Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Review: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace
8/10, great social insight and humor, occasionally too thick or esoteric to follow

If Dave Barry had gone to Princeton rather than Haverford, he might have become David Foster Wallace. Not that it's a bad thing that either of them followed the path he did; both of them bring great insights to their work, and both of them show a tremendous versatility in the subject material they're willing to cover. Barry has toured New York and gone Extreme Sporting; Wallace, in this volume, visits the Illinois State Fair and takes a Princess Caribbean Cruise. Barry monitors tabloids for exploding cow stories and their relevance to society, while Wallace investigates the relationship of TV to modern literature. Both of them, oddly, share a moderate obsession with toilets.

Wallace's articles tend to be less accessible than Barry's, perhaps the reason I'd only peripherally heard of him. He seems to be part of the McSweeney's crew, the sort of intellectual satire I associate with New York writers, and while Wallace does live up to that stereotype, he also demonstrates a vivid awareness of his own faults and limitations. In visiting the Illinois State Fair, in one of my favorite passages, he finds a booth selling t-shirts bearing statements like, "I GO FROM 0 TO HORNEY IN 2.5 BEERS," and after a page of analysis about what these shirts signify to the people here and what the shirts as a whole say about them as a class of people, he comes back around: "The woman at the booth wants to know why I'm standing there memorizing t-shirts, and all I can think to tell her is that "HORNEY" is misspelled, and now I really feel like an East Coast snob..."

His insights into the game of tennis are fascinating and fun to read, and the titular essay, the one about the cruise, is brilliant and hysterical. Where he loses my interest is in his academic essays, like the aforementioned one on TV, and another explaining and critiquing an ongoing debate about the role of the author in book criticism. The latter is bearably short; the former lost me several times. Even those essays are worth reading for the ideas, but Wallace is at his best when he is wryly commenting not just on tennis, or the Midwest, or a cruise, but also on his own place in his subject. It's that endearing self-awareness that brings him back from the edge of being annoyingly smug and superior: he'll tell you how silly people are for falling for some marketing ploy, for example, and then frankly admit that he falls for it all the time too. That allows the reader to identify with him, which works well for me, because he's so smart in his writing that identifying with his flaws makes me feel smarter.


NedSanyour said...

"Wallace is at his best when he is wryly commenting not just on tennis, or the Midwest, or a cruise, but also on his own place in his subject."

You know, that is an interesting thing, as it is sort of a comment on the roll of the author in writing. The implied response of the author, or the author's viewpoint, is interesting to see. Most essays have a more obvious intrusion of the author into the space of the story than in a fiction. Whether the involvement is intellectual or emotional, essays tend to be 'what I think or feel about this topic.' Unlike books, which can be 'what my characters did when trapped on a world made of cheese.'
I think that self-awareness can make constant snarkiness amusing. It keeps making me think of the Dorothy Parker story called something like "The Dance" which is a "from the woman's point of view" story of getting asked to dance at a party by some guy, and she sort of insults his dancing skills in her head but not aloud and doesn't want to dance but does. It makes me wonder who is being satirized, a guy who is bad at dancing or the woman who won't stand up for herself and hates the guy for what he is without doing anything about it.
Well, how did I get there? Oh, I just think that this is a good point, and is usually where essays are best.

Tim said...

I think the best essayists have this: Bill Bryson is one who comes to mind, Dave Barry another. David Quammen, while equally skillful, maintains a detachment from his subjects in many cases that makes the reading more academic and less engaging. Douglas Adams, in his brilliant "Last Chance To See," intruded with author voice all over his essays.

The role of author voice in fiction is a really interesting topic that I will devote a post to at some point in the future. I think it can be very effective (Rikoshi, frequent responder here, is great at using author voice), but it can also be somewhat off-putting. I don't miss it when it's not there, if the characters and story are engaging enough, but when it is there, as you point out, it brings the author in as another character almost.

I'm reminded of "Into The Woods," which has a narrator until about halfway through the second act, when the characters decide that the narrator is to blame for their troubles, drag him into the story, and feed him to the giant.

NedSanyour said...

Interesting about the narrative voice as an additional character. Much modern fiction lacks a narrative voice in the sense of, say, Dickens or Dumas or even a couple of people whose names do NOT begin with 'D,' although I can't think of any here. The guy who wrote Bridge Over the San Luis Rey, I suppose. The sort of narrative voice where the author opines on the significance of events, on human nature, and sometimes treats the characters like people with a reality that the author is merely relating.
I wonder if it is the way that now it is assumed that fiction is autobiographical (leading me to ask if we are more solipsistic? or do we just realize it? And is it bad?) so teh 'authorial authority' is concealed in one or many of the characters, so there is no need for - nor room for - a narrator to fill that function.

Tim said...

I think, as we've discussed in the past, it's just not trendy to insert your narrative voice into the story. The idea, perhaps, is to let the story stand on its own without the intrusion of the author--having the author "get out of the way" of the reader experiencing the story. Maybe this is a by-product or symptom of the same cultural trend that leads reality TV to be so popular. Even in fiction, we want the illusion that our stories are "real," and it's harder to have that (though not impossible) when you're constantly being reminded that someone is telling you the story.

NedSanyour said...

yeah, and maybe we are even more comfortable with the 'creator as character' concept so it is OK for him to appear on stage, as it were. As a Point Of View shill