on 7 February 2005
By its very nature (a hodge-podge of random musings, semi-academic essays and travelogues commissioned by glossy magazines), this collection is erratic in tone and occasionally in execution. Yet even at his least engaging and most wilfully opaque, DFW is still incredibly readable, pulling your intellect along as he spins off on any number of tagents. When he's at his MOST engaging, however, he's among the most appealing writers of either fiction or non-fiction at work today. I defy even the biggest DFW cynic to read the title essay, for example, and claim not be alternately amused and weirdly moved throughout its (countless!) diversions and narrative scenic routes.
on 5 July 1999
Anyone who is reading this having just finished Infinite Jest, I can heartily recommend this book. This was the first Wallace book I read, and it got me hooked. Having read a lot of essays by the likes of Tom Wolfe and Martin Amis, I can honestly say that this is as good as anything by those esteemed writers. Wallace has a knack of making the truly bizarre somehow understandable. The essays are deeply funny, but never sneery or mocking. Wallace is just geniunely baffled by the wierder aspects of American culture (pro sport, Hollywood, agricultural fairs etc), and succeeds in poking good-natured but cutting fun at various excesses in American life. He combines the laugh-out-loud element of PJ O'Rourke with the intelligence and insight of Tom Wolfe. A must read for anyone interested in modern American culture, or who justs want to read a different and original collection of journalism
on 12 March 2016
Sadly, the end of an all-too-brief flirtation with DFW's shorter-format writing as I've simply run out of patience with his massively self-indulgent style. All the bigger pity, because when he's operating in pure reportage mode - on board a cruise liner, or at a state fair - he's incredibly good. Observant, opinionated, perceptive and very, very funny. But as essayist, he becomes an incredibly dense and difficult read. Almost wilfully so, as if his attitude is, "I can really *write* using a vocabulary and style that might leave you floundering. I think it's really great - but too bad if you can't keep up." Nobody doubts DFW's scholarship, but it's just unpleasant to have it flaunted so obviously. After a while floundering along in his wake, you just feel inclined to leave him to amuse himself (which he's clearly doing anyway, with/without your company), and try something a little more approachable - like maybe Tolstoy in the original Russian...
A collection of essays by this engagingly nerdy and knife-point sharp and witty writer, who died by his own hand in 2008 at the age of 45, this book gives a flavour, no more, of his talent.
"Irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function," Wallace writes. "It's critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our post-modern fathers saw it. But irony is singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks." In his essay titled: E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, he writes at length on the uses and abuses of irony and ends with a plea for sincerity to make a come-back - as if the ironic could discard the thinking that has so enslaved them to ennui. He writes: "It is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage." I found myself wanting to argue against him often, but his intellectual persona is the opposite of naïve and his argument against irony is fuelled by a philosophy of creative energy that is more than just impressive in this book.
His humour can be devastating, as in the title essay which describes a Caribbean cruise he took aboard the ship Zenith (immediately re-christening it Nadir for the space of the voyage). But his intention in this novel is also serious. Of the Megaline ships he says: "It's not an accident that they're all so white and clean, for they're clearly meant to represent the Calvinist triumph of capital and industry over the primal decay-action of the sea." Indeed, he quickly comes to the conclusion that the constant activities, the "hard play" of gaiety, song, adrenaline, excitement, stimulation, are there to drown out the illusion of choice. You have no choice. You are aboard the ship and you will enjoy it. The irony of this conclusion is a doubled one, a facet of his writing that even he could not escape.
That such a brilliant writer, someone who gave such delight and pleasure, became terminally depressed is tragic. This collection of essays is both triumphant and terribly sad. There is to be publication of the novel he was working on when he died: The Pale King, but then there will be no more from this wonderful writer.
on 18 September 2014
David Foster Wallace's roaming eyeball of a reporter sets out to see what it can see ... at the state fair, on a cruise ship, playing tennis, considering irony in the age of the television .... Nothing can prepare the unwary reader for what lies in store: you basically have to surrender and let him lead your field of vision where he will. And if you do, it is a truly reorientating and strangely uplifting experience.
For what it's worth, I think Wallace's collected essays (of which this one of three volumes, see also Consider the Lobster and Both Flesh and Not) are the most accessible and persistently enjoyable of his books. If you like these, try the short stories next, notably Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and (though only occasionally) Girl with the Curious Hair. Then you are probably ready to try one of his three novels, the third of which was incomplete at his death. Most famous of those is Infinite Jest, which is enormous but engrossing. I actually think the essay on tennis in this book (Supposedly Fun Thing) is a helpful thing to have read before trying to get too far with Infinite Jest. He captures the relentlessness required of those who would play tennis, which is later cross-compared to a kind of drug addiction in his novel.
