3 hours ago
27 June 2010
David Foster Wallace was not a journalist. He may have (legitimately) performed much of the investigation contained in his 1997 collection A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I'LL NEVER DO AGAIN with press credentials, under the aegis of 'reporting' on a tennis tournament or the shooting of a film, but as hard as he tries to wear that hat, he can't maintain it... and that's okay.
A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING was published the year after INFINITE JEST but comprised of magazine articles he wrote before and during work on his magnum opus. For readers at the time, the publisher was probably hoping for a "Guess what else he's got up his sleeve!" reaction, which was almost exactly my reaction when I first read the titular essay, in which DFW describes the experience of going on a Caribbean mega-cruise and the feelings it inspires in him. The feelings! Here come the feelings! (Back to those in a second.)
The persona DFW adopts here, for the most part (and which he can't ultimately maintain), is that of a wide-eyed watcher noting down exactly what he sees. I say that it's a persona, because while I don't doubt that his observations are genuine, he seems conscious in that voice that it is a construction. In nearly every piece here, he begins from a point of distance and eventually reveals that he's closer to the source than is apparent at first. "A Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" is the most outwardly autobiographical, in that this moment practically opens the piece. In others, it takes a while to develop.
In "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All," visiting the Illinois State Fair for Harper's, DFW introduces that angle by taking along with him his former prom date, tagged "Native Companion," who stayed in Illinois and settled down with husband and children. The Native Companion gambit teeters on the edge of stereotype -- how she's unafraid of the carnival rides while he quakes in his shoes, her down-home embrace of the mystery meats and objectification. (He does however steal one of my favorite lines from INFINITE JEST, 'less smitten than decapitated,' to describe her reaction to a cattle show MC.) And then every so often there's a flash of -- regret, and also wonder, as he observes her observing the fair, and observes himself, observing her, observing the fair. Perhaps a classic gambit in postmodern chess, but it works.
I had read two of its selections before ("David Lynch Keeps His Head" and the titular essay), and while the first time through I was all starry-eyed and overwhelmed, the second time I could approach with a more critical eye. I was still impressed, but I found myself disagreeing with the thrust of the Lynch profile, depicting the director as a pure artist who doesn't really care whether anyone gets his allusions or his 'point.' Even as some of the details on Lynch and his world are correct, he didn't sell me on that thesis, and in fact seemed like the essay with the strongest thesis to sell. With "A Supposedly Fun Thing...", though, I felt the second time around I was better able to judge and ultimately accept the author's argument; I could go big picture, instead of marveling at the details, and agreed with what I saw in the details.
"Real" "objective" journalists are taught to screen their opinions behind 'shaping' and editing, as we saw last month with the foofaraw around Lynn Hirschberg's M.I.A. profile.* The postmodernism is what puts the quotation marks in. Is Wallace's postmodern approach particularly novel here? No, there are some spectacular writers who have gone down this path (try the anthology THE NEW NEW JOURNALISM if you're looking). But for lovers of long-form magazine pieces, this book is a feast. Or, because I have to go out hokey like this, because it touched me too, a supposedly fun book that I look forward to reading again.
* Quickly: Hirschberg profiles singer M.I.A. in a not-totally-complimentary way, cemented with the detail that she blithely orders truffle fries while professing to care about political oppression; M.I.A. goes ballistic and distributes reporter's number, then produces recording of them ordering fries, which she thought was just fries and not the truffled ones (with all the aristocratic entailments thereof).