Monday, March 31, 2014

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

a post from last year...
...
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is a collection of essays by the late David Foster Wallace that includes several of his most famous works in the form. DFW was, in my opinion, a better essay writer than he was a novelist, but that's not as harsh a criticism as it sounds as I think DFW was one of the best American essayists of the twentieth century. In fiction DFW takes himself a little too seriously for my taste even when he's being humorous, but in non fiction, he's funnier, sharper, deeper and more observant. In A Supposedly Fun Thing there are good essays on television and writing (and a rather boring one on tennis) but my favourite piece in this collection is the one about David Lynch that he wrote for Premiere Magazine where he profiles the director without actually meeting him and reviews one of his masterpieces, Lost Highway, without actually seeing the completed movie. You might not think that this would be a successful strategy for a piece of reportage, but it is. The Lynch essay is a work of genius, up there with the best American movie criticism: just as literate as something from Cahiers Du Cinema but much funner and funnier. 
...
The piece I really want to discuss though is the title essay which concludes the book. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is the story of a cruise DFW took around the Caribbean with Carnival. Although not a deliberate humorist in the style of Mark Twain this essay is probably David Foster Wallace's comic masterpiece. Just as it was a great idea to send the landlubber Twain off on the USS Quaker City, it occurred to Colin Harrison, the editor of Harper's at the time, to send the even more nautically challenged DFW off on a vessel named the MV Zenith (that DFW rechristens the Nadir). He was sent on this cruise by Harrison with the aim I think of showcasing American crassness and vulgarity on the high seas but the essay is richer and more compassionate and more interesting than that. While not exactly blue collar himself DFW has sympathy for blue collar aspirations and most of the time he is not a snob. A lot of the essay, clearly, is a pack of lies but lies for comic effect which I think is entirely forgivable especially in a tall tale of the sea. Jonathan Franzen has criticised his friend DFW for making shit up in his non fiction, but I think DFW was pledged to what Werner Herzog calls ecstatic truth - a kind of emotional truth that is truer than what actually actually happened. (Franzen has only been as funny as DFW once when he too had a very funny scene coincidentally set on cruise ship.) A Supposedly Fun Thing has moments of high comedy, low comedy, slapstick, sarcasm, dry humour and of course dead pan irony. 
...
As I say the editor for this essay was Colin Harrison who was my editor for four books at Scribner and the general editor for the one article I wrote for Harper's. Harrison does a pretty good job here. One wonders how long the first draft DFW handed in actually was because the final version runs to over two hours (for an essay) on audiobook, but, I should strees, it's two hours that fly by. I can't predict anyone else's sense of humor but I laughed out loud many times listening to this piece and there were quite a few Sedarian moments of wry amusement too. If I had to fault DFW and Harrison for one thing its the use of the word 'vector'. If you were to have a vodka shot or a glass of wine every time something is being vectored in Fun Thing you would be pretty much shitfaced by the end of it.
...
If you want to check out a riposte to A Supposedly Fun Thing you can read Tina Fey's Bossy Pants which apparently includes a positive cruising story that riffs on DFW. You can read it. I think I'll give it a miss.