A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace
8/10, great social insight and humor, occasionally too thick or esoteric to follow
If Dave Barry had gone to Princeton rather than Haverford, he might have become David Foster Wallace. Not that it’s a bad thing that either of them followed the path he did; both of them bring great insights to their work, and both of them show a tremendous versatility in the subject material they’re willing to cover. Barry has toured New York and gone Extreme Sporting; Wallace, in this volume, visits the Illinois State Fair and takes a Princess Caribbean Cruise. Barry monitors tabloids for exploding cow stories and their relevance to society, while Wallace investigates the relationship of TV to modern literature. Both of them, oddly, share a moderate obsession with toilets.
Wallace’s articles tend to be less accessible than Barry’s, perhaps the reason I’d only peripherally heard of him. He seems to be part of the McSweeney’s crew, the sort of intellectual satire I associate with New York writers, and while Wallace does live up to that stereotype, he also demonstrates a vivid awareness of his own faults and limitations. In visiting the Illinois State Fair, in one of my favorite passages, he finds a booth selling t-shirts bearing statements like, “I GO FROM 0 TO HORNEY IN 2.5 BEERS,” and after a page of analysis about what these shirts signify to the people here and what the shirts as a whole say about them as a class of people, he comes back around: “The woman at the booth wants to know why I’m standing there memorizing t-shirts, and all I can think to tell her is that “HORNEY” is misspelled, and now I really feel like an East Coast snob…”
His insights into the game of tennis are fascinating and fun to read, and the titular essay, the one about the cruise, is brilliant and hysterical. Where he loses my interest is in his academic essays, like the aforementioned one on TV, and another explaining and critiquing an ongoing debate about the role of the author in book criticism. The latter is bearably short; the former lost me several times. Even those essays are worth reading for the ideas, but Wallace is at his best when he is wryly commenting not just on tennis, or the Midwest, or a cruise, but also on his own place in his subject. It’s that endearing self-awareness that brings him back from the edge of being annoyingly smug and superior: he’ll tell you how silly people are for falling for some marketing ploy, for example, and then frankly admit that he falls for it all the time too. That allows the reader to identify with him, which works well for me, because he’s so smart in his writing that identifying with his flaws makes me feel smarter.