DFW and the Great American Essay

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
By David Foster Wallace
368 pp. Back Bay Books. $18.

Now I see what all the fuss is about.

This is my first David Foster Wallace and, while I’d been meaning to read him for sometime, it was his well known essay on cruising that finally led me to close the deal.

I recently went on a Caribbean cruise with a buddy of mine who is an absolutely cruise fiend. He’d been urging me for years to come with him and I finally agreed.

I hated it.

Sharing my hatred with numerous individuals often resulted in their saying, “Have you read that DFW essay on cruising? You’d love it!”

And I did. You might consider it a bit lengthy for an essay, at 100 pages it’s the longest in this collection, but there is not a page included that does not deserve to be there.

The most amazing thing, really, is how little cruising has changed. Wallace wrote this essay back in 1995, but he could have been describing the cruise experience in 2020. There are a couple indicators of course, DFW’s unfamiliarity with the term “GPS,” for example, but all the things that I, and it appears, DFW, hate about the American service industry have remained consistent over time.

But while I loved the title essay, the one from this collection I actually came away with liking the most is “Getting away from already pretty much being away from it all,” about DFW’s time at the Illinois State Fair.

Now I’ve never been to a state fair, but Wallace renders it pretty much exactly as I imagine it would be. To the point that I actually sort of want to go see the tacky horror of it all for myself.

Every single page features absolutely hilarious anecdotes and examples, from the booth with t-shirts featuring various absurd slogans to Wallace’s depiction of the carnies. I loved it all.

Two of the essays concern tennis, and you don’t have to be a tennis fan in order to enjoy them. Though one of these two, “Derivative sport in tornado alley,” is less about tennis than it is a look at DFW’s upbringing, with a tornado thrown in for good measure.

Another essay, “David Lynch keeps his head,” sees DFW on the set of the 1995 David Lynch film “Lost Highway.”

I took a film class back in my freshman year of college in the fall of 2004. The professor was young, mistaken by nearly all of us for a student when he first walked in, and resembled Kurt Cobain. What a class that was … one of my classmates was blind (yes, a blind girl in a film class) and her condition required that she be accompanied everywhere with a dog, Lila. The dog’s birthday happened to fall on the Friday before our midterm exam, and the professor carted out a birthday cake made entirely of liver (being as it was, for the dog) and announced to the class that he would give extra credit to those who ate a slice. Of the 30 or so students, I and two others were alone in accepting the offer.

It tasted about how you’d expect liver cake to. Which is to say, disgusting.

The following day, Professor Holiday joked that “I can’t really do that, so I’ve brought a birthday card for the dog and if the rest of you just write something witty inside, I’ll give you extra credit too.”

Yes, I was outraged, but what could I do?

That little story was merely a detour on my way to saying that the first time I ever saw the film “Lost Highway,” or anything by David Lynch for that matter, was in that class. I rewatched it for the first time since then while reading DFW’s essay and, yes, it’s still pretty bad. Interesting, but bad.

But like DFW, I truly admire David Lynch and concur that other, more “popular” directors, like Quentin Tarantino, have borrowed from Lynch to such a heavy extent that they owe their success largely to him.

Also the third season of “Twin Peaks” is the best thing that’s ever aired on TV, period.

“E unibus plurum: television and U.S. fiction” is largely about television advertising and how an ad can never, ever, be considered art. It’s a depressing, but illuminating, look into the industry and the ways it manages to manipulate the populace.

I didn’t love every essay — “Greatly Exaggerated,” a look into post-structuralism and obscure (for me, anyway) literary theory wasn’t quite my cup of tea — but I loved or very much liked the rest.

Now comes the obligatory note on how we have been unfortunately deprived of DFW’s fantastic mind, and that is heartrending indeed. It’s clear in this, his first collection, that he was a truly fabulous writer. Fortunately, I have other unread works of his to check out, including his fiction, but the mind can’t help but ponder on what such a truly insightful individual would have had to say about all the things that make up our chaotic modern times.

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