A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is the title of a 1997 collection of non-fiction writing by David Foster Wallace.
Some highlights of the collection include the title essay, which deals with Wallace's ironic displeasure with the professional hospitality industry and the "fun" he should be having unveil how the indulgences of the cruise turn him into a spoiled brat, leading to overwhelming internal despair. Another essay in the volume takes on the vulgarities and excesses of the Illinois State Fair. And finally, this collection also includes Wallace's influential essay "E Unibus Pluram" which explores television's impact on contemporary literature and the use of irony within American culture.
While putatively journalism, the essays often seem to border on autobiography. Ultimately, the pieces defy categorization. Wallace’s unique blend of non-fiction reporting and personal editorializing allow him to not only report what he sees in extraordinary detail, succeeding in recreating an environment for the reader, but actually get very close to conveying exactly what it was like to be in that environment; in short, Wallace’s style allows him to communicate his actual experience. His wordy, even repetitive style can seem tiresome, but ultimately serves to show us what it’s like to be in Wallace’s head. Furthermore, Wallace has no qualms about letting the reader know that he knows he’s not doing standard journalism. His refusal to subscribe to pretensions of objectivity and downright openness about his inherently subjective perspective make his pieces interesting, fun to read, and above all, honest.
- "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" (Harper's 1992 under the title "Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes")
- "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" (The Review of Contemporary Fiction 1993)
- "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All" (Harper's 1994 under the title "Ticket to the Fair")
- "Greatly Exaggerated" (Harvard Book Review 1992)
- "David Lynch Keeps His Head" (Premiere 1996)
- "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness" (Esquire 1996 under the title "The String Theory")
- "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (Harper's 1996 under the title "Shipping Out")
In her February 4, 1997, review in the New York Times “'A Supposedly Fun Thing': Musings on Life's Absurdities,” Michiko Kakutani gives the collection mixed praise. She describes the collection as a ”sort of non-fiction addendum” to Infinite Jest. While she believes the collection is “animated by Wallace's wonderfully exuberant prose, a zingy, elastic gift for metaphor and imaginative sleight of hand, combined with a taste for amphetaminelike stream-of-consciousness riffs,” she also notes that “even at its liveliest, most pieces are larded with repetitions, self-indulgent digressions and a seeming need on Wallace’s part to set down whatever random thoughts or afterthoughts that happen to trundle through his mind.” Here, Kakutani hits the nail on the head, but misses the mark, because Wallace’s repetions, digressions, and verbal frisson are largely the point; Wallace’s style is designed to show the reader what it’s like, and how difficult (and perhaps impossible) it is, to truly express what exactly is going on his head.
In Understanding David Foster Wallace, Marshall Boswell writes that the essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing “display all the hallmarks of Wallace’s inimitable style without the forbidding structural devices that make structural devices that make his fiction so challenging” (180). The journalistic persona that Wallace has developed over the years has no doubt added to the ease and fun that accompany a reading of his non-fiction. Boswell writes that Wallace’s persona "expertly combines his emblematic cynicism and naïveté, with a surprising emphasis on the latter. The erudite and loquacious reporter who appears in these essays is a wide-eyed word-freak who fluctuates between Wordsworthian wonder and neurotic self-doubt. The combination is surprisingly effective, for it allows him to report on events with all the force of his formidable intellect while at the same time securing an amiable, self-effacing relationship with his readers" (180). It is this cultivated relationship that allows his reader to engage in a conversation with his work.
In a review for Salon magazine, Bruce Barcott writes that "every David Foster Wallace piece is about DFW first, its subject second" and that "Wallace's wildly heightened senses — sight, smell, taste, irony — and his over-the-top reporting and writing style overwhelm the subject at hand, turning it from Michael Joyce to My Perceptions, Observations, Intuitions and Analysis of Michael Joyce and the Milieu in Which He Works, With Witty Asides About Brooke Shields and Canada. Wallace is so good at this that I fear a whole generation of writing students may adopt his style and give typesetters footnoting fits for the next 10 years."
Jordan Ellenberg at the Boston Phoenix agrees with Barcott, and writes that Wallace's "critical essays here are not as successful as the narratives; in fact, they're not really critical essays at all, but accounts of Wallace's struggle to surpass (what he sees as) the smart glibness of his early work. Dostoyevsky, the postmodern fictionists, and the rest are secondary characters. Even the narrative pieces are, to some extent, in the same vein."
Some Questions to Consider While Reading
- To what extent are Wallace's non-fiction essays journalism and to what extent are they autobiography? Does Wallace use his journalism as an excuse to write about himself?
- In many of the essays in this collection Wallace points out and appears to condone the consumption and pampering that is present in certain aspects of our society. To what extent does Wallace enjoy his own consumption and to what extent does he feel guilty about it afterward? What does this say about Wallace's view of the human ethical condition?
- How does does Wallace's non-fiction read like fiction? Can you read it as one way or another? What are the repercussions of reading his non-fiction as fiction or as non-fiction?
- "Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise", Harpers Magazine. Also known as "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again".
- "Ticket to the Fair", Harper's Magazine. Also known as "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All".
- Salon Review
- "'A Supposedly Fun Thing': Musings on Life's Absurdities”
- Boston Phoenix Review