"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"

The New York Times
February 4, 1997

'A Supposedly Fun Thing': Musings on Life's Absurdities

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments
By David Foster Wallace
353 pages. Little, Brown & Co. $23.95.


For readers who actually finished "Infinite Jest," David Foster Wallace's gargantuan and much-talked-about recent novel, this new collection of essays will feel like a sort of nonfiction addendum, an echo chamber of musings, reportage and, of course, footnotes that recapitulate many of the author's favorite preoccupations, preoccupations that run the gamut from the philosophical (like people's consuming need to order their lives through obsession or distraction) to the banal (like tennis players' development of stylistic tics).

Like "Infinite Jest," "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" is animated by Wallace's wonderfully exuberant prose, a zingy, elastic gift for metaphor and imaginative sleight of hand, combined with a taste for amphetaminelike stream-of-consciousness riffs.

Like "Infinite Jest," the book boasts some marvelously demented set pieces that take the absurdities of contemporary American life and freeze them in little, Joseph Cornellian frames. And like "Infinite Jest," the book is sorely in need of some editing: even its liveliest, most compelling pieces are larded with repetitions, self-indulgent digressions and a seeming need on Wallace's part to set down whatever random thoughts or afterthoughts that happen to trundle through his mind.

The volume's more analytic essays -- a lengthy meditation on the relationship between television and new American fiction, an article on contemporary literary theory -- are a hodgepodge of insightful arguments, overly familiar observations and personal ruminations that illuminate the author's own fiction.

As readers of "Infinite Jest," "The Broom of the System" and "Girl With Curious Hair" well know, Wallace combines a taste for post-modernist high jinks with an old-fashioned love of character in his work. For all his narrative pyrotechnics, he has not wholly embraced the chilly, irony-suffused aesthetic of so many of his contemporaries, but has instead tried to meld his mythic, avant-garde ambitions with a more intimate sense of his characters' emotional and spiritual lives. In these essays those impulses are actually articulated, in what amounts to a kind of aesthetic manifesto.

Wallace argues that irony and ridicule have become "agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture," and he mourns the loss of the conviction and engagement with deep moral issues that animated the work of the great 19th-century novelists.

He astutely observes that postwar irony started out, in the work of writers like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, as a tool for exposing hypocrisy, but has since devolved in the hands of many younger novelists into a means of avoiding commitment and risk, a means of creating a self-satisfied, self-conscious and willfully shallow art that skates fleetingly over the surface of life.

"Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval," Wallace writes. "The old post-modern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today's risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the 'Oh how banal.' To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness."

The remaining essays in this volume (many of which were originally written for Harper's magazine) are decidedly less literary: a wonderfully loopy piece on growing up in the Midwest in the mathematically flat land of Tornado Alley; a long-winded profile of a tennis player named Michael Joyce; an anatomy of David Lynch's films that's half inspired commentary and half solipsistic journal writing; an amusing tour of the Illinois State Fair; and a comically extended account (complete with detailed footnotes on such matters as the author's history with Dramamine) of a Caribbean luxury cruise.

Although Wallace repeatedly points out that he is not a real journalist, his novelist's radar for the incongruous detail and the revealing remark -- along with his hyperkinetic language and natural storytelling gifts -- make him a remarkably able reporter.

He has a way of making you see the mundane things you've seen a thousand times before from a slightly different angle. A tennis court, "with its slender rectangles of doubles alleys flanking its whole length," becomes "a cardboard carton with flaps folded back;" the game itself, "chess on the run" or "billiards with balls that won't hold still."

Indeed the ordinary becomes slightly surreal in these pieces, much the way it does in Wallace's fiction. His tour of the Illinois State Fair shows us a Tupperware Retrospective, rides that spin "so fast you're mashed against the wall like a fly on a windshield," and steroidically muscled pigs that resemble small Volkswagens. Los Angeles is described as a place where street musicians "play on median strips instead of on the sidewalk or subway, and patrons throw change and fluttering bills at them from their speeding cars."

And Wallace's luxury cruise becomes a kind of uproarious exercise in "pampering-paranoia," with the author driving himself crazy trying to figure out how the ship's demonically efficient staff -- maniacally intent on cleaning and straightening his cabin -- knows when he has left his room.

Wallace introduces us to the Birkenstock-wearing Captain Video, who videotapes everything "including meals, empty hallways, endless games of geriatric bridge," and a waiter he calls the Tibster who has a postgraduate degree in restaurant management.

We meet Midwestern "drapes" -- that is, the sort of "girl who hangs onto her boyfriend in public like he's a tree in a hurricane" -- and carnival operators who are "sinisterly tan," with "the same hard blank eyes as people in bus terminal bathrooms."

The author himself also figures prominently in these essays, and he emerges as both a full-fledged neurotic (who's constantly going on about his fear of bugs, sharks, chickens and basically anything remotely threatening) and an engaging if garrulous tour guide: smart, funny and irreverent but also earnest, passionate and occasionally wise.

Flawed though it is, this volume not only reconfirms Wallace's stature as one of his generation's pre-eminent talents, but it also attests to his virtuosity, an aptitude for the essay, profile and travelogue, equal to the gifts he has already begun to demonstrate in the realm of fiction.


Essays and Arguments
By David Foster Wallace
353 pages. Little, Brown & Co. $23.95.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times