Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Let's Book Club: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace, part 1

I mentioned when writing about Brief Interviews with Hideous Men how maddening, at times, David Foster Wallace can be to read. He's the kind of guy that doesn't let you rest -- he doesn't waste words, he's always probing, challenging, testing you, and his writing is just so dense, that it can get pretty exhausting after a while. Of course, on the flip side, this is also the best part of his writing -- how he breaks down everyday life things with such detail and nuance, and, consequently, elucidates the quirks and in our personalities/interactions/cultures, etc..

As a side note, if my writing has seemed even more convoluted and difficult to read lately then I would chalk that up to me sub-consciously mimicking DFW.

At any rate, given the challenge of getting through a DFW book, let alone a book of full of 40 - 70 page essays, I thought I'd read about the first half of the book, write about it, pick up another book, and then give the second half a go. But, given that there's no real unifying theme - as far as I can tell (and I'm highly caffeinated at the moment) - I thought I'd write a quick (or possibly long) blurb about each of the first three essays.

1. "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley"

DSiTA is about Foster Wallace's junior tennis experience in rural Illinois. FW explains how he, in Brad Gilbertian fashion, became one of the best players in his area at 14 by learning to play with the wind (consequently, he describe that was the peak of his tennis results). More than anything, I think, this essay validates the piece that DFW wrote about Roger Federer in the New York Times Magazine a few years ago ("Roger Federer as Religious Experience")... the guy knows, at least a little bit, tennis.

Tangent: Also, it kind of made me nostalgic, but in a, I can't believe how serious and specialized sports have become. Given that DFW is (or was, I guess) precisely twenty years my senior, junior tennis, I'm sure, had evolved between his and my time. But, I feel like, post-2000 the rate of change - with junior tennis, as with everything else - has been significantly more rapid. If DSiTA were set in 2009, DFW playing on public courts with friends, would've been left in the dust. The kids he competed against would've been playing tournaments since they were nine, strength and speed training since they were eleven, and even the mediocre players would only be going to school for only a half day to fit in their training... not to mention the two or three best kids in the area would've left to go to an IMG Academy in Chicago or Florida. Ugh.

2. "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction"
This essay illustrates perfectly what I find so interesting and maddening about DFW. The whole premise of the essay, which I confess I don't entirely understand, is that television is a reflection of what we, as a society, want to see -- and possibly, that fiction writers don't understand and/or take that seriously enough. Now, I guess the trouble with the essay, for me at least, is that I think DFW is trying to make a point, but I don't entirely get what he's quote "really trying to say". There's enough interesting sort of sub-points along the way, that it doesn't really matter, I guess, but I feel like this is the sort of essay that makes me feel like I wish I'd taken at least one or two English classes through University.

Also, as an aside, it's interesting how - given the time b/w the writing of this essay (mid-90s) and my reading of it (last week) - many of the points still ring true, although you'd have to replace "VCR" with "DVR" and/or "Cable" with "Satelitte" or "the internet" etc.

3. "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All"
I think the essay that I've got the most out of, so far. The essay is written from DFW's perspective as a Harpers' (not Harper's Bazaar) feature writer going back to rural Illinois to go to the State Fair. Amid discussion and description of Middle America, there's an interesting discussion on community and the difference b/w what the rural do for leisure (get together with people: State Fair) and what city folk do (get away from people).

Of course, the best parts of the essay involve DFW's almost scientific curiosity with everything surrounding the fair: the carnies (small hands), the patrons, the participants in various events, and how he can write about the experience as though it's like he's encountered alien life. This is sort of strange considering he is from rural Illinois, but while he's from there, given his parentage (both, I think, University professors), it's not surprising that he doesn't feel that sense of community with the fair patrons/participants that he describes.

.... expect part two in a month or so... I've just begun reading The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein, and based on how angry it's made me I think it's entirely likely that I'll be finished it by the end of the week...

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