First, I find the topics to be very enlightening w/r/t (hah, stole that from DFW) Infinite Jest (which I did enjoy when I read it a few years ago). Second, I wanted to make the global comment that I enjoy reading DFW in large part because his work is just as impressive as someone like Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, or Christopher Hitchens and makes me feel comparatively poorly-read but also because he manages to sound funny and off-the-cuff rather than studied and snobbish. Even when he is being snobby, he sounds endearing to me and let me add that I tend to be fairly snobby, well-read, and mean in my everyday life.Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley
I am not a fan of tennis. I think my biggest complaint about Infinite Jest was the extensive descriptions about tennis. And so, I will try to limit my comments here (and about Michael Joyce below) to the aspects of this essay that don't deal with tennis. I liked his commentary about southern IL and the volumes of wind. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, but went to middle IA for my undergraduate work and had multiple arguments with people who never came to IA to visit me (clearly they were not completely stupid) in which I asserted that IA is in fact the windiest place on earth. There is a large mass of American soil between the Rocky Mountains and the cities that spring up Chicago and eastward which is very flat and contains nothing to serve as a windblock.
I was not sure if Antitoi (his tennis arch-enemy/training partner) was real. If so, wow..if not, I thought the (not-you) translation from french to be a cute joke.E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction
This essay felt long (and it is), because DFW makes a couple really good points but then I felt like he just kept making them. One of his main points has to do with the complicity between audience and TV actors. We like to pretend that we are voyeurs but "the people we're watching through TV's framed-glass screen are not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of somebodies. In fact the people on television know that it is by virtue of this truly huge crowd of ogling somebodies that they are on the screen engaging in broad non-mundane gestures at all....it's an awfully heavy load to hoist aloft for six hours a day; illusions of voyeurism and privileged access require serious complicity from the viewer." This discussion covers lots and lots of pages and I feel like most of the ramble was unnecessary.
I was also slightly perturbed by his lack of mention (or even head nod) to those of us that simply don't engage in television. I am one of those people who find TV noxious and so I simply choose to spend my six hours a day doing something else (most often with my nose in a book). I recognize that DFW is trying to analyze here WHY people engage in a behavior that they profess to dislike, but I thought he should at least acknowledge that some of us manage to avoid the whole mess.
I was also curious about his take on reality TV. This essay was written in 1990 (even before the first reality TV MTV's The Real World, I think) and so certainly he could not have addressed it. However, I would have been interested in an update post Mark Burnett-take over of prime-time, especially given the context of "television's power to jettison connection and castrate protest fueled by the very ironic postmodern self-consciousness it has first helped fashion." As DFW uses post-modern irony to comment on recent (for him) TV self-awareness (and audience's desire to be included by knowing the TV history), I couldn't help but consider the "celebrities" that have come out of participating in essentially game shows.
One of my criticisms of Infinite Jest was that while it was a book about addiction (in so many forms of the word), it never address one of the biggest addictions (gambling) in the text. I love DFW's definition here: "by 'malignant' and 'addictive' I again do not mean evil or hypnotizing. An activity is addictive if one's relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing are pretty benign. But something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as a relief from the very problems it causes. A malignant addiction is also distinguished for spreading the problems of the addiction out and in in interference patterns, creating difficulties for relationships, communities, and the addict's very sense of self and spirit."
I also found his comment on consumerism and advertising (certainly necessary in a discussion on TV) to be clearly fore-shadowing his highly advertised "year names" in Infinite Jest. Along these lines, though, I was very disappointed that DFW did not bring up Super Bowl commercials. There are quite a few Americans who traditionally watch the Super Bowl, which is (paradoxically to his argument) not usually watched alone, simply for the TV commercials! For this most watched TV event of the year, people are watching not for the main line event, but simply for the ads.
I also got to thinking about the new ad-containing (but cheaper) kindle (which I don't have) as I was reading about the book with ads. I also thought about the change in TV viewership as Internet streaming (through providers like Netflix or Hulu) has become a much more popular way to watch TV. Again, I know that this essay was written in 1990 and that DFW is no longer around to update, but there are changes here that he did not predict and that I think fundamentally undermine parts of his argument.Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All
I was not very impressed with this article as a whole. Admitedly it is just notes from his time at the fair and yes, he does make a few interesting cultural observations and funny quips. But, overall I didn't really feel like there was much of a thesis to this one.
