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Recently read: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on February 2, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

David Foster Wallace. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments

This is the first time I’ve read anything by David Foster Wallace, which means that I had to encounter him first by reputation, then by the news of his suicide, and then through (and partly prompted by) all the good-byes and tributes. To get into this book, I had to get past all that, and then get through the first essay in this collection, the weakest of the bunch.* It wasn’t very long, though, before I realized that, yes, he really is pretty awesome, just like everybody says he is.

The essays collected in this volume range over a number of subjects. There are two on tennis—though they’re also about much more than that; an essay on television; a review of a book on deconstructionist literary theory; a meditation on David Lynch. There are also two long and extremely funny and absorbing pieces in which DFW basically walks around and reports impressions from two different settings, the first a state fair, the second a cruise ship.

The informality of his prose is what strikes you first. “Like”s get thrown in the middle of sentences as flavouring particles, neologisms** and shorthands sprout up everywhere, rules get broken, usually in the direction of the colloquial—all of which helps to generate the impression that he’s giving some sort of inspired, impromptu speech over a coffee. This is coupled, in a way that oddly, really works, with a rather large and eccentric vocabulary. I report this only as an observation, without meaning to suggest that this is in any way a suitable proxy for quality, but I was struck several times while reading this book how incredibly difficult it would be to translate into another language.

Beyond the prose style, the richness of which took a while to really dawn on me, DFW emerges vividly in all the essays as unquestionably neurotic and high strung, but also deeply likable, generous, and honest. His review of a book on deconstructionism shows this nicely. He’s not out to hijack a review to make some grand statement. He reads and responds to the book the way he should: by patiently attempting to sift out what is sensible, or at least interesting, from what is not. And then at the end of the review he notes, almost in passing,
For those of us civilians who know in our gut that writing is an act of communication between one human being and another, the whole question seems sort of arcane.

Which is funny, since it’s the way I sort of feel about deconstructionism, to the extent that I understand it, which is not really. But whereas I’m inclined to fling a book across the room when I get to this point with an author, DFW takes a second look and comes away with interesting things to say. His essay on David Lynch and his movie “Lost Highway” shows a similar charity. It didn’t make me want to watch “Lost Highway” again—nothing could do that—but it did help me to see why some people value Lynch’s films.

The best piece in the collection is “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” the essay which gives the book it’s title. This is the essay in which DFW wanders around a cruise ship, interacting (neurotically, often very awkwardly) with his fellow cruise passengers, reflecting on the experience, retreating to his cabin, and then venturing out again. It’s hilarious and insightful, and the book would be worth its sticker price even if this were the only piece in it.

** A couple disembarking from a cruise ship are “Syrianly tan.” I love that.


Author: Steve Laniel
Date: 2009-02-02

I’m so, so, so glad you enjoyed ASFTINDA. It’s my favorite Wallace work. Infinite Jest is also astounding, but it’s certainly not the place to start. Like you say, I think the title essay in ASFTINDA is that place.

I’ve not tried Wallace’s book about math (Everything And More); I just don’t trust him to write that in a non-wanky way. It’s just on the cusp, though: he’s a great enough writer that maybe his awesomeness will offset his lack of qualifications. I’m picky about my math-books-written-for-mass-audiences. I’m even pickier about statistics.

Author: Steve Laniel
Date: 2009-02-02

Everything And More is available used for $7, for what it’s worth. And my friendly neighborhood network of libraries has it. (This information will be valuable only to those who live within Massachusetts, I’m afraid.)

Author: Chris
Date: 2009-02-03

The math stuff in the first essay of ASFTINDA struck me as the only possibly false note in the book. For one thing, it seemed dubious, as I said. But he also seemed not terribly interested in making sure I understood what he was talking about, which is sort of how a person writes when they know they’re saying something dubious. On the other hand, it’s hard to square that with my impression with the rest of the book. I’m sort of curious about what a mathematically trained person might make of Everything And More.