Book Reviews / Non-Fiction

Book Note: “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” by David Foster Wallace

 

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I was not planning to write a book note for this read. I was buried alive halfway through a 61-page essay on TV and fiction. I determined that if I managed to crawl out still breathing, I was not going to recount or recommend or even hint at this experience for anyone else. If I gave my honest opinion based on that essay, written by an astronomically talented writer, I’d look like an idiot either way – for condoning or condemning it (“If you hated something, why encourage others to read it?” or “Way to criticize one of the brilliant writers of the 1990’s and look like a schmuck who only has a blog to show as proof of sort of being interested in the art.”).

Fortunately, every other essay and argument I read in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace was extraordinary. I’m comfortable admitting that I did not catch every cultural reference and could not keep pace with his astounding grasp of complex literary and philosophical theories (let alone their integration into such things as tennis, cruises, film, the Illinois State Fair, and literature). There were plenty of other aspects of the reading that I can discuss on a basic level and recommend.

Wallace’s vocabulary was brilliant, but not in the way I would typically ascribe this compliment. True, there were sections that had me checking the “other books written by Wallace” section to make sure the dictionary was not one of them, but it was his ability to select the precise word from “low-brow” and “high-brow” options to convey the exact meaning and tone he was establishing that was memorable. Like any author he had his favorites, sphincter and solipsistic among them, but even these were carefully included.

Along the same lines, though I could not appreciate all of the specific references themselves, Wallace’s ability to use low-culture and high-culture references at appropriate times, in the same essay, and without causing whiplash to the reader, was remarkable. He is a master at observing details but even more commanding at inserting them into already detail-rich prose without losing their original punch. I’m not usually a fan of slogging through mounds of details, but more than once I caught myself saying, “Yes! That’s exactly what that is like! I never would have thought to describe it that way!”

Above all, and since I’m running out of trite adjectives to describe how incredible his writing is, I was most impressed that he had made me care about random topics. Maybe “care” is not the right word. His writing compelled me to keep reading about topics that I would never consider broaching with another writer as guide. I was gently eased into this reality by skipping around in my readings from his essays on his tennis journey to his experience on a cruise (the supposedly fun thing he’ll never do again) to his time as Press for the Illinois State Fair: topics I could relatively easily enjoy without much of a stretch.

The reality struck me when I read his “Greatly Exaggerated” literary argument. Here, the first sentence: “In the 1960’s the poststructuralist metacritics came along and turned literary aesthetics on its head by rejecting assumptions their teachers had held as self-evident and making the whole business of interpreting texts way more complicated by fusing theories of creative discourse with hardcore positions in metaphysics.” The words are all familiar, but if you asked me to explain what exactly he was talking about, you’d be waiting a long time. Still, I continued. And the essay dealt with literary philosophies in educated and articulate prose that not only kept me reading but brought some light and meaning to their respective positions. I’m by no means an expert but by the time I finished the essay (the shortest in the book at 8 pages), I was almost convinced that I should take some classes on these topics. Almost. Nevertheless, it was surprising to me that I had read the whole argument, felt that I had been better informed (rather than a writer who could very easily make a person feel like a class-A idiot), and was interested in the subject (albeit on a general level).

The same can be said for his essay on David Lynch. Given my dearth of cultural knowledge, it should come as no surprise that this was my first introduction to the man. (Based on this introduction, I will not be seeing any of his films.) But again, Wallace was able to capture the essence of the director, the spirit behind his dark films, and challenge the common criticisms of film industry (none of which are areas that I have ever feigned interest in) in such a way that I read the whole dang thing. And enjoyed it.

This is not a writer for a casual reader. My brother recommended this to me several years ago, and I just wasn’t prepared then to take the time necessary to appreciate the depth and breadth of Wallace’s writing. Proceed with caution, but if you’re up for some literary stimulation this book of essays will do the trick.

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