David Foster Wallace: Maddening Genius

Aug 30 2010

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again cover

Cover of "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"

I recently finished reading David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a collection of his magazine essays. Wallace himself is a recently-deceased literary darling, author of Infinite Jest and a number of short pieces.

And now I have a problem. Wallace was a writer of rare genius, thoroughly engaging the reader with energetic prose that was often both familiar and bizarre, a conversational patter riddled with invented words.

Yet as I read A Supposedly Fun Thing…, I was tempted to throw it across the room a few times. His essay on television, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” includes maddening lapses in logic, and his essays on a state fair and cruise ships betray obvious elitism.

And yet again, I don’t want to disrespect the dead. Sure, the man’s writing had flaws, but who doesn’t?

Perhaps I’m jealous, of his success and his skill as a writer. I breezed through the first  hundred of Infinite Jest‘s thousand pages on the strength of his writing alone. (Not much else happens in that stretch of that novel.)

Perhaps it’s just my engineer-trained brain. Errors leap out at me. Problems flash like neon hotel signs.

The issue shines most glaringly in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” wherein Wallace establishes that television advertising calls on its viewers to break away from a group. His prime example is a famous Pepsi ad, in which a group of hot beach-goers see a Pepsi truck and run over to it, en masse. Wallace points out that this is simply group behavior. Agreed.

This is the odd thing: He uses this to establish that TV ads claim to be promoting individualism, of breaking away from a group to be an individual. But Pepsi’s own slogan during this period is a perfect illustration of his mistake: Pepsi was the choice of a new generation. Pepsi–along with most advertisers–promote breaking away from one group to be part of another group.

McDonald’s ads show a harried mother taking a break (which she deserves today) at McDonald’s–a full McDonald’s. When did you last see a breakfast cereal ad with only one kid?

I gave the rest of the article only half my attention as Wallace continued repeating and building on this fallacy. Perhaps this is my failing; perhaps I  should have given it up. But no; he built his argument on a fallacy, so why should I give it full credence?

The other essays are similarly flawed; Wallace weaves taut, evocative sentences to look down on fair-goers and cruise-takers. He’s clearly trying to be funny, mentioning the clichés and foibles of these particular genii of Americans, and while he sometimes succeeds he’s as often judgmental. It’s as though going on a cruise reveals a flaw of character or intellect (unless, of course, your ticket is paid for by Harper’s).

Moreover, his style is often conversational to the point of tired cuteness. He starts sentences with phrases like “And but so the thing is,” which is refreshing the first few times I read it but quickly becomes a mannerism, an empty phrasing that tries to endear itself to the reader without otherwise adding value. I don’t want to be endeared to a writer; if I ever am, it’s because of the author’s content, not the author’s mannerisms.

And here I am, spending most of this post on Wallace’s flaws, rather than the beauty and genius of his language, or his immense bravery in recording his unvarnished thoughts. I read A Supposedly Fun Thing… voraciously, in a few sittings. The essays contained in this volume are perfect examples of the essayist’s art, flaws and all.

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