacation when I can watch Food Network or Discovery.) So, I really can’t say I am part of the “mass culture” of which he speaks. I try to keep up with enough to hold a discussion, but, well, I’d rather go read something or walk up a mountain.

There are, however, some outstanding observations in this essay. First is that many avid TV watchers love to watch other people - but don’t want to be watched themselves. Thus, TV can be addictive to a certain kind of person.

I happen to believe this is why television also appeals so much to lonely people. To voluntary shut-ins. Every lonely human I know watches way more than the average U.S. six hours a day. The lonely, like the fictive, love one-way watching. For lonely people are usually lonely not because of hideous deformity or odor or obnoxiousness - in fact there exist today support- and social groups for persons with precisely these attributes. Lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other humans. They are allergic to people.

Another great point Wallace makes is that those who demonize television as the cause of poor taste and commercialism (and there are many), show their historical ignorance. As Wallace puts it, their propter hoc isn’t even post hoc. To wit, the observation by Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America (1835) that Americans sought “spectacles vehement and untutored and rude” that aimed to “stir the passions more than to gratify the taste.”

One more that really struck home for me was argument that he had with a “grey eminence” at a workshop who insisted that any story should eschew “any feature which serves to date it” because “serious fiction must be Timeless.” When Wallace protested that this man’s own work was clearly set in his own times, he tried to backtrack and explain how his cultural references were “timeless” while Generation X’s were the “frivolous Now.” This could well describe most of the current generation gap, which has resulted in an endless succession of dismissive and insulting articles by the Boomer generation whining about how awful the young people are.

“Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All”

This essay is best discussed in connection with the title essay, because the two have much in common. “Getting Away” was written first, when Harper’s sent Wallace to cover the Illinois State Fair. As a result of the success of the article, Harper’s gave him the assignment which led to the latter essay.

There is so much delightful snark that it is difficult to pick just a few lines. My own Kern County has a fair which takes itself way too seriously - much like the State Fair in this essay. The people who attend, likewise, fit many of the categories of those he describes, from the carnies to the aggies, from the snake oil salesmen to the local talent competitions. If it weren’t for the tour de force that the title essay is, I would say this one was the most fun. The best line is from the woman that accompanies Wallace during some of the fair. She quotes her father as describing the smell of pigs as “like Death his very own self is takin’ a shit.”

“Greatly Exaggerated”

This is the shortest essay of the bunch, and deals with deconstructionism in literary theory. I mentioned earlier that I am not a real scholar in this area, but this essay did more to bring a degree of understanding than my own research. (It occurs to me that it would have been interesting to have Wallace as a professor - assuming he was as good in person as in writing…)

The one idea in particular stood out to me: the essence of the written word is absence. We are absent when the author writes, and the author is absent when we read. Thus, we are left with the words only. The question of interpretation is thus complex. For an originalist (to borrow a term from law), the focus is to determine what the author originally meant, rather than what he said. But another method of determining meaning would be that meaning assigned by the reader, who may or may not have the same assumptions and background as the author. So what does the writing mean? Do the words have meaning apart from the author’s intent? Apart from the reader’s understanding? And is there a single, exclusive, meaning? One could clearly go down the rabbit hole here.

I found this to be the most fascinating part of the book - and one reason I would consider buying it for my own shelves. It is easy (for someone not a literature major) to dismiss deconstructionism when one is talking about the literature of the past. After all, when I read Shakespeare or Dickens or Frost, or whomever, I can derive enjoyment and meaning without having to think too deeply. (Although I often do.)

However, this particular issue really hit close to home when it comes to the interpretation of the Bible. After all, we Evangelicals take the interpretation deadly seriously. (I don’t mean that figuratively. Some issues in the past - and present - can be literal matters of life and death.) For us, there is a triple issue of absence. We were, of course, absent (by 2000 or more years) from the original writing. The human authors are absent from us as we read it. Depending on one’s view of what “inspiration” means, one has the question of the third, Divine author. To what extent was God “present” at the writing? For some, this is held to mean literal dictation of every word. For others, “wrote as they were moved” means something far less than a mere amanuensis. And then, likewise, to what extent is God with us as we read? And how is that interpretation affected by his presence? We wrestle daily with the question of the meaning of the words. Do they mean what the human authors believed them to mean? (If yes, then slavery and polygamy should be condoned or even encouraged.) Do they mean what the reader believes them to mean? And which reader? Do the words have extrinsic meaning in and of themselves apart from either the intent of the human authors or the reader? We make these judgment calls all the time, and yet we rarely acknowledge that these are even decisions. Perhaps a post for another time…

“David Lynch Keeps His Head”

This essay recounts Wallace following Lynch around on the set for a few days during the filming of Lost Highway. I have never seen a David Lynch film, so I’ll admit that most of the references went over my head. However, Wallace’s keen eye and ear for human nature make this essay fascinating nonetheless. I’ll just quote one observation, relegated to a footnote in the original, after noting a certain coldness in Lynch’s work, which Wallace ascribed in part to his solipsism: “solipsism being not exactly the cheery crackling hearth of psychopilosophical orientations.”

“...Michael Joyce…”
The complete title for this one is a paragraph long, so I’ll shorten it. This essay is about professional tennis player Michael Joyce’s performance at the Canadian Open. And, it is about the difference between the very best, and the merely world class. Joyce never made it to the top, but he was better than all but the top 70 or so players in the world. As with the other tennis essay, Wallace can bring a scene alive, even to someone like me who cares little about tennis.

“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”

One of the best books I have ever read about travel remains Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. Twain may not have invented the travelogue, but he, more than anyone else, created the unique (and perhaps uniquely American) “snarkalogue.” (Sadly, “snarky” is not related to Lewis Carroll’s poem, but to a German word for “snort.”) Twain’s irreverent take on travel became a bit of an American tradition; a parallel, perhaps, to the phenomenon of the Ugly American. (I’ve been both in my time…)

This essay is very much within the same tradition as Twain’s. I was particularly reminded of Twain’s lesser known Following The Equator, which likewise tells of a voyage, while interjecting a surprising amount of serious social commentary and introspection. Wallace observes that cruises seem to be particularly popular among a certain demographic that is confronting their own mortality. The “pampering” and carefully managed and curated experience is calculated to drown out this existential dread and (for Wallace) despair. I’ll admit, I am not particularly eager to experience a cruise. For one thing, I am an introvert, and a bit of a mild agoraphobe (much like Wallace - although I don’t suffer from his depression). The thought of being in close quarters with thousands of other people is a bit daunting. Much like Disneyland, which I limited doses...and need to recover from afterward.

Wallace is at his best in this article, lampooning the excesses of many, skewering the advertising-industrial complex, poking fun at himself, and all the while nailing the greater psychological issues that plague all of us. It is a painful look in the mirror, and an uncomfortably relevant revelation of the way we (relatively wealthy Americans) whistle past the graveyard. 

The MV Zenith, the ship Wallace cruised on. Picture by Adrien Castel,
Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
 Naturally, Wallace calls this ship the Nadir throughout the book...


  1. Are you ready to tackle Infinite Jest now that you've read this book? I'll confess that its been on my kindle unread for several years. I'm not daunted by it, but I haven't been able to give it the focus that it deserves.

    1. I might take a shot at Infinite Jest. I think you are right, though, that it would take some dedicated time and concentration. If it is as interesting as his non-fiction, it should be pretty good.

  2. How would you suggest travel has evolved based on Twain's account in Innocents abroad vs. DFW's account here?