As I’ve mentioned on here many, many, many, many, many times, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace* is one of the finest books I have ever read. One of the most involving, engaging, engaged, switched-on, thought-provoking, entertaining, upsetting, funny, dark, light, serious, tawdry and beautifully omni-tonal books I have ever read. It may be my favourite novel.** Fuck it, it probably is my favourite novel.*** Since reading it last Summer I have looked at various other texts by DFW in the hope of finding something as excellent as his giant second novel. In A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again, I think I may have found it.
People have told me that his essays are great, in fact DFW was recommended to me as an essayist before I had even considered reading him as a writer of fiction. And, over the last eighteen months/two years**** as my interest in literary essays/life writing/memoir/post modern criticism has developed*****, I was worried that DFW’s non-fiction work would exacerbate the over-intellectualising qualities that I find off-putting in some (but by no means all) of his short fiction. But that wasn’t, at all, the case.
There is, in this collection, an eight page essay on post-structuralist literary theory and philosophy, that had me (as a very, very intelligent man******) clinging to the edge of my theoretical intellect… but this essay was interesting, and short enough for the huge effort it required not to become tiring. The second “most difficult” essay in the book is about television and its effects on the other creative arts*******, whilst the third is an informative 60+ page piece was abut the films of David Lynch, a director who I have never seen ANYTHING AT ALL by. But I was kept engaged. And I enjoyed myself. I liked the long, thesis-length piece on David Lynch because it was written well and (as I don’t really intend to watch any of these films) I didn’t mind that details of the plots of all of them were made explicit in order to make critical points.
Elsewhere, there were two essays on tennis – one on the pro-tennis circuit, quite interesting, and structured in a very clipped way that somehow works very well, the other about the difficulties of playing tennis in the Midwest, where flat land and winds make many problems. DFW was, as many of you probably know, a child tennis prodigy********, and it is in these essays where “he” begins to seep in. Watching tennis pros and realising their skill, he decides to not tell any of them about his teenage tennis career, despite the joy and the enthusiasm he speaks about it in the other tennis-focused essay. This is interesting, I suppose. And A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again seems to get, for me, more interesting the closer it creeps to DFW himself.
There is an essay, early in the book, where he is sent by Harper’s magazine********* to the Illinois State Fair. To offer a somewhat snobbish, intellectual opinion on an activity not really meant for snobbish intellectuals. Fuck the “not really”, not AT ALL meant for snobbish intellectuals. What results is funny, quite dry, and involves a lot of “I’ve changed so much” pontificating, as DFW grew up in rural Illinois. But as the child of academics, so was never truly a part of “this world”. This piece is good, but the best piece (and, crucially, the title piece) is the book’s closing essay: 100 pages, commissioned********** by the same magazine, of the snobbish, youngish (early 30s) intellectual sent, alone, to somewhere else REALLY not meant for him: a “luxury” Caribbean cruise liner.
‘A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again’*********** is HILARIOUS. It is a wry look into the minds and egos and holidays of old, boring, unimaginative, rich people. It is somewhere I would hate to go, it is somewhere DFW hated to be. Reading this essay, as a pretentious, intellectual snob who hates “organised fun” of any kind, I am EXACTLY in tune with the writer in a way that, by the end, made me a little uncomfortable. But I think that’s his intention. We laugh at the “other”, at the under read, at the “weird”, at the alone, and at the same time we are brought into awareness of DFW’s own embarrassing tendencies. It works because he makes fun of himself, because he is not as sacrosanct or as distant from his writing as I was expecting. He even expresses sexual desire a few times, which I was not prepared for.
Essentially, I thought these essays would be the polar opposite of Geoff Dyer’s work. Whilst Geoff will talk about shitting and wanting and getting wasted with a nodding grin, I’d presumed DFW would eschew the body in an intellectual’s distaste for the vulgar. But he doesn’t. But he doesn’t.
He doesn’t tell me how much he loves anal sex or anything quite as… decadent as that, but he does pull back from the pen up to the arm and the mind that controls it, and that was what I really found joyful in this book. It is not just by DFW, in many places it is about him. And, surprisingly, it turns out that he is an interesting, a normal and an engaging man. Rounded, troubled, probably fun to be around.
Which makes his suicide, which I’d only ever thought of in abstract terms before, more than a little bit sadder…
A great read. Recommended.
* Henceforth, DFW. And get ready for a shit tonne of footnotes.
** The really significant threats for that title are Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry and The Unfortunates by B. S. Johnson.
*** Because I’m immature and thus have to make lists of what my favourite things are. E.g. Animals: 1. Monkeys. 2. Cats. 3. Small dogs. 4. Foxes. 5. Actually, I can’t decide on a fifth. Pigeons?
**** Since reading Karl Ove Knausgaard. He changed me. In the same way that Infinite Jest changed the way I put on my shoes, but in a less obvious and affected way. I didn’t have to train myself to want to read more books about truth and reality, I did have to train myself to put on my shoes like Pemulis.
***** Geoff Dyer, actually, needs some credit, too. But I imagine I’ll refer to him in the text above.
****** That’s an exaggeration. By quite some way.
******* Written in the early 90s, it has a hilarious prediction of the internet (especially YouTube) as if some terrifying culture-destroying fantasy. But it hasn’t been, has it, the internet? Not even YouTube.
******** But he’s not Hal Incandenza, right, is he? DFW IS NOT HAL INCANDENZA!!!
********* Is it still running? Is it still getting people like DFW to write essays like these???
********** One imagines, in a smaller form.
*********** The essay, hence the inverted commas rather than the italics.