A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This keenly observed series of essays encompasses tennis in Tornado Alley, television's effect on fiction, the films of David Lynch, the Illinois State Fair, and a superbly snide summary of a supposedly fun Caribbean cruise.
If you read nothing else in this collection, read the title essay to see David Foster Wallace (DFW) at his best. "A Supposedly Fun Thing" takes on the cruise industry with hilarious observation. DFW promptly rechristens his ship the Nadir, finds his liberal sensibilities tested by benefiting from the servitude of the cruise staff, wonders at the on-board entertainment, and makes witty and crushing observations about his fellow passengers in his trademark footnotes. He's erudite and clever, and it's easy to see how he earned his towering literary reputation.
In "Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All," DFW turns a supercilious eye toward the Illinois State Fair. His self-consciously acquired distance from his home state is punctured by the refreshing (and too-brief) presence of his foul-mouthed friend, whom he refers to only as Native Companion. His account of a dangerous baton-twirling competition is especially funny and worthwhile, and I think this is the second best of the lot.
"Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" does what the very best essays do - blend two seemingly disparate topics with panache. You can lose yourself in his virtuoso language, which effortlessly blends ten-dollar words with expletives for humorous effect.
The essay "David Lynch Keeps His Head", which documents the making of Lost Highway, is strongest when DFW steers clear of film criticism (his tastes tend to the obscure and overly arty) and simply details the oddities of a Hollywood movie set (I mostly enjoyed reading about DFW's disdain for actor Balthazar Getty, which seemed pettily personal but in keeping with DFW's writing persona).
I find DFW's East Coast hyper-referentialism and snark sometimes off-putting (the worst offender, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction", also feels dated, penned before the cable boom enriched TV and started trends toward more serialized storytelling), but his pose of detachment and gift for ironic observation makes it worthwhile to wade through the pretentious bits. However, I rarely find his worldview as compelling or as deep as his prose.
DFW is at his most powerful when aiming his formidable vocabulary at people and places: his true talent is in describing and classifying people with the precision of an lepidopterist with a flock of butterflies. He is much less interesting when venturing into analyses of art or literature - it's easy to get lost in his school-of-criticism buzzwords and East Coast irony. For essay lovers who are already fans of Annie Dillard's peerless Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, or Joyce Carol Oates' excellent anthology The Best American Essays of the Century, you shouldn't overlook David Foster Wallace.
"I had gotten so prescient at using stats, surface, sun, gusts, and a kind of stoic cheer that I was regarded as a physical savant, a medicine boy of wind and heat, and could play just forever, sending back moonballs baroque with spin. Antitoi, uncomplicated from the get-go, hit the everliving shit out of every round object that came within his ambit, aiming always for one of two backcourt corners. He was a Slugger; I was a Slug." - "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley"
"They made no sense. Houses blew not out but in. Brothels were spared while orphanages next door bought it. Dead cattle were found three miles from their silage without a scratch on them. Tornadoes are omnipotent and obey no law. Force without law has no shape, only tendency and duration." - "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley"
"Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests." - "E Unibus Pluram"
"Indifference is actually just the '90s' version of frugality for U.S. young people: wooed several gorgeous hours a day for nothing but our attention, we regard that attention as our chief commodity, our social capital, and we are loath to fritter it." - "E Unibus Pluram"
"I have seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled what suntan lotion smells likes spread over 21,000 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as 'Mon' in three different nations. I have watched 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide." - "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"