A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

January 14, 2007

David Foster Wallace’s collection of seven essays and arguments is a marvellous piece of mind candy, featuring an abundance of footnotes (a signature trait of DFW), big words, and humor to carry a reader through the following pieces:

1 – Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley is a short explanation of junior tennis and wind, a quick warm-up for 2 – E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, arguably the most important essay of the collection. Wallace confronts self-critique in television, Americans watching television, its effect on literature and culture, and how all that climaxes with an army of hipster ironists leading us into a death spiral of self-reference and cynicism. He ends with a hypothesis/suggestion of an approaching rebel-culture of sincerity, led by artists “who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles.”

3 – Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All backs you away from the intellectual for a spell and gives an insightful tour of an Illinois state fair. 4 – Greatly Exaggerated and 5 – David Lynch Keeps his Head, the former a short bit of literary theory regarding the death of the author and the latter an analysis of film director David Lynch’s work written from the set of Lost Highway, are the smartest seeming pieces but still easily accessible to those with no background (I’ve read precious little literary criticism and never seen a David Lynch movie), resembling the infoporn of a Wired article more than the jargon-laced papers of an academic. (Not that Wallace eschews jargon; he just explains it along the way.)

6 – Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness explains professional tennis, transcendency, and the ultra-fine line between being good, great, and best combined with the enormous gaps in ability those classifications represent through the life of tennis professional Michael Joyce and the Canadian Open.

7 – A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is a too-long (1/4 the book), pointless, only mildly amusing expose on luxury cruises, and the only weak link in an otherwise great book.

E Unibus Pluram is a must-read piece of writing and the book surrounding it is worthwhile, especially 6 and excepting 7. This is also exactly the sort of book that’s a joy for anyone who wouldn’t normally read this sort of book, and it is the book that thrust me into the depths of Amazon.com’s suggestion mechanisms.

Finally, I feel I must defend my distaste for 7 as it seems to be the baby of Amazon reviewers. The point of the thing, as near as I can tell, is the absurdity of luxury travel, written into what Wallace calls “a sort of really big experiential postcard.” And it is. 97 pages (paperback) of description: entertainment, dinner mates, ping pong, and ship staff, with seldom an argument or philosophical digression or even a joke – none of the things which make David Foster Wallace worth reading. Perhaps this is the only essay requiring a background to enjoy, and someone who has ever not enjoyed a luxury cruise will love to relive not enjoying it for an hour or two with Wallace.

The Destroyer has arrived at Yesterday’s Salad.

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