Last year at about this time, I read Consider the Lobster. It was my first encounter with David Foster Wallace’s writing, and I discovered with surprise and pleasure that he writes absolutely incredible, delightful, kick-ass essays. Why surprise? Well, I admit I entered into the project a little bit skeptical. Wallace is one of these uber-hyped Gen-X white-dude heroes, and everyone was doing Infinite Jest at the time, and I sort of thought maybe he was overblown and might not be any good. To my joy, I found that he’s way better than good. His essays are dazzling, yes — his language, his wit, and his play with form are all brilliant and sparkling. But he’s serious, too. Each essay goes beyond the razzle to touch something deep about the human project; each burst of fireworks illuminates something we might not otherwise have seen.
This time, I read A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and just got totally fantastically blown flat once again by Wallace’s writing. One of the things Wallace does is to write about things that might not seem important at first glance, and then make them important by the way he writes about them. If you’d asked me if I wanted to read a 55-page essay about the Illinois State Fair, I don’t think it would have been very high on my list. But reading “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” is equal parts entertaining, enlightening, bemusing, and fascinating. Wallace walks through the fair as an insider (he grew up in Illinois) and an outsider (he hasn’t lived in the Midwest for a long time), analyzing the phenomenon of the hot, crowded fair-as-fun at the same time as he participates in it. (A couple of pages of this essay where he watches a baton-twirling contest is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time.) The essay is both cultural anthropology and personal anecdote, and it’s vital and great.
The title essay is nearly 100 pages of Wallace’s experience of a 7-night luxury cruise in the Caribbean. The essay starts out innocently enough as a record of the cruise, but it morphs into an extended reflection on free will, mortality, despair, and the role of luxury in helping us forget our impending death. (It’s also, like the essay on the State Fair, extremely funny.) At what point, asks Wallace, does the kind of frenetic pampering you receive on a luxury cruise become a burden? When do we realize that the company isn’t doing it for us, but because they want something from us, like the Service Smile we get from retail people? What happens when we have to re-enter the normal, non-luxury world, with our guards up to true goodwill and genuine smiles? (What happens when Wallace discovers a nine-year-old girl can beat him at chess?)
I could go on. Each of these essays is a gem: personal, serious, dazzling, deep. I have no real interest in tennis, but there are two essays about it in this book that had me riveted and wanting to read more, because they say so much about life in an odd corner of fairly extreme human behavior. Wallace’s essay about television and modern fiction had me saddened that he’s not still writing, because I wanted to see what he thinks about the current television/literary scene instead of the one he was looking at in the 1990s. His essay about David Lynch made me want to watch all of David Lynch’s oeuvre, and really, nobody should watch all of David Lynch. My only regret about this book is that there aren’t more essays in it — and now I have only one collection of Wallace’s nonfiction left to read (Both Flesh and Not.) If you’ve been thinking about trying David Foster Wallace, let me highly recommend this book or Consider the Lobster — such deeply satisfying essays would be perfect to adorn your nightstand this summer.