To watch or not to watch

By David Wiley
The Minnesota Daily
Feb. 27, 1997



Walk into any bookstore and pick up any new novel more
than 500 pages long, and chances are it will say
something like this on the dust jacket: "A sprawling masterpiece
in the high comic tradition of Sterne, Swift and Pynchon." Or
else, "Only William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon can compare to
(insert author's name here)." Besides giving a slight hint of
instant nostalgia, these comparisons betray the blurbists'
laziness, because any writer as good as Gaddis is way too good to
be compared to Gaddis. So, good or bad, the writer doesn't deserve
the comparison.

The past few decades have produced a fistful
of American writers who may be in the latter
"too good to be compared" camp: William T.
Vollmann, definitely, and maybe also Richard
Powers and Carol DeChellis Hill -- and now
David Foster Wallace. Wallace, who's just 35
and has already written four critically
acclaimed books, is proving himself to be
the new wunderkind of American letters. He
released his first book, Broom of the System
(which the New York Times compared to
Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 -- a book
Wallace had not yet read), at age 25, and
his last book of fiction, Infinite Jest,
made it onto just about every American
critic's list of best books last year. He's
just released his newest book, a collection
of essays called A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll
Never Do Again, as well as a paperback
edition of Infinite Jest, and he spoke with
A&E about both books when he came to
Minneapolis to promote them.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
collects seven of Wallace's essays written
over the last 10 years or so. His topics
range from state fairs to luxury cruises to
television and fiction to tennis. Depending on what he's writing
about, he approaches his subjects from either a thoroughly learned
and authoritative position or an absurd and dazed angle. His essay
"E Unibus Pluram," a treatise on the tenuous relationship between
fiction and television, takes the former stance, and the results
are stunning. Although he now considers the essay a bit dated (he
wrote it in 1990), "E Unibus Pluram" is a nearly lexicon
assessment of the state of modern entertainment. At the time he
wrote the essay, Wallace had been watching a tremendous amount of
TV, and even though he watches less now, he still stresses the
importance of keeping engaged with popular culture:

"I think writers, say, under 45 or 40 or something
who aren't in some way having to deal with the
impact of popular culture on America -- unless
you're writing a historical novel, I just don't get
it," Wallace says. "I don't watch television as
research or anything like that, but it just seems as
if television, advertising, popular culture, media intrusion, now
the Internet and circuits of information, are part of our
environment the way clouds and trees were part of the environment
a hundred years ago. I don't know that there's any way to escape
it."

But while Wallace says that fiction must be a dialogue with
culture, he warns against excessive self-reference and empty
irony. Television shows like Beavis and Butthead do little more
than create vapid circles of watching, and even though viewers
know the show is stupid and feel they're smarter than it is, the
show still gets them to watch. And fiction can do the same thing.

"Now there's two ways I can go," Wallace says. "I can change the
situation, because it's clearly ridiculous, or I can ironically
genuflect the situation -- 'Isn't this great? I'm a dickhead,
sitting here watching these dickheads watch dickheads on TV.' And
it becomes, it seems to me, a very easy excuse to perpetuate the
deal. It's a way to keep doing what's easy and convenient and yet
look hip and cool while you're doing it."

Wallace says that television and even fiction writers have
co-opted the sarcasm and irony of the postmodernists as a way of
protecting themselves from having to actually stand for anything.
Originally, the postmodernists were critiquing the emptiness of
modern culture, but now writers wallow in it.

"(Don) DeLillo and Pynchon and Gaddis and a lot of those guys I
think called the situation a long time ago. What's ironic,"
Wallace says, laughing ironically, "is that the stuff they're
talking about is still going on but their ironic, sarcastic voice
we have adopted as a way to protect ourselves from responsibility
to the situations. So it's like we've taken the technique or the
surface of what it is they're talking about, but we haven't
listened to what the message is."

