I have started Infinite Jest two or three times and never get past the first hundred pages. I feel horrible about this, because it's a cultural touchstone and I want to experience it. I also feel A-OK about it, because I've come to realize that forcing myself to read something is a waste of time. Reading through a mental block is like trying to drink from a glass with a lid on it.
So I decided I'd give Wallace a shot through his essays and picked this one up as an audiobook. Surprise surprise, I really liked it.
With caveats. Some major caveats. Listening to this book was a lot like opening a time capsule. Somehow, I'd completely forgotten how riveted I'd once been by post-modern literature--forgotten that I once cared about post-modernism and defended it passionately. These essays were written at a time when that seemed like an exciting intellectual activity. How things change, hmm?
Some of the blasts from the past are less benign. The way Wallace talks about gender and race, for example, really shocked me. The dialogue has shifted so much in such a short amount of time.
And the essays are snobbish, too. Sometimes apologetically, sometimes with a self-conscious flair.
But wait, wait, I liked this book so maybe I should get around to that. There are seven essays in the book and I really enjoyed four of them.
"Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All" describes a visit to the Illinois state fair. Wallace is from Illinois but also feels alienated from his home state, and the essay zeroes in on that odd juxtaposition. He wanders the fair, describing the exhibits and the carnival rides, feeling sick and celebratory, nostalgic and revolted.
"David Lynch Keeps His Head" is about David Lynch. I am not a big David Lynch fan so I'm not sure whether it's good or bad that this essay held my attention so well. It didn't make me want to go watch any David Lynch movies, not at all; but I understood the phenomenon better after listening, and I enjoyed it. (Lots of uncomfortable/repellant statements about women in this essay, though.)
"Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness" ... and now that I've written out that title I'm reminded that I can't decide if I like the way Wallace mixes slacker drawl and showy erudition. I suppose the goal is a tonal shift in academic language rather than a ploy for mass appeal, or... maybe I'd be wrong, because he certainly achieved mass appeal.
Anyway, this was an excellent essay about a professional tennis player--Michael Joyce--who's at the bottom of the top of his field. I have no interest in tennis at all but this held me riveted; Wallace writes about the sacrifices that the players make, how pursuing excellence in one field leaves them stunted in others. He writes about what it's like to be one of the very best players in the world and finding out that it's still not good enough, that almost-the-best still means chasing invitations, playing yourself into the ground, scrabbling for funds.
It's really moving. Wallace was, apparently, a gifted tennis player who couldn't break into the big leagues & an author who did break through but must have related to Joyce's predicament: success after success but unable to relax or rest on his laurels.
So it's an essay by a creative about what it's like to live the dream, costs and benefits both.
"A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" is about a Caribbean cruise. It's the most purely enjoyable essay of the bunch, or at least it was for me. He describes the cruise industry, he catalogues each day he spends on the ship, and in between writes about selling an experience: in this case relaxation and fun. It's an interesting balancing act, and Wallace captures that--giving cruisers the illusion of choice (limitless options!) and also removing the burden of choice (no responsibilities, everything taken care of without lifting a finger), taking care to define the pleasures of the cruise so they can be delivered, how the cruise's success ultimately leaves him querulous and discontent.