Book Review: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace

For those of you who didn’t know already, author David Foster Wallace took his life last September. It was an all-too-unfortunate excuse for me to delve into his work, particularly his non-fiction, having enjoyed it years ago when I was a Harper’s subscriber (see here for context).

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is a collection of seven essays he wrote during the 90’s (there are other collections of more recent work available as well, fyi) for such periodicals as Harper’s, Esquire, and Harvard Book Review. On display is everything I recall from my earlier introduction: his wry sense of humour, an idiosyncratic writing style (in particular his prominent affection for footnotes), and his ability to turn the subject matter back onto his own life without self-indulgence.

This is where I make a (hopefully) short (and hopefully respectful, considering the circumstances) tangent: after DFW’s death, along with the dismay of those who were fans, I read just as many comments from people who – without hesitation – admitted to simply not liking the man’s style of writing. This sentiment (though still not what I would call “the prevailing opinion”) was even echoed in Harvard professor/New York Times book critic James Woods’ recent opus How Fiction Works; for him Wallace’s prose evidently did not. I figured this mood extended itself more to his fiction which – truth be told – I have not read. His most recognized piece, Infinite Jest, is over 1,100 post-modernist pages long. Not interested.

Because I had such little exposure to his work, reading ASFTINDA was an interesting experience: I could see what his detractors must have been referring to. While there is no doubt Wallace was an extremely intelligent and talented writer (which I shall get to), there are numerous examples in this volume where he comes across as rather pompous, which wouldn’t be so bad were it not for his habit of typing huge swaths of text which any good editor would have asked him (nay demanded) he remove because of either its redundancy or its convolution of said essay’s point. He also suffers an ailment similar to what I found with Carl Wilson (recently reviewed here) where, for no particular reason, he seems hell-bent on exhuming obscure words which stick out like antlers on a house cat.

Of the seven essays, three are distinctly underwhelming for reasons cited above. In particular, his essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction is a terribly long argument for post-modern fiction (ie. the type he writes) using academic media theory as a course of analogy (via reminiscences of 70’s and 80’s television shows). While the fact that his examples are quite dated is no fault of his (it was written in ’93 after all – hello, St. Elsewhere), it is problematic that after many excruciating paragraphs of explanation/theorizing he never actually gets around to completing his argument in a way that satisfies the effort of having read it.

That all said (he types, rolling his eyes) the remaining four essays are gold and worth the price of the book. In particular and unquestionably his essays Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All (an assignment from Harper’s to cover the Illinois State Fair) and the eponymous A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (another Harper’s assignment – do you see a trend? – this time to take a 7-day ocean liner cruise of the Caribbean). On display in both is the perceptive laugh-out-loud satire of society’s absurdities as well as well-crafted reportage. There is also enjoyment in reading the essays on David Lynch (hanging out on the set of Lost Highway while opining on Lynch’s place in the American cinematic landscape) as well as tennis player Michael Joyce (set at the Canadian Open in Montreal, one of many coincidental Canadian-content inclusions throughout the book).

These four essays provide an opportunity for us to assess Wallace, the writer and person, without the willing academicism or pro-post-modernist chip on his shoulder. There is, for example, a wonderfully personal (yet appropriately witty) gem in the tennis essay where he admits, having previously questioned Michael Joyce’s IQ only to discover that, rather than a lack of intelligence it was an overwhelming physical and mental commitment by the athlete to his sport, and realizes by comparison that he can be a snob and an asshole. I like to come by my revelations honestly and it is in these four essays where Wallace’s gift shines.

So, if you don’t mind wincing a little and skipping a couple of entries, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is rewarding in the end. When he was on his A-game, Wallace had a unique voice and a wonderfully biting sense of humour; it makes the suddenness and nature of his passing all the more sad. I’m sure I will pick up more of his non-fiction in the months to come.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace [ISBN: 978-0316925280] is available at a friendly independent bookseller near you, or online at numerous impersonal sources.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace

  1. Irrelevance: I miss your mists that stick to my brain and mentions one in a string of images in today’s post “tongue in cheek.” In case you’re interested.

    What’s interesting to me about this review is how much bad writing you have to do to write anything good, and that when you are in a writing workshop, it’s hard to get these second and third chances, but that once you’ve been lucky enough to be disignated as gifted and great by the right people, you can get away with slipping in a lot of crap just to thicken up a collection so there’s another book to market and sell and make money for the publishing company. This doesn’t leave a lot of motivation for editors to be really “good” editors in the old-fashioned terms of great editors like, say, Raymond Carver’s over-the-top “too-good-co-writer-editor”. But something in the middle. It’s as if, you’ve read one great book by a writer, skip the rest and move on to the next great writer. Cynical, I know. But this has happened to me so often, expecially in story collections. Three good stories TOPS. I challenge anyone to show me a collection with more. Anyway. Come visit your little image in my fictional tale…Tongue in Cheek.

  2. Thanks Squirrel. I do believe success is all in the timing, in particular having the right people see the right piece by the right writer at the right time. I could not name a collection of short stories (or essays) that defies your theory.

  3. In small dabs, say quoted within another piece, DFW was brilliant, but even his shortest pieces just didn’t float with me.

    I just couldn’t will myself concentrate long enough to get through his prose. To me it’s no surprise that he and several other young writers were heavily influenced by William Gaddis, another prose jungle I hope never to tread again.

    I do have to say DFW had some of the best titles, though … Consider the Lobster, for instance.

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