Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Gladly Do Again

This is only the second of Wallace's books that I've read, and I approached this text hoping for some resolutions to the seemingly irresolvable Infinite Jest. I finished Infinite Jest about a year ago but couldn't finish thinking about it. I could stop thinking about it for periods of time, but was perpetually working on a review of the book, perpetually trying to decide what I thought of it. Did I hate it? Was I moved by it? I was both, and could not let it go.

I find myself in a quite similar situation: I want to have something quite profound and final to say about A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, but instead I find I must live with it in my head (and in my bookbag), unable as I am to make the final move of placing it back on the shelf. Even just writing this post, I keep telling myself not to worry about including every observation I have about the book. If I didn't tell myself this, I'd be here forever and the post would never go up. Perhaps my inability to reach a conclusion (either in writing, i.e. a logical conclusion, or in reading, i.e. putting the book down and moving on to another) is a testament to the conclusiveness of Wallace's essays. They seem to make every observation that could be made; they anticipate every counterargument that could be advanced; they track the reader's every instinctive reaction. They are not unlike Infinite Jest in this sense: everything's in there.

Even taking a shallow look at the Table of Contents proves that Wallace can write about anything. (Oh God, I just sounded like one of the thousand male critics that have gay crushes on Wallace. I spent most of last year hating those critics and their substanceless praise for Infinite Jest. They had far more to say about the author's mental capacity than about the work itself. According to them, Wallace is "brilliant" and a "genius." He's our generation's Pynchon. He can write about anything.) The essays concern: 1. Amateur Tennis 2. Television and Contemporary Fiction 3. The Illinois State Fair 4. Poststructural Literary Criticism 5. Filmmaker David Lynch 6. Professional Tennis 7. A Caribbean Cruise. Damn. The most exciting page turn of the entire book, I submit, is from the last page of essay 3, in which Wallace gazes at the bulging belly of a yuppie suspended high in the Illinois air by the cables of a bungee-like carnival contraption; to the first page of essay 4, which begins "In the 1960s the poststructuralist metacritics came along and turned literary aesthetics on its head..."


The two things that really excited me about this book, though, are that 1) Wallace has something optimistic and redeeming to say about television, which surprised me given the fact that the dystopia imagined in Infinite Jest revolves around a society whose members literally die because they cannot stop watching TV, and 2) Wallace doubts himself and even self-deprecates in these essays, which demonstrates that he is not the dick that his omniscient narrator in Infinite Jest often is.

Let me talk about 1) first. Essay 2, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" may be the piece of writing I have spent the most time discussing with friends, often going so far as to read chunks of the essay out loud. The essay's first major point is that Joe Briefcase, an average American watching six hours a day of TV (the average as of 1990), is a teleholic. Television promises to solve Joe's lonely life with shows full of excitement and interaction, while at the same time keeping Joe's life lonely by keeping him in front of the TV six hours a day. Wallace manages to make this point without writing off television as altogether evil; in fact, he professes his annoyance with critics who do so. Conclusion: read this essay. This is the most important thing I will say in this post. You will learn about who you are when you sit before the large flickering screens that occupy a percentage of our lives second only to sleep. You can find it online here, but I recommend getting your hands on a copy of the book so that you don't have to experience the dissonance of reading this essay in front of a screen not dissimilar from a TV screen.

As I mentioned above, I'm also very glad to learn that Wallace can displace and doubt his own point of view. He is culpable and fallible in these essays. In essays 3 and 7, which were both journalistic assignments from Harper's magazine, he's present in the first-person far more than a conventional reporter. Notably, in these appearances he's more often bumbling than anything else: losing at chess to a 9-year old girl, getting nauseous with fear just looking at carnival rides, trying to flirt with the female staffer who makes his bed on the cruise.

This deprecating self-consciousness has twofold significance for me. First, it might save Infinite Jest. A few other tidbits from A Supposedly Fun Thing helped: for example, Wallace's admiration for what he decides is pure expressionism in David Lynch's movies combined with extra information about his junior tennis career and his personal entertainment consumption habits allow one to recast Infinite Jest as a kind of fictionalized autobiography. This makes its dystopia less snide, more forgivable for being the author's personal future nightmare. It deflates what originally seemed to be a claim that this nightmare awaited us all, as a society. Perhaps DFW just wants to express his fears.

The main difficulty in reading Infinite Jest as expressionism without also reading A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is IJ's omniscient narrator. The problem of the narrator really plagued IJ: sometimes the narrator appears to be Hal, sometimes the story is told from Joelle's point of view, sometimes the narrator is omniscient. Worst of all, the omniscient narrator displays a subtle-yet-present brand of misogyny and homophobia. He's an asshole, when you really look. It becomes very hard to like Infinite Jest if one concludes that it endorses these oppressive (and sometimes just downright mean) attitudes. The self-deprecating narrator that speaks in A Supposedly Fun Thing introduces the possibility that IJ's omniscient narrator could be imperfect and wrong just like the rest of us, and perhaps DFW just wanted to display that narrator in all his fucked-up ideologies as well as his "brilliant" and "genius" observations.

Second, the fallible and clumsy narrator is just one key element of what I believe is really DFW's enduring gift to us all: his style. This narrator allows him to be intellectual and readable at the same time. He can discuss poststructural metacriticism in all its jargon-y details, but he eventually comes back down to a kind of individualized layman's truth:

"For those of us civilians who know in our gut that writing is an act of communication between one human being and another, the whole question seems sort of arcane."
He can make up words and employ an enormous vocabulary, use layers of footnotes and a seemingly endless reserve of knowledge and research, but often his best points are made after his famously long and diagrammable sentences, in a short and plain summary sentence:

... Still, for the fact that individual American human beings are consuming vulgar, prurient, dumb stuff at the astounding average per-household dose of six hours a day - for this both TV and we need to answer. We are responsible basically because nobody is holding any weapons on us forcing us to spend amounts of time second only to sleep doing something that is, when you come right down to it, not good for us. Sorry to be a killjoy, but there it is: six hours a day is not good.
Wallace's human narrator - himself - tones down some of his most condemning points about humanity. When the statement involves a personal expression of Wallace's, we read it not as ideological tome but as unavoidable, real, human:

... the promise to sate the part of me that always and only WANTS - is the central fantasy the [cruiseliner's] brochure is selling. The thing to notice is that the real fantasy here isn't that this promise will be kept, but that such a promise is keepable at all. This is a big one, this lie. And of course, I want to believe it - fuck the Buddha - I want to believe that maybe this Ultimate Fantasy Vacation will be enough pampering, that this time the luxury and pleasure will be so completely and faultlessly administered that my Infantile part will be sated.
Here Wallace can't help but interject his own feelings, even going so far as to use the uncharacteristic and not very diagrammable dash. Fuck the buddha, he says, and it makes concrete this detailed and abstract point about the human condition.

I'm not done with this book (well, I have read the whole thing, but that's not what I mean) and I'm not done with Wallace, I can tell. This is embarassing, but when I am feeling delusions of grandeur I sometimes think that he is the Eliot to my Crane. I can't seem to get past him.

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