"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles,
The New York Times Book Review
March 16, 1997
The Road to Babbittville
In this collection of essays, David Foster Wallace trains his eye on Middle
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
Essays and Arguments
By David Foster Wallace
353 pp. Boston:
Little, Brown & Company. $23.95.
Reviewed by Laura Miller
Many readers young and old (but especially the young and media-saturated)
regarded David Foster Wallace's mammoth novel, "Infinite Jest,"
with suspicion. Jaded by too many middling writers heralded as the Next
Big Thing, they wondered if, as its title intimated, this daunting tome
wasn't just a big joke. "Infinite Jest" itself didn't quite clear
things up. Messy, demanding and stubbornly unresolved, it was also frequently
brilliant. Yet Mr. Wallace's penchant for pointed satire and flashy tricks
often obscured the book's passion. Ultimately, "Infinite Jest"
felt noncommittal, leaving some readers unconvinced that Mr. Wallace offered
anything more than a lot of energy and a dazzling but heartless cleverness.
"A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" should settle the
matter at last. This collection of "essays and arguments" -- originally
published in Harper's, Esquire and Premiere, among other magazines -- reveals
Mr. Wallace in ways that his fiction has of yet managed to dodge: as a writer
struggling mightily to understand and capture his times, as a critic who
cares deeply about "serious" art, and as a mensch.
The most outright amusing pieces here are Mr. Wallace's two journalistic
forays into Middle American culture. "Getting Away From Already Being
Pretty Much Away From It All," about a visit to the Illinois State
Fair, and the title essay, in which Mr. Wallace takes a seven-day luxury
cruise to the Caribbean. These vivid, hilarious essays attracted much attention
when they were originally published, but they also made Mr. Wallace vulnerable
to accusations, as a friend of mine put it, of "sneering at ordinary
people." Rereading them lays such reservations to rest. The primary
butt of Mr. Wallace's humor is himself, and if he seizes upon his experiences
to reveal ugly aspects of the American character, he always does it through
the lens of his own worst impulses. Compulsively analytical, he no sooner
notices something -- the at first irritating "bovine and herdlike"
movement of Midwestern fairgoers, for example -- than he's formulated a
grand and quite credible theory about it: "the vacation-impulse in
rural IL is manifested as a flight-toward. Thus the urge physically
to commune, melt, become part of a crowd."
With Mr. Wallace on assignment, readers will learn how everything smells
(the aroma of cow manure is "wonderful -- warm and herbal and blameless
-- but cows themselves stink in a special sort of rich biotic way, rather
like a wet boot") and receive a detailed report on all forms of junk
food. This manic observational faculty never seems to shut off; even while
cooling his heels in a dreary waiting room with several hundred other cruise
passengers, he's noting "driven-looking corporate guys....talking into
cellular phones while their wives look stoic" and counting the different
makes of camera.
This inclination to record his every impression doesn't bog down Mr. Wallace's
writing as often as you might think, but his is open to accusations that
he lacks discipline: "David Lynch Keeps His Head" is a baggy monster
of a profile that suffers from too much rumination on Mr. Lynch's significance
to the budding artistic sensibility of the young Mr. Wallace. Nevertheless,
this essay and others show a side of him that's refreshingly ardent and
sincere. When it comes to the people he admires, Mr. Wallace wears his heart
on his sleeve. And it turns out that he harbors high ideals for art in general
and fiction in particular, despite the "irony, poker-faced silence
and fear of ridicule" that enervate the work of many of his contemporaries.
"The new rebels," he speculates, "might be artists willing
to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the
parody of gifted ironists, the 'Oh, how banal.' To risk accusations of sentimentality,
melodrama. Or overcredulity. Of softness."
That daring has begun to blossom in Mr. Wallace's own fiction, as it does
in this collection's most ambitious critical essay, "E Unibus Pluram:
Television and U.S. Fiction." Of course, as Mr. Wallace himself observes,
it's easier to draft manifestos than it is to fulfill them. As a novelist,
he hasn't entirely jettisoned the crutch of irony, but in this essay he
thoroughly demolishes it as an option. "Television," he argues,
"has been ingeniously absorbing, homogenizing and re-presenting the
very same cynical post-modern esthetic that was once the best alternative
to the appeal of Low, over-easy, mass-marketed narrative." In other
words, the illusion of transcendence by mockery is just another kind of
Finally, Mr. Wallace's distinctive and infectious style, an acrobatic cart-wheeling
between high, intellectual discourse and vernacular insouciance, makes him
tremendously entertaining to read, whatever his subject. "A Supposedly
Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" proves that his accomplishment is far
more than just a stunt.
Laura Miller is a senior editor of the Internet magazine Salon.