Monday, March 31, 2014

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

a post from last year...
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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. 
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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. 
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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.
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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.  

21 comments:

seana graham said...

I haven't read that much Wallace, which is a bit strange since many people from different parts of my life are huge fans, not to mention some who were his friends. But sheerly by chance, I read the Cruise ship piece when it first came out in Harper's, and am as big a fan of that piece as you are. It was very much a revelation about what essay writing could be, at least to me. In the same kind of flukey way, I also happened to read Jonathan Franzen's Harper's rant while housesitting for someone. I think he's a wonderful essayist too, and it's too bad in a way that essayists aren't really worshipped at the same level that novelists are, as I think a lot of writers would be happier in this form than writing semiautobiographical novels. Or it would play to their strengths anyway.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I think its silly to critique DFW for making stuff up. Its pretty obvious which scenes he's exaggerated for comic effect and no one goes after David Sedaris for the same thing. But then I pretty much think that if its funny its forgivable...

seana graham said...

People make too much of the fiction nonfiction divide. I've been reading Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men, where she goes back to the South to collect some of the old folk tales she heard as a kid, and really the highest compliment these people can give each other is, "Brother, you sure can lie."

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

And Mark Twain's masterpieces are I think the embelished stories of his own life.

Alan said...

Adrian,Thank you for the Wallace insight.This artificial division between fiction and non fiction is more dubious today with advent of CCTV ,Patriot Acts and "Worldwide Terror." Orwell would feel quite at home with the
semantics of friends and foes.The fear that mercury tilt bombs create was made more clear than ever by the use of pressure cooker bombs.We need Sean Duffy today to morph into a Belfast George Smiley.Just read the NY times article on the life of The son of Ronnie Cornwell.Best Alan

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

My heart goes out to the people of Boston, but imagine living with that level of terror every night for 30 years. That was what it was like during the Troubles. And of course unlike Boston there was no neat "closure" at the end of it. In fact at the end of the Troubles all the people who had been convicted of bombings and atrocities were all released under the Good Friday Agreement.

In a further irony I can't help but remember that much of the funding for the IRA and INLA bombs came from the Irish community of greater Boston.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, my first thought, not entirely whimsical, when I heard of the Boston bombing, was of the IRA and its funding sources in America.

And that reminds me: I am very deeply into Alistair Horne's Algeria book, and he repeatedly draws parallels with Northern Ireland and the IRA, mostly in the form of explanatory analogies.

Apparently the closest any of my friends came to the Massachusetts excitement, other than not being able to do much for a few days, was that one saw a vegetarian restaurant that she recognized in a television or newspaper shot of Waterrown.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Yes. The last time I was in Boston I saw a collecting tin for "The Real IRA" the people who bought us the Omagh bombing. And of course 3 of the 4 men who bombed Omagh and murdered 30 people including a pregnant woman are still living free to this very day in the town of Dundalk, County Louth. Everyone knows who they are but they are but apparently they are beyond the realm of justice.

Maybe one of the good things that will come out of this will be a new appreciation in Boston for the horror of random bombing attacks.

seana graham said...

I noticed at the time that the news was coming out that eight people had died in a bomb explosion in Peshawar. In one way, it makes sense that Americans focus on American suffering, but in another it does seem naive to think that we would somehow be exempt from this kind of tragedy given how easy it is to make bombs these days.

I am curious to hear what the motivation was supposed to have been. I know a lot of people assumed "Muslim", but I bet there were very few of them who assumed American naturalized Muslims from Chechnya.

One of our former city councilwomen was running in that race, along with a small contingent from Santa Cruz, so I think the "I can relate" effect must be pretty big in general in the US.

Kikaren said...

I've been on four cruises with Carnival . . . all brilliant, Three around the Caribbean and one up the eastern seaboard from Miami to New York.

Cary Watson said...

Bostonians may indeed come to appreciate the horror of random bombing attacks, but I have a feeling this will further embolden the US to widen its use drones strikes around the world. The Pentagon just recently announced drones will soon be (or are) in the air in North Africa. And on the DFW issue, humor is all about exaggeration, so go for it if you make people laugh. Jean Shepherd's "reminiscences" of growing up in Gary, Indiana, are clearly fiction but I'll cases like this I'll sacrifice verisimilitude for laughs.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana


Well we'll see. 911 shut up Peter King about the IRA.

adrian mckinty said...

Cary

The drone thing has gotten out of hand. Maybe the one thing I agree with Senator Rand Paul about.

adrian mckinty said...

Kikaren

You should definitely write about your positive cruising story and you should definitely read DFW.

Alan said...

Adrian,I thought about the implications of 30 years of terror and it must have left a generation totally damaged.I am starting to understand the implications of humor for mental health.It is beyond my comprehension still that "The Good Friday Agreement" would leave murders and thugs free from lawful arrest while"The Hague"pursues war crimes and criminals.I do not understand how The Republic does not arrest or extradite those who seek sanctuary from the Omagh murders.Is this the price of a tenous peace which seems ever more precarious? I agree that active or tacit support for the IRA or the UDF should have been stopped long ago in the U.Swhich preaches all too well and often about international morality.Best Alan

Kate said...

Adrian,
Would you ever write a book of travel essays?
(Back here in N. America, you just might like Newfoundland.)




adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Maybe things will change now. We'll see.

adrian mckinty said...

Kate

Yeah I'd like to. there's no money in the form unless you're a celebrity but if I could break even it would be nice.

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trevor said...

Adrian,
That was a good review of your latest in the Sydney Morning Herald last Saturday... by Ms Turnbull. Did you like it?

adrian mckinty said...

Trev

It was a v nice review indeed. The SMH has always been kind to me.