I’m no stranger to David Foster Wallace. You may recall that I digested another collection of essays entitled Consider the Lobster, which I enjoyed despite the sometimes-overbearing nature of Wallace’s writing.
In certain ways, I liked Consider the Lobster considerably more than A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The latter contains just seven essays, and two of them concern tennis. I understand that Wallace himself played competitive tennis during his teenhood, and so the sport therefore holds a certain sentimental value for him, and I also understand that he can turn his musings on tennis (et al) into grand, archmetaphors, relating his frustration about losing his primacy at tennis to his opponents’ frustration in the chimerical whimsy of the Midwestern wind during a set, but at the same time, I don’t and never have given a shit about tennis.
But this is all incidental. Wallace delivers in grand style here, as he does in everything else. His love of page-long footnotes makes for scattered but wholly enjoyable reading. His tendency to jump between High Concept and potty humour, between academic diction and stream-of-conscious (“and so but then I went…”), between dissertation and bloglike candor, all color A Supposedly Fun Thing with the entire spectrum of rhetoric. Like David Sedaris, Wallace likes to make everything metaphor, or metaphysically significant. The difference between the two, however, is that Foster Wallace is something of a self-depracating postmodernist, and Sedaris isn’t quite so left-field.
The two highlights, I think, are Wallace’s pieces for Harper Magazine, in which he covers a visit to the Illinois State Fair, and the title piece in which he covers a Caribbean cruise on one of those Disney-World-on-rudders cruise liners, concomitantly among a throng a people and yet somehow strangely estranged. Also fantastic is his look at David Lynch (specifically Lost Highway), which is good even though it presupposes some knowledge of Lynch’s work, which I don’t have. Also fantastic, and which is my personal favorite even if it isn’t a linchpin for the collection, is his look at television-as-metafiction: basically, TV the poststructuralist artform escapes the wrath of p.s/deconstructionism because it is self-aware w/r/t its absurdity and thus something of a self-parody to begin with. Much of it went beyond me, and may well go beyond anyone without a background in lit. crit. or philosophy, but it was a staggering work nonetheless.
If I had to choose, I think I would recommend new readers get a hold of Consider the Lobster, which I view as a technically- as well as stylistically-superior book, though I don’t want to cast aspersions on this one—its good qualities are merely haphazardly present, and the essays themselves not necessarily as refined as the others. It would be silly of me to try to make any in-depth critique of the essays themselves, but I would definitely suggest—if you’ve got the grapes for such a thing—that you pick it up and give it a read. Wallace never really disappoints.