13 November 2020

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

This was my first time reading an essay collection by David Foster Wallace. In the past I have read a couple of short story collections and Infinite Jest, so I was excited to check out his non-fiction. I was so moved by his interviews with David Lipsky and I knew I would get something similar in his essays. Unfortunately this essay collection struck me at the worst time, I had just been laid off from my job and was having a hard time concentrating on the first few essays. I loved the final three essays (pages 146 to 353) and they really got me out of my funk. I'm going to mostly cover them below: 

Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness 

It is well known that Wallace was a pretty talented tennis player when he was younger. Early on in the essay collection he says "midwest junior tennis was also my initiation into true adult sadness," which somehow completely summarizes Infinite Jest and much of his writing. 

This essay is a profile on Michael Joyce, a tennis player who ranked 64th in the world in the late 1990s (and more recently coached Maria Sharapova). Wallace covers all kinds of interesting information about professional tennis, like how players often pay their own way in tournaments until they make it big, and how those logistics are worked out. There's some other talk about Andre Agassi - a famous tennis player all our parents know - as he used to hit the ball around a bit with Joyce.

The reason I bought A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again was for the tennis essays, but this is by far the best one. Wallace brings his own personal relationship with tennis to the table and is also super candid about some of the pros he watched. Joyce is so single-mindedly obsessed with tennis and Wallace easily captures that. I have always loved reading athlete profiles because of these details, but with Wallace's writing talents this was an even better experience. 

David Lynch Keeps His Head:

Wallace mentions David Lynch quite a bit in the Lipsky interview book, so I already knew he was a big fan. In this essay Wallace gets to visit the set of Lost Highway - a 1997 Lynch movie starring Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette. Wallace admits he doesn't get closer than 10 feet from Lynch, but more so by choice than anything else. 

Quentin Tarantino is interested in watching somebody's ear getting cut off; David Lynch is interested in the ear." 

He goes into detail about plot points in other Lynch movies like Blue Velvet and talks about Lynch's producing partners. One of my favourite anecdotes was Wallace noticing that Lynch pees off to the side of set constantly. I think most fans know Lynch drinks a shit ton of coffee, so he has to pee frequently. No one on set seems to mind as they also don't want to delay filming so Lynch can walk to the bathrooms every 20 minutes. 

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

This was easily my favourite essay and it made me laugh out loud so many times. I kept reading Ben these passages where Wallace kept comparing his experience to the Holocaust ... specifically when the crew told them not to worry about their luggage. I know that sounds harsh, but you have to read it for yourself. 

I have seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 21000 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as 'Mon' in three different nations. I have watched 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide."

Wallace obsesses over the sharks in the ocean (despite never seeing one) and wears a t-shirt with a tuxedo painted on it. He creates a life-long enemy in one of the ship coordinators and spends every night sitting with his elderly dinner-table mates in formal wear. The idea is that he will be able to spend the week or so completely relaxing and writing about his experience for a magazine. Like I said above, this essay was so so funny and I enjoyed it a lot more than an earlier one in the collection where he visits a state fair, but it is still sad as hell: 

There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that's unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir - especially at night, when all the ship's structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased - I felt despair. The word's overused and banalified now, despair, but it's a serious word, and I'm using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture - a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It's maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it's not these things, quite. It's more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I'm small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It's wanting to jump overboard." 

I find the hardest thing about reading any of Wallace's work, but especially his non-fiction, is reckoning with his suicide. Even just him simply writing "I am now 33 years old" made my heart pang. I know I've already quoted some pretty large passages from this essay, but I want to end on my absolute favourite. It is such a perfect description of how it feels to get older, which wasn't a feeling I was expecting to have while reading a cruise ship essay, but I shouldn't have been surprised given the author. 

I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclosed. And I'm starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiple exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life's sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it's my own choices that'll lock me in, it seems unavoidable - if I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try to live with them." 


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