The three famous pieces in this collection include his irony essay, which is pretty persuasive but somewhat close to the world of the academic essay on literary criticism, so possibly not for everyone. But the state fair account captures perfectly the sense of someone dislocated from what appears to be passing for normal fun and enjoyment, and yet unable to believe that they are the one who is lost. If you've ever been there, which is to say if you are a human being in the late-capitalist Western world, you will enjoy it. And if you do, then the concluding title essay will give you the words to describe the kind of life we are living. A personal opinion: this is the most poignant but funny account ever written of the pressure to have fun. Rightly a classic.
As, indeed, is the whole book.
on 8 April 2003
After being shelled into submission by "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" I was completely hyped at the prospect of reading this book. Particularly as I'd just read that it left Jonathan Franzen's book of essays "How to be alone" for dead (not that I've read it). Well, past the first couple of pieces I was seriously disappointed. This is not the reinvention-of-the-essay-as-we-know-it that I'd been told to expect. What we have is a mixed bag consisting of one autobiographical fragment, a couple of pieces of journalism-on-assignment, a couple of straight essays, and two hybrid journal-profile-essays.
"Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley", which is the opener, comes the closest to achieving the remarkable combination of intellectual intensity with emotional directness I saw in DFW's short stories. It's an honest childhood reminiscence, the only place in this book where we seem to be in the company of a living breathing human being. The second piece "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" is an essay, pure and simple, and rather sober despite the DFW tics (footnoting; self-consciously neurotic patter). DFW's gloss on highbrow American fiction of the last half century or so is both straightforward and insightful, though I really wanted him to show off a little more. His focus is on the way irony has come to imbue almost every aspect of American intellectualism, an awareness that he uses to remarkable effect in his fiction, sometimes by deliberately foreclosing the ironic stance, sometimes by merely bending it to the realm of the what-if-I'm-not-being-ironic. The irony of ironies is that these insights into the blinders of contemporary writing manage to shed an unflattering light on the remainder of the book.
DFW is not a journalist, and not much of a hired gun. By the time he's made it to his second piece on assignment (the title track) he's loosened up a bit and started to hit his straps, but the pattern established in his first journalistic outing, a piece on the Illinois State Fair, establishes some major limitations. For a writer with a feel for persona that operates like a two inch puncture wound, it's inexplicable that the authorial voice is stillborn in the form of a 90's Woody Allen goes grad school. The lack of ingenuity and credibility is breathtaking. It's all the more frustrating as he resorts to the same kind of lazy mickey-taking(albeit filtered through a transparently feigned innocence) he so easily dismisses when talking about the ills of U.S. literature.
DFW the fictionist is a far more effective cultural critic than DFW the essayist. There are some well-argued points, witty moments, subtle insights, nicely painted absurdities, but nothing like the sustained bravura of BIWHM.
on 28 July 2004
David Foster Wallace is a unique voice, and this is an amazing collection of non-fiction: a great piece about going to a state fair (in all its consumerist ugliness), two brilliant items about tennis, an astonishing essay about a trip on a pleasure cruiser. Wallace looks at things we take for granted with a kind of ingenious cynicism that's funny, thought-provoking and sumptuously readable. He loves footnotes, and often his best material is in the footnotes. The essay about Michael Joyce (who he?) and his fledgling tennis career is worth the cover price alone - especially if you love tennis and are dismayed by how little intelligent coverage it gets. A really strong collection.
on 17 July 2010
Hey guys, this books is great! No matter how potentially boring every subject may appear on the paper, - or be, actually,- DFW's take on it, piercing and wide-angle, deep and blatantly obvious, super-aware, informed and informing, honestly curious and godly jaded, hyper-connected across multiple mental and cultural territories, a 3D representation of it all, all of this, amusingly, at the same time, and it's all got to do with who we are... you just can't get enough of it.
I recommend it with no hesitation.
on 10 May 2013
What can be said that hasnt been said previously about this startlingly erudide and mesmeric essayist. His take on the tennis pros is not only eye-opening in depth of understanding but supported in every way by his inimitable candour. Phew!
on 26 July 2012
alright. trick question. fact and fiction. I'm sure. that is the essays and "non-fiction" work of DFW is highly personal in style and roam the only true reality zone, that is the one between facts and fiction. very entertaining, yet often less posing than DFW's more true to form fiction and make believe stuff. I tend to like him better when he aim his eyes on what goes on around him rather than just what's going on inside his mind. balance gets better, effect way spookier that way. I understand why he's fashinated by david lynch and tennis and caribbean cruises all at ones. truely great stuff and among his best "non fiction" writing for sure. kick butt with most of the more free form he's done imho.