As brilliant as Wallace is in these more serious modes, he's
absolutely luminous when he writes comically. His essay for
Harper's, "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from
It All," recounts his three days at the Illinois State Fair. From
watching baton twirlers and Thighmaster salespeople to eating
corndogs to posing as a Harper's Bazaar reporter to get free
desserts, Wallace dissects the fair scene with an outrageousness
that borders on reverence.

But even funnier is the title essay, which came about as a
reaction to the state fair essay's popularity. Since his overall
expenses for three days at the state fair came to $27 (excluding
games of chance), Harper's thought it would be fun to send him on
a different kind of assignment. So they sent him on a $3,000
luxury cruise. The result is an essay so amazing that it's nearly
a genre unto itself. Part travelogue, part stand-up routine, part
existential treatise, the essay takes the reader to the very
depths of the human comedy. From the nearly magical maid Petra and
the "extremely cool" waiter Tibor to the nearly satanic tablemate
Mona and the positively "icky" cruise director Scott Peterson,
Wallace finds himself surrounded by a cast of characters way
stranger than any he could have made up. And what's most amazing
is that while they're all being pampered to death, Wallace finds
his pleasure threshold rising. After a while, he's no longer
satisfied with mere luxury:

...(E)ven just the premature removal of a towel by a sepulchral
crewman seems like an assault on my basic rights, and plus now the
sluggishness of the Aft elevator is an outrage, and the absence of
22.5-lb dumbbells in the Olympic Health Club's dumbbell rack is a
personal affront. And now as I'm getting ready to go down to lunch
I'm drafting a really mordant footnote on my single biggest pet
peeve about the (ship): soda pop is not free, not even at dinner:
you have to order a Mr. Pibb from the (restaurant's) maddeningly
E.S.L.-hampered cocktail waitress just like it was a fucking
Slippery Nipple, and then you have to sign for it right there at
the table, and they charge you -- and they don't even have Mr.
Pibb; they foist Dr Pepper on you with a maddeningly unapologetic
shrug when any fool knows Dr Pepper is no substitute for Mr. Pibb,
and it's an absolute goddamned travesty, or at any rate extremely
dissatisfying indeed.

But no matter how good any of these essays are, his novel Infinite
Jest just takes the cake. Populated by drug addicts, spies, tennis
players, extremely sanitary Presidents and the most whacked-out
family since Salinger's Glass family, the book's nearly 1,100
pages teem with humanity and profundity. At the novel's center are
the Incandenzas, a vaguely Hamlet-esque family (precocious son,
sexy mother, dead father replaced by weasely uncle -- hence the
book's title) that runs a prestigious tennis academy in New New
England. (It's the future, and most of the old New England has
been toxically saturated and given to Canada.)

The dead father, James, had been, among other things, an
avant-garde filmmaker, and his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, (he was
"a fellow of infinite jest") was apparently so entertaining that
anyone who watches it wants to do nothing but watch it again. If
you see the film, you don't want to eat or drink, you shit your
pants, you have no desire for anything else. And when the film
resurfaces about five years after James' death, in The Year of the
Depend Adult Undergarment (each year is subsidized by a different
product), all the world's governments want to get ahold of the
elusive master copy.

The novel is an astonishing examination of what entertainment
means in our culture and how it can come to supplant all other
concerns:

"Part of the book is about a culture deciding that the meaning of
life consists in experiencing as much pleasure as much of the time
as possible," Wallace says, "and what are the implications of
that. ... Say you've got really serious art, and it takes really
hard work, whether it's painting or music or literature. That
stuff's not fun in the way commercial entertainment is fun. I mean
fun -- like eating a Twinkie. It's like slipping into a warm bath
after a hard day. It's an escape. It's a relaxation. And that's
fine, and that's entirely appropriate. The danger comes when the
escape becomes the overriding purpose."

So the question is what makes our life meaningful? Is pleasure
just our reward, or is it our raison d'etre? If the latter, then
why not watch the movie?

"Would I do it?" Wallace says. "I don't know. I don't think that I
would do it, but I think what I would do is I would arrange to
have a lot of friends around me who would keep me from doing it."