Field Notes: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, How I Became A Famous Novelist

A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN

SYNOPSIS: David Foster Wallace’s breakthrough 1997 essay collection, including long, winding, footnote-heavy pieces about cruise ships, tennis, television, and David Lynch, among other curiosities and obsessions.

CONDITION: Bought new, off Amazon, a few months ago.

THOUGHTS: The common wisdom on Wallace is that you’re supposed to start with his journalism, and slowly work your way up to his 1,000-page opus of a novel, Infinite Jest. I did it the opposite way: I read IJ first, in April of last year, and a couple months later tore through his second non-fiction collection, 2006’s Consider the Lobster. Since then I’ve been slowly working retroactively. A Supposedly Fun Thing is my fourth Wallace book thus far.

I understand why people hedge their bets in recommending Infinite Jest, and in many ways the journalism is more accessible (ie. shorter, usually more focused). But there’s a different kind of pleasure that comes from doing things in reverse. It has to do with first watching Wallace’s fictional characters struggle with pleasure, addiction, sports, and self-consciousness—all of which happens in widescreen in IJ—only to then come back and re-encounter those beliefs in a relatively straight-forward essay format. The non-fiction works like a coda, clearly reinforcing everything his fiction builds toward.

A Supposedly Fun Thing has several of Wallace’s classic magazine pieces in it, including the nutty title essay about Wallace’s all-expenses-paid trip on a week-long Caribbean cruise. (Says his Harper’s editor, “It was very clear to us that we had pure cocaine on our hands.”) There’s a very passionate, very personal story about filmmaker David Lynch from the set of Lost Highway, as well as some typically brilliant thoughts about pro tennis and an essay about irony and television that is so prescient about TiVo and hipsterism that it seems almost impossible that Wallace could have written it way back in 1990.

Then again, every essay has many things to recommend it, and Wallace’s style is typically eye-popping, and empathetic without being condescending. It’s a style he would polish even further with Consider the Lobster a decade later. You’ll want to pay close attention, too, since some of the best details are tucked away: the way the teenaged Wallace’s face looks like a “catcher’s mask” after a nearby tornado launches him into a chain-link fence, or the utter chaos of the baton twirling event at the Illinois State Fair, where Wallace has to literally duck for cover.

So read Infinite Jest, and read this one. I don’t care in what order.

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HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST

SYNOPSIS: Former Letterman and American Dad writer Steve Hely’s 2009 debut novel, about a man who comes up with a formula to write a wildly popular bestseller, all in the hopes of embarrassing his ex-girlfriend at her wedding.

CONDITION: New—a birthday present from last year.

THOUGHTS: One of the things How I Became a Famous Novelist has going for it is that Hely knows exactly how to let his initial premise unspool—once he’s set up the basic scenario, the next 200 pages are nearly all follow-through. You get slacker layabout Pete Tarslaw’s initial conception of exactly what kind of book he should write, an excellent list of principles to follow and elements to include (“Rule 6: Evoke confusing sadness at the end”, “Silas should be the kind of guy who notices the beauty of light filtering through a beer bottle”), and his bewildered outrage about the actual writing process. As he says later, “It’s a titanic pain in the ass to actually type out all the words.”

Pete comes up with The Tornado Ashes Club, a quasi-literary wankfest about a guy and his grandma taking a road trip through the American heartland to throw an urn full of ashes into a moving tornado. It’s peppered with World War II flashbacks, a tough-talking country singer with a heart of gold, and the kind of syrupy, intentionally cryptic language that so often lures book critics like a honey trap.

It’s a hit.

How I Became a Famous Novelist is, for my money and for the most part, the funniest book of last year. There are so many targets to choose from in today’s literary culture that all Hely has to do is logically follow the process of getting a book published and his satire is already 10 chapters deep. The jokes are quick, and biting, and very clearly the product of a man who’s done his homework.

It’s a novel of rare readability. Then again, it kind of has to be. Hely’s target is pretentiousness, so his prose, by contrast, is clean and functional. And there’s a lot to contrast against: How I Became is absolutely crammed full of other styles and genres of writing, all superbly ventriloquized. (Hely’s made-up New York Times bestseller list made the rounds last year when the book was first released, and rightfully so. I still think Cumin: The Spice That Changed the World is a million-seller in the making.)

The book loses a bit of momentum in the final third, once The Tornado Ashes Club gets published, and the girlfriend’s wedding abruptly arrives on the scene with 50 pages to go. Pete, inevitably, softens a little, and even feels guilty.

But there’s something admirable in this obligatory revelation, in Hely’s unflagging respect for storytelling and the novel as a form. Even the most ludicrous unpublished manuscripts are treated with an underlying delicacy. I suspect that to write a book as impish and polyphonic as this, you couldn’t possibly be a pessimist at heart. Sometimes we forget that satirists care, and the best satirists are the ones who care the most.

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    David Foster Wallace
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