Reading David Foster Wallace is like riding a verbal roller coaster or being catapulted by some zany carnival ride that twists and turns one’s perspective, flips the world upside down, and creates a kaleidoscope of blurred colors and rapidly alternating images. His prose is a nonstop language experience, immersing the reader in varieties of slang, four-letter words, technical terminology, academic jargon, and outright linguistic inventions. Only Wallace, for example, would describe the overly solicitous and nervously busy crew of a cruise ship as “amphetaminic,” the same Wallace who, just as casually, evokes a colloquial ambiance with words like “stuff” and “hellacious.” The poet W. H. Auden once remarked that a poet was anyone who loved language, and, in this regard, Wallace must be ranked as a kind of poet of pop culture, even though he is known as a writer of short stories, essays, and novels. His intense, high-pressured use of language becomes a kind of poetry within his work. No matter what the subject—drugs, county fairs, tennis, cruise ships, film noir, or television (his obsession)—the reader is invariably awed by Wallace’s subtle and witty manipulations of language.
The essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again are the expanded “director’s cut” versions (according to Wallace) of shorter pieces, many originating as assignments from editors at Harper’smagazine. Other essays appeared in Esquire, Premiere (a film journal), and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. These journals and periodicals give a hint of Wallace’s stature within the literary community and also summarize his broad interests in the field of contemporary culture. The revised versions of the essays and their publication between the covers of one book closely follow the appearance of Wallace’s massive tome of a novel, Infinite Jest (1996), a long (1,079 pages) exploration of television, commercialism, addiction, tennis, and adolescence; in short, the same preoccupations of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The very same themes appeared in Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System (1987) and in his collection of short stories, Girl with Curious Hair (1988). Thus, there is a clear thematic wholeness in Wallace’s oeuvre as well as a consistency of tone. Wallace is not merely an excruciatingly precise observer of the surface and depth of American life, but he is also a witty and downright humorous interpreter of social situations, a comic genius who has been compared to English satirist Jonathan Swift. In Infinite Jest, for example, Wallace spoofs our national tendency to commercialize everything by creating a future society where even the years will have corporate sponsors. Only rarely does Wallace remove his ironic mask.
The seven essays that constitute A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again should not be read, however, as scholarly articles, despite their origins in prestigious literary venues. These seven pieces, ranging in length from eight pages (“Greatly Exaggerated”) to ninety-seven (“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”), and comprising such topics as food, television, state fairs, tennis, old age, tornadoes, and films, are distinctly personal documents offering Wallace’s unique “arguments” or complicated conversations with the reader. Wallace is less interested in proving a point or creating some abstract hierarchy of ideas than in simply sharing a vision. He wants readers to try to perceive the world through his eyes, even for a moment. Hence, he includes two essays on tennis because, to him, it remains one of the few beautiful and heroic activities in human life. After all, the essay, as a literary form, derives from the French essayer, “to try,” and Wallace tries hard, in the manner of a tennis hero, serving one ball after another. He downloads the equivalent of a whole hard drive of vocabulary on the reader and, in vulnerable moments, even confesses some awkward and morbid truths about himself.
The opening essay, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” one of the two pieces on tennis, is a highly nostalgic and brutally honest account of Wallace as a young tennis champion growing up in the tiny village of Philo, Illinois, a lonely and isolated dot on the prairie. Although the essay is eloquently detailed on the lore of tennis courts, rackets, and tournaments, Wallace manages a literary hat trick (the equivalent of a powerful backhand) by combining his insights into tennis, the vagaries of the weather (wind and tornadoes), and the spatial dimensions of the broad, flat prairie. The author uses the precision of physics or mathematics (Wallace majored in mathematics at Amherst, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1985) and the aesthetic vision of a landscape painter or photographer to write some unusually compelling and vivid prose:
When I left my boxed township of Illinois farmland to attend my dad’s alma mater in the...
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