I love the selfish kid perception of external reality: "all things are nothing until his sight calls them forth from the void: his stimulation is the world's very being."
I was not sure I agreed with his analysis that for the Midwestern folk "what's Special here is the offer of a vacation from alienation, a chance for a moment to love what real life out here can't let you love." He argues that the fair is special because it gives folks a chance to be in a crowd and that unlike "east-coasters" who are always in a crowd, this is a good thing. As a suburbanite I enjoyed the county fair. We spent lots of time in crowds (even going into the big city Chicago several times a year) and found the fair a bit rural and hokey, but certainly fun. I think his argument might apply for city vs. country folk, but not necessarily East-coast vs. Midwest.
I liked the racist/feminist stuff. The midwestern girl is fundamentally not bothered by the Carnies' sexist behavior because she wants to just have fun (as compared to the east coast woman whose fun would be determined by ripping him a new asshole). Simultaneously the only black people at the fair are the hired kids or the guys playing basketball; and yet "there's an atmosphere in the room--not racist, but aggressively white. It's hard to describe. The atmosphere's the same at a lot of rural Midwest public events. It's not like if a black person came in he'd be ill-treated; it's more like it would just never occur to a black person to come in here."Greatly Exaggerated
This essay made some interesting comments (again through the post-modern lens) about literature. These were similar to the TV arguments (in as much as one medium can translate) and were also echoed a bit in the essay on David Lynch.
The discussion revolved around meaning (intended and unintended): "There's been this longstanding deluded presumption, they think, that if there is an utterance then there must exist a unified, efficacious presence that causes and owns that utterance." and "writing is a better animal than speech because it is iterable; it is iterable because it is abstract; and it is abstract because it is a function not of presence but of absence: the reader's absent when the writer's writing, and the writer's absent when the reader's reading." I love the idea that part of the meaning is embedded in the fact that the recipient is not present at the time that it is created.David Lynch keeps his head
I must first confess that I have not seen much of Lynch's work. I have seen Wild at Heart and Mulholland Drive (which was produced after this essay was written), but I am ignorant of most of Lynch's other work. I may have watched a few episodes of Twin Peaks, but I certainly have very little background here.
However, my husband (the amateur painter) is a huge fan of Adrien Ghenie and Justin Mortimer, both of whom come out of Francis Bacon's work (and which DFW references w/r/t Lynch). Lately my husband has been creating images of people with grotesque (or irreverent or otherwise inappropriate) facial expressions given their context. After reading this, I think these paintings are potentially Lynchian (as defined by DFW) and have suggested my husband read this essay.
Again, I felt like DFW's point that the real upsetting piece of Lynch's work is not necessarily the graphic nature of the text (plot, whatever), but is the fact that the characters are empathetic and that it is the audience's ability to see themselves that is so upsetting was valid but that he made it about 15 different ways in a 50 page spread that could have been much more concise.
Also, I am in the real estate world in Madison WI and a recent (local) celebrity scandal kept popping into my mind as I was reading this. Suzy Favor Hamilton is a former Olympic runner who had contracts with Disney as a motivational speaker and was a top selling agent in Madison. She was easily clearing $300-$500K annually with legitimate gigs but it was recently revealed that she also flies to Vegas with regularity to be a high priced prostitute. The reason I mention this is that I couldn't help thinking throughout reading this article that she is an absolute real Lynchian character. She embodies as a real person the exact characteristics that Lynch is criticized for assigning to his fictional characters: "Laura Palmer in Fire Walk with Me is both 'good' and 'bad', and yet also neither: she's complex, contradictory, real. And we hate this possibility in movies; we hate this 'both' shit. 'Both' comes off as sloppy characterization, muddy filmmaking, lack of focus." Certainly there are lots of examples of contradictions in real characters, but the point is that seldom in real life do we see such stark contradictions (Disney sponsor and hooker) within one real person. And, certainly if Lynch had created Suzy Favor Hamilton, he would have gotten lots of flack for lack of believability. Tennis Player Michael Joyce's...
So again, I have this lack of tennis knowledge or interest and so this essay was less pertinent to me. It also made the same two points several times (not that they are bad points, but I feel like DFW needed someone to tell him when to just shut up already and stop repeating himself...as alas I feel like I am doing in this review because he is forcing me to make the same criticism w/r/t several different essays, which is, of course that he is redundant in his criticism and so...ahh!). Point number one is that "the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one pursuit." DFW pokes fun at the fact that Americans like to think of our professional sports heroes as being "rounded", but in fact they must be one-dimensional in order to succeed.
Point number two is that the level of play on a professional court is a)not readily understandable from television reproduction of said play and b)on a whole different plane from amateur play. Several times DFW laments his realization that despite being a very good tennis player (and having spent a lot of time as a kid playing) he is so far below these players that it would be absurd and potentially even obscene to be on the court with them. I wondered about how much of his later depression (given that tennis is clearly a very salient topic for DFW as evidenced by these essays and Infinite Jest) might have sprung from a feeling of failure with his realization that he is not really even an adequate tennis player.A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
This (as to be expected given that it is the title essay) was the funniest of the bunch. I need to preface my review with the statement that I have never been on a cruise and given the recent cruise-ship debacle in which people were left abandoned at sea for 4 days I will never go on a cruise. I have, however, been on 7 separate all-inclusive vacations (Costa Rica, St. Kitts, Jamaica, Cancun (twice), Dominican Republic, and Ixtapa) most of which have been at Club Med resorts. It's nice to read this and be re-assured that I am most likely not missing anything on my pampering-ridiculous vacations that I would have received on a cruise.
I was intrigued with this article when DFW discusses both his sadness (and yes, I totally get the simultaneous attraction for and repellent from death that the ocean inspires) and suicide on the cruise ship.
I agree with and loved his analysis of the cruise ship marketing material as promising "not that you can experience great pleasure, but that you will. That they'll make certain of it."
One piece of the aggressive marketing and the insistence on having fun that we get at the all-inclusive luxury vacations which DFW misses completely (and I can't really blame him here as a single male for not knowing this) is the wonderfullness inherent as a mother of two in NOT HAVING TO MAKE ANY DECISIONS for the extent of the vacation. Yes, we get the benefit of not having to wait in line at the grocery market (his mundane task that he mentions several times as part of the escape inherent in vacation), but unlike non-all-inclusive trips we don't have to even make a decision about what time to eat or where to go. On a recent trip to Niagra Falls my family spent no fewer than 40 minutes deciding where to eat for every meal; we also had to decide which hotels to patronize and where we wanted to spend our free time. An all-inclusive vacation allows a mother (because yes, the brunt of this domestic planning BS falls to the mom) to simply tell the kids to eat when they are hungry. As DFW mentions, there are 7-8 opportunities for meals throughout the day; kids don't need any cash or permission they can just gorge as necessary. Of course, this creates a completely new problem with over-sugared and under (properly)-nourished kids, but at least everyone can take care of themselves (and don't even have to agree about what time they'd like to gorge).
I loved his guilt/admiration/understanding that it has nothing to do with him as a unique person w/r/t the room cleaning: "the ultimate point and object of the cleaning isn't you but rather cleanliness and order, it's going to be a relief for her when you leave. Meaning her hygienic pampering of you is actually evidence that she doesn't want you around."
I also loved DFW's comments about the "bovine herd". As a luxury vacationer I have gone to great lengths to entertain the staff in part because I understand that I am just one of the processed masses and that 3 hours after I leave the grounds I will be replaced by another vacationer who is nearly identical and similarly non-memorable. My husband and I played an extensive prank on one staff member during our last vacation. This prank involved was played on a new staff member and resulted in the immense entertainment of several other staff members and we are fairly confident that we in fact, will not be forgotten by the GOs in the near future. I think he sums up the staff/crew's relationship with most of that patrons quite well in his description of the hypnotist show: "There's something crucially key about Luxury Cruises in evidence here: being entertained by someone who clearly dislikes you, and feeling that you deserve the dislike at the same time that you resent it."
Finally, DFW (as always) makes the repetitive, but always true, comment about our human-nature insatiable needs: "In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the Insatiable Infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction."