Honestly, do you care what the Illinois State Fair was like in 1993? Do you care about the hidden miraculous trigonometry of tennis? Or do you care to know what it feels like to spend a week on a Caribbean luxury cruise, pampered to death in the company of 1300+ tropically clad, wealthy fellow Americans under the vast lapis lazuli dome of the sky?
Read these essays, and you will care. Even if you’ve never thought these things could be of any interest to you.
Are you irrationally afraid of vacuum toilets? Or of the insanely moving, vomit-inducing ferry-wheels of country fairs? Or of the possibility that irony will perhaps destroy the world?
Read these essays, and you will be.
Wallace does