I read Dave Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments’ because I want to say I’ve completed his oeuvre. I’ve read his three novels and part of his book of short stories, but I found this book harder to read than any of his fiction. Each of Wallace’s seven essays are varyingly complex and worthy of comment in themselves but I want to analyze the book as a whole in order to try to better understand Wallace’s worldview and philosophy, of which there are overt suggestions towards in “Pale King”, but which seem a bit simplistic, and are of questionable authenticity given the fact the book’s final form was assembled from notes after his death.
“A Supposedly Fun Thing…” is thematically closer to “Infinite Jest”, I think. The over all message is there are many layers to life – and art – distilling one all-encompassing philosophy or approach is difficult. In the namesake essay, there is this sense of the certainty of uncertainty. The essay describes Wallace’s experience on a luxury cruise in the Caribbean. Wallace makes no effort to hide his disdain for the overzealous advertisement claims of the cruises brochure and messaging, how rapturous it is to be on a cruise as compared to workaday living. Oddly, however, in the end, the cruise succeeds in relaxing Wallace to his workaday life, albeit, indirectly. What the piece concludes is we learn what we’ve got, what’s important and joyful, by its absence. It’s a trite, almost cliche observation but one we need to be reminded of in our mainstream culture which presumes the ultimate goal in life should be to do nothing and have extreme material comforts. Human beings like work and stress, yet toil tirelessly to eradicate them.
A similar theme can be picked up on in E Unibus Pluram, a counter argument to cultural commentators who say TV is the ruin of civilization, and then in Tennis Player Michael Joyce... Roughly put, E Unibus Pluram outlines how TV is a symptom of various social/existential problems, but not the problem itself. Wallace argues that one of the underlying reasons for the success of TV is the failures and infighting of the literary community. Wallace posits that fiction has become too self-conscious and amoral to provide readers with meaning. Whatever the philosophical justifications for this trend may be, its offshoot is that people have flocked to TV where they can suspend disbelief and believe in a happy ending without being mocked for it. Wallace, in the end calls for a revival of the ‘single-entendre’, the unsarcastic author who naively, childishly observes and doesn’t judge. It’s similar to the cruise argument – uncomplicated work and escape are interconnected human needs: A certain fact of uncomplicated work is that it’s banal, and, therefore, why we look for escape, a place where we feel special, important, insightful and more fully alive.
In Tennis Player Michael Joyce… the work-escape argument is taken a step further. In it, Wallace suggests that the deeper you can get into work or mode of life—uncomplicated, trivial or banal, as it may be—the more you’ve ultimately escaped meaninglessness. In this piece, however, he uses the words, “transcendence” and “virtue”, and the term, ‘accessing parts of the psyche others will never dream of’. Psychologists might say ‘self-actualization.’
It’s possible I’m way off on these interpretations. They’re complicated ideas, and Wallace is at times a complicated writer. I’m still struggling to place he himself in the literary community he somewhat shirked. What does he other so-called post-modern writers represent? Hemingway was brutally and beautifully honest about the destruction and possible salvation; Salinger unmasked the hypocrisies of society and sometimes, family; and Kerouac tried to chart a new, more spiritual direction mainstream America.
I’m not sure about Delillo but I think Wallace should be most renowned for his scathing cultural commentary and attempts to scale human and social complexity. It’s perhaps a late American existentialism he embodies. Life is off-and-on again meaningless, but depending on how well you can pay attention to the world, including the many avenues of escaping it, there’s hope through honesty and work.