A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

a supposedly fun thingLast 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.

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7 Responses to A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

  1. Ugh yes! I am perpetually sad that there isn’t a higher volume of DFW essays for me to read. I’ve tried to read his fiction and couldn’t get on with it at all — in his fiction he’s the utter dudebroiest writer and I feel like he would corner me in a bookshop and explain why everything I was buying was Bad. But his nonfiction! So wonderful! The cruise essay is perhaps my favorite individual thing he’s ever written. It makes cruises sound positively dystopian.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha ha! Dudebroiest — I wouldn’t have used that word, but when I read Oblivion, that was very much the impression I got. I think the phrase I used was “unreasonably high bar of entry,” and I have no incentive to go back to his fiction at all. But oh how I wish there were more essays so I could spend more time with his mind. Reading them makes me feel all fluttery and happy.

  2. Anokatony says:

    I too have avoided the so-much-hyped David Foster Wallace at all costs. I try to avoid non-fiction so haven’t even considered reading his essays. I early on did read his collection of short fiction ‘The Broom of the System’ and wasn’t particularly impressed, so I never did read the over-1000-page ‘Infinite Jest’.
    Your essay makes me want to read one of Wallace’s essays, perhaps the one about the Illinois State Fair.

    • Jenny says:

      I make it a point to read at least one piece of nonfiction a month, so the essays fit in nicely, but like you I did not appreciate his fiction at all. But the essays are spectacular. A number of them are available online — not the ideal venue for long-form reading (especially with Wallace’s footnotes), but you could try it. I do, I really, really do recommend him, he’s marvellous.

  3. Jeanne says:

    These are the first essays I ever read by DFW, and I was floored. Nobody had ever spoken to me like that, and I loved it.
    I do not agree with Jenny about the fiction. I read Infinite Jest with my son a few years ago, and we both loved it extremely, although there was a good bit of tennis philosophizing to wade through to get to the good parts.

    • Jenny says:

      I really did not enjoy Oblivion much. I could see that the stories were technically good (and I did like one of them) but I felt very put off by them; I found them cold and unwelcoming. Whereas his essays make me want to spend all kinds of time with him. I wonder if Infinite Jest is different — I’ve heard there are sloggy bits, but I’m just wondering about that very high bar of entry.

      • Jeanne says:

        I think it really helps to have someone reading it with you who is idealistic and 17, or at least to remember what it’s like to be 17 and see the world with an adolescent critical eye.

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