"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"

Date: Sunday, March 9, 1997
By Richard Stern.

Section: TRIBUNE BOOKS
Copyright Chicago Tribune

VERBAL PYROTECHNICS

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


`I go out of my way," wrote Essayist Number One, "but by license not carelessness....I want the material to make its own divisions...without my interlacing them with words, with links and seams put in for the benefit of ... inattentive readers." As to style, "I love a simple, natural speech, the same on paper as in the mouth...succulent and sinewy, brief but compressed...better difficult than boring...irregular, disconnected and bold."

Montaigne's 400-year-old prescription works to describe these wonderful essays by David Foster Wallace. The best essays -- blends of fact, scene, observation, analysis, portraiture and commentary -- Wallace says, are often written by fiction writers, "oglers" who "watch over other humans sort of the way gapers slow down for car wrecks: they covet a vision of themselves as witnesses."

It's this ogler's greatest charm -- as it was Montaigne's -- that he supplies a piecemeal but consistent self-portrait that runs through the book. The portrait is of a precocious, physically timid, endlessly self-conscious, endlessly curious, naive sophisticate, a great shower and explainer, a loved and loving son, neurotic, brilliant, good-hearted and self-deprecating ("extremely sensitive: carsick, airsick, heightsick; my sister likes to say I'm `lifesick.' ").

In the best of these essays, he shows up as a fledgling journalist, one who forgets to bring a notebook, is astonished at his press perks and is puzzled by journalistic requirements ("how many examples (do) I need to list in order to communicate the atmosphere?").

It may be this self-portrait, as much as the constraints of Wallace's journalistic assignments, that saves these essays from what old-fashioned novel-readers like me thought was the narrative-killing excess of his 1,000-plus-page novel, "Infinite Jest." Some of that mastodon meat is in the essays -- tennis, teens, television -- and some of its manner, too -- footnotery, abbreviations, acronymania. But only here and there, say in the tribute to director David Lynch ("Eraserhead," "Twin Peaks," the new "Lost Highways"), does the "IJ"-shy reader want to call for halter, bit, reins and whip.

The title -- and longest -- essay is a blow-by-blow account of an expenses-paid, week-long luxury cruise in the Caribbean, a counter to a "polished, powerful, impressive . . . best that money can buy..." essaymercial by a writer Wallace admires, Frank Conroy (who tells Wallace that he's ashamed of having written it). No one will mistake Wallace's uproarious demolition of the "sybaritic and nearly insanity-producing indulgence and pampering" on board the Nadir (his rechristening of the cruise ship Zenith) for an essaymercial. It has more interesting characters than most novels, as much solid information as a technical brochure, and its genial depiction of the commerce of "Managed Fun" is as devastating as Henry James' analysis of the economic significance of the skyscraper in "The American Scene" (1907). Fifty times more amusing -- and 500 times cheaper -- than the cruise itself, Wallace's account of it may lose him a thousand perks for every hundred new readers.

There are two essays on tennis, one about becoming a teenage tennis whiz by learning to play the winds and cracked surfaces of central Illinois courts, the second the best essay I've read on professional tennis. Its focus is the world's 79th-ranked player, Michael Joyce, competing in a recent Canadian Open, but it's prodigally full of tennis lore, wisdom and thumbnail portraiture: Michael Chang, with his "expression of deep and intractable unhappiness," and his mother, who "may have something to do with the staggering woe of Chang's mien"; Jim Courier, who "can hit winners only at obtuse angles, from the center out"; Petr Korda, who "has the body of an upright greyhound... plus soulless eyes that reflect no light and seem to `see' only in the way that fish's and birds' eyes `see.' " (There is even a lethally seductive sentence about Du Maurier cigarettes. If Wallace loses his journalistic assignments, he can moonlight as a copywriter.)

Perhaps the gem of the book's four gems is a 54-page essay on the 1993 Illinois State Fair. There is more about the look, sounds, smell (Wallace is a great smeller), feel and meaning of rural Illinois here than I've seen in such small space since, say, Bellow's 1957 10-pager for Holiday magazine: "Miles and miles of prairie slowly rising and falling...a sense that something is in the process of becoming or that the liberation of a great force is imminent, some power like Michelangelo's slave only half-released from the block of stone." Wallace's lyrics are more staccato and his assessments swifter and less powerful than Bellow's, but he has lots more space and covers much more: not just the fair but its visitors, officials, reporters, the governor ("impressive") and his wife (whose tragic flaw is her voice), the prize horses, cattle and swine, the auto races (though, "What I know about auto racing could be inscribed with a dry Magic Marker on the lip of a Coke bottle"), baton-twirling, clogging, ag people, Kmart people, message-bearing T-shirts, the flatness, the space, the loneliness of the Midwest where he grew up and from which, years ago, he fled.

Perhaps the highlight of the state fair essay is this great scene:

Wallace has invited Native Companion, his old Philo High prom date, to go around the fairgrounds with him. N.C., who "teaches water-aerobics to the obese and infirm," is now married, has three children, and bungee jumps. She accepts a carny's offer to try out The Zipper, the wildest of the near-death-experience rides. Our "airsick, heightsick" author manages, with "an act of enormous personal courage," to watch as she's strapped into a cage and spun, hurled and tumbled "like stuff in a dryer" in a horrifying ellipse. A long scream, "wobbled by Doppler," comes from the cage. "Then the operator stops the ride abruptly with Native C.'s car at the top, so she's hanging upside down inside the cage," with her dress hanging down over her head. The operator and a colleague ogle her. After another scream from the cage, "as if Native C.'s getting slow-roasted," Wallace, outraged, almost summons enough saliva to "say something stern." But at this point the two carnies, "laughing and slapping their knee," start bringing her down. Finally, N.C. bounds out of the cage and, in a burst of expletives, tells them " `that was....great.' " Wallace is furious. " `They were looking up your dress...I saw the whole thing.' " N.C. looks at him. Her color is high. " `You're so...innocent, Slug,' " she says.

Four hundred years ago, dear old Montaigne described falling off his horse and "dying." For 400 years, readers have loved him for his account of it. Perhaps 400 years from now, readers will love Not So Intrepid and Not So Innocent Slug Wallace.


Richard Stern's first novel, "Golk" (1960),
appeared in the world two years before David Foster Wallace.