Monday, April 14, 2014

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, David Foster Wallace
Read: 14 September to 6 October 2012
5 / 5 stars

My woefully late introduction to David Foster Wallace came earlier this year when I noshed greedily on The Broom of the System, which humbled and fascinated and tickled and impressed the ever-loving shit out of me to the point where I only gave it four stars because the guy wrote it when he was younger than I am now and I have it on good faith that his later works are even better.

Reading this made me feel a lot of things -- the way it eased my unshakable sense of being lonely in a totally cliched existential sort of way that I feel like I maybe should have grown out of by now being one of the biggies; most of said feelings were staggeringly positive -- but the most persistent and lingering one was this quiet sadness. The dates imprinted on a lot of these pieces (the early to mid-‘90s, not one predating my exit from elementary school) are just long ago enough to start taking on the sheen of gauzy quaintness that I'm beginning to understand and is plain fucking weird while also being an unpleasantly vague reminder that since time stops for no man, death comes for everyone. (Interestingly, the offerings herein don't come off as dated -- cell phones as shiny new things that only the elite few possess! the rise of irony in popular culture! the advent of the internet! Rather, they serve as one big time capsule for a great mind reacting to really strange times. It was so weird (and rad as hell, too) to read about a very smart and very aware adult reflecting about a present I can only recall from a child's long-ago vantage point.)

And it was thinking like that, in the moments I stopped reading this collection to process the range of thoughts it reflected, the ideas it proposed and feelings it gave rise to because I was so dazzled by how DFW made me care about things I’d never had two shits to rub together in regard to before, how he had a wicked knack for turning a simple observation into an unobtrusively significant moment, how he didn’t so much observe as understand the intangibles that were the driving forces of these pieces, that just made me sad that someone with a unique grasp on the human condition and inner workings of everything isn’t around to keep pointing out the unassuming but ever-present imperatives of absolutely all the things, including the pants-shittingly terrible experience that is putting oneself at the mercy of (or simply considering) a Midwestern state fair's death-trap carnival rides. And that I didn’t know to mourn DFW's passing until much later, leaving me to feel like my newly hatched enthusiasm for his brilliance is somehow insincere in its belatedness, however genuine I know it to be.

It also forced me to (very unwillingly, because my brain stops at this station a lot and I kind of hate it, even if it is something made of pure conjecture) think about what terms would drive me to check out early, too. Such things are worth mentioning because someone as willing as DFW was to look deep inside everything's inner workings to find their true meaning, to me, deserves the same kind of respectful concern. Rather than turning me off entirely, though, that train of thought made me even more willing to take DFW's careful deliberations to heart and try to see things as he does in the pieces comprising A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

I know it sounds like a cop-out but each one of these essays and arguments brings something different to the table, which made it hard for me to decide whether or not I have a favorite piece in the collection. But I also don’t think that’s fair because each of the seven pieces has a different intention. (Get ready for the oncoming wall of text!)

It’s terrifying to see the dangers of mindless consumption via television’s manipulation addressed almost two decades ago -- the way advertisers always knew how to create a selling image for a blindly consumer-happy, image-obsessed American audience, the way societal conventions change television archetypes every so often, how all alternative trends eventually become bastardized into some mass-produced dross -- and fascinating to retrace the path of Metafiction's influence on today's entertainment in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction." The nod to New Journalism in “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” and the way DFW turns his experiences and observations at the ’93 Illinois State Fair into something bigger and more universal than it appears while capturing what exactly makes it such a unique beast should sound cynical and self-involved but doesn't. “Greatly Exaggerated,” or deconstructing a literary trend that is all about deconstructing previously accepted literary trends, was the headiest of the pieces; if I thought my ever-growing love for postmodernism in all its flavors was the only thing that made me appreciate the piece, then I would have entirely missed the points of both “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” (DFW’s own forays into high-school tennis, the success of which he owed to a mental rather than athletic prowess that he seems unnecessarily apologetic about, the way someone who’s really good at something but is humbled rather than bolstered by it is) and “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness,” which does address all those things (and more!) in relation to Joyce’s unflappable straightforwardness and tennis philosophy and has quite a bit to say about the nature and sacrifices of professional athletes and other applicable-to-everyone’s-lives truths. “David Lynch Keeps His Head” may have began as a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the birth of "Lost Highway” but winds up examining Lynch’s catalog and pinpointing all the ways he thoroughly messes with American moviegoers’ expectations and gets labeled as “sick” or “inaccessible” because of it (let me tell you something, Mulholland Drive made a hell of a lot more sense than it had any right to after reading this, which kind of freaked me out). Lastly, the piece that shares its title with this collection, a dissertation on the crises, implications and microcosmic representations of the id’s insatiable demand to get back the fuck into the womb for the relief of helpless indulgence via the luxury of Caribbean cruises, might just be the most thought-provoking and metaphorically successful vacation piece ever wrought. Ever.

So, yeah, there’s some varied stuff here but commonalities do emerge. One of the other things I'm liking best about DFW's stuff is that I absolutely have to read every single word and perform a few mental gymnastics to accommodate both the accessible-but-high-minded assertions and the asides that layer his writings with brilliance: It creates a kind of focus that has helped me retain more of his works than more simply written fare. Intentional or not, that same kind of keen attention appeared to be what DFW wanted to coax from his readers, imploring the audience to go forth and value the little things for their unique place in the world in order to better understand (or deconstruct, if you like) and appreciate them. Because nothing is just one thing: Everything comprises lots of unnoticed little things, and appreciating that makes it all worth the effort.

DFW infuses all of his topics with the same careful dissection (and flurry of pitch-perfect, lovingly applied ten-dollar words, which deserves mention for being delightful in its own word-nerd right), approaching an understanding devoid of all judgement, which is what appealed to me the most about this collection. It's so hard to approach a topic without bringing any sort of preconceived notions to the table -- like, DFW acknowledges the possibility of being perceived as an East Coast snob throughout his state-fair peregrinations, negating the impression of such a thing (to the reader, at least) with his conscious honesty -- but none of that lives here. There is no depressed acceptance of the way things are in his intellectual explorations; instead, he finds a way to break down the necessary humanity behind everything, bringing them to a wholly sympathetic, neutral at worst/misunderstood necessity at best sort of light. He analyzes social situations with a mathematical precision, offering a rational discourse instead of a detached report. He wants to pick things apart to achieve not reductive meaningless but sincere realization and factual certainty of a thing's nature and composition and intent.

In this way, he's a champion of eliminating the false veneer of fantasy that shrouds so many unattainable-by-normal-people things in seductive mystery -- that also drives the average Joe to the depths of jealousy and deluded despair. Breaking down the misconception that lies between the behind-the-scenes reality and the polished final dream, looking behind the curtain to understand the hard work and sacrifices of those in the public eye (writers to an extent but mostly film-industry professionals and celebrity athletes) makes them less scary, more systematic, and far, far less enviable.

One of the hallmarks of a genius, to me, is the ability to inspire curiosity and critical thinking in others, which is exactly what this collection does. I don't care if I'm betraying my terminally uncool over-eagerness in this review; I do, however, care that DFW made me give an earnest fuck about tennis. Twice.

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