For a long time, I've been thinking about reading some of David Foster Wallace's work. Wallace is frequently cited in the same paragraph as writers such as Thomas Pynchon, James Joyce, William S. Burroughs, etc.: "important" authors whom you "ought" to read.
But Infinite Jest just seems infinitely intimidating; each time I get near it I feel exhausted and have to go read something else.
For 6 months at least.
So I thought: maybe I can approach Wallace in easy steps, and picked up A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.
It's definitely much more approachable, but I'm not sure it's much of a stepping stone.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is a collection of seven essays that Wallace wrote fairly early in his career, around the time that he was teaching at Illinois State and working on Infinite Jest.
The seven essays are all non-fiction, though, and are sort of all over the place.
There are two essays on Tennis. Wallace relates that he was an avid tennis player as a youth and played seriously and competitively for most of his life. They're fairly interesting, although personally I'm not really all that interested in tennis.
There are two essays on post-modernism: one is an investigation of the literary aspects of television, the other is about H. L. Hix's Morte d'Author: An Autopsy. These are simply dreadful essays. They are dense, arcane, opaque, but most of all they are dull, dull, dull.
The high spot of the book, for me, were the other two essays.
Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All is an essay about attending the 1993 Illinois State Fair. Somehow, this essay manages to be crude, raunchy, smug, elitist, laugh-out-loud funny, insightful, and kind, all at once.
Sometimes even in the same paragraph!
The horses are in their own individual stalls, with half-height doors and owners and grooms on stools by the doors, a lot of them dozing. The horses stand in hay. Billy Ray Cyrus plays loudly on some stableboy's boom box. The horses have tight hides and apple-sized eyes that are set on the sides of their heads, like fish. I've rarely been this close to fine livestock. The horses' faces are long and somehow suggestive of coffins. The racers are lanky, velvet over bone. The draft and show horses are mammoth and spotlessly groomed and more or less odorless -- the acrid smell in here is just the horses' pee. All their muscles are beautiful; the hides enhance them. Their tails whip around in sophisticated double-jointed ways, keeping the flies from mounting any kind of coordinated attack. (There really is such a thing as a horsefly.) The horses all make farty noises when they sigh, heads hanging over the short doors. They're not for petting, though. When you come close they flatten their ears and show big teeth. The grooms laugh to themselves as we jump back. These are special competitive horses, intricately bred, w/ high-strung artistic temperaments. I wish I'd brought carrots: animals can be bought, emotionally. Stall after stall of horses. Standard horse-type colors. They eat the same hay they stand in. Occasional feedbags look like gas masks. A sudden clattering spray-sound like somebody hosing down siding turns out to be a glossy chocolate stallion, peeing. He's at the back of his stall getting combed, and the door's wide open, and we watch him pee. The stream's an inch in diameter and throws up dust and hay and little chips of wood from the floor. We hunker down and have a look upward, and I suddenly for the first time understand a certain expression describing certain males, an expression I'd heard but never truly understood till just now, prone and gazing upward in some blend of horror and awe.
The title essay, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is similar in many ways; it is an essay about taking a seven day luxury cruise through the Caribbean. It's mellower, quieter, more reflective, almost melancholy, and all of these things lessen the overall result. Wallace is either having fun, or he's not, and the result certainly comes through in his writing. But this essay, though perhaps less hilarious (and certainly less raunchy) is also more insightful, and more kind; perhaps it is just a result of him getting older? (Though: the two essays were written only 3 years apart, the first when he was 31 years old, and the second when he was 34, so I don't think age had much to do with it.)
I'll still don't know if I'll ever try Infinite Jest, or The Pale King, or The Broom of the System. Maybe someday.
But at least I feel like I understand David Foster Wallace a bit better.