Review of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

by David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown and Company 1997 353 pp.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford

 

Intensely silly, and smarter than you and me and whoever is currently in the room with you right now, I give you … David Foster Wallace.

DFW’s novels suggest Thomas Pynchon—if Pynchon had spent all his time watching television and studying advanced mathematics and playing tennis instead of reading Scientific American and drinking with Richard Fariña. His journalistic non-fiction, now collected in A Supposedly Fun Think I’ll Never Do Again, covers everything from the Illinois State Fair to a dissertation on postmodernism, with stops along the way for tennis tournaments and Caribbean cruises.

Born in "Philo, lllinois, a tiny collection of corn silos and war-era Levittown homes," East Coaster DFW is sent from his current east coast home back to corn country to report on the state fair. There he observes that Midwesterners are "marooned in a space whose emptiness starts to become both physical and spiritual. … You’re alienated from the very space around you, in a way, because out here the land’s less an environment than a commodity. The land’s basically a factory. You live in the same factory you work in. … It’s probably hard to feel any sort of Romantic spiritual connection to nature when you have to make your living from it."

DFW owes his education to the scholarships he received as a tennis player, "the most beautiful sport there is," and, along with Martin Amis, he demonstrates why he is one of the best tennis writers in English. He reminds us that "the realities of the men’s professional tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughterhouse does to a well-presented cut of restaurant sirloin."

DFW follows Michael Joyce as he attempts to qualify for the Canadian Open: "This is a man who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot- square area 78 feet away over a yard-high net, hard. He can do this same thing over 90% of the time. And this is the world’s 79th-best player, one who has to play the Montreal Qualies."

Standing above all these fierce competitors, however, are the true stars, such as power-baseliner Andre Agassi, accompanied by his girlfriend, Brooke Shields, who "is rather a lot taller than Agassi, and considerably less hairy, and that seeing them standing together in person is rather like seeing Sigourney Weaver on the arm of Danny DeVito."

DFW is also a critic of both the postmodern novel and television. In "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U. S. Fiction," DFW traces the development of postmodern fiction in stages, beginning with Pynchon and Delillo and ending with Mark Leyner. He argues that fiction is the traditional place for morally improving cultural criticism, yet the influence of television on the present generation of writers has induced a televisual style that has absorbed the vacancy, irony, and addiction of television into its style, crippling its ability to criticize television.

At the same time, he’s no Puritan critic of the medium. "I do not agree with reactionaries who regard TV as some malignancy visited on an innocent populace, sapping IQs and compromising SAT scores while we all sit there on ever fatter bottoms with little mesmerized spirals revolving in our eyes."

Instead, "Television’s whole raison is reflecting what people want to see. It’s a mirror. Not the Stendahlian mirror that reflects the blue sky and mudpuddle. More like the overlit bathroom mirror before which the teenager monitors his biceps and determines his better profile."

DFW is also a huge movie fan, who finds himself visiting David Lynch on the set of Lost Highway. In Lynch he finds "a weird hybrid blend of classical Expressionist and contemporary postmodernist, an artist whose own ‘internal impressions and moods’ are (like ours) an olla podrida of neurogenic predisposition and phylogenic myth and psychoanalytic schema and pop-cultural iconography—in other words, Lynch is sort of G. W. Pabst with an Elvis ducktail."

The pièce de résistance of the collection, the Jacques Cousteau, if you will, is DFW’s 7-Night Caribbean cruise on the Zenith (subsequently renamed the Nadir). Despite his sense of being apart from the other people he encounters on board, when he reaches the islands he realizes that, to the islanders, "I am an American tourist, and am thus ex officio large, fleshy, red, loud, coarse, condescending, self-absorbed, spoiled, appearance-conscious, ashamed, despairing, and greedy: the world’s only known species of bovine carnivore."

Despite the random humiliations of being excessively well-cared for on the cruise, there are observational benefits, such as Cruise Director Scott Peterson, whose "demeanor is [such] that it looks like he’s constantly posing for a photograph nobody is taking."

And no report of a cruise should be without a description of the cabin’s toilet.

"The toilet’s flush produces a brief but traumatizing sound, a kind of held high-B gargle, as of some gastric disturbance on a cosmic scale. Along with this sound comes a concussive suction so awesomely powerful that it’s both scary and strangely comforting—your waste seems less removed than hurled from you, and hurled with a velocity that lets you feel as though the waste is going to end up someplace so far away from you that it will have become an abstraction … a kind of existential-level sewage treatment."

DFW is smart and funny, a man from whose word processor flows a torrent of brilliant observations and hysterical wit. Do you disposition and mind a favor: read this book.

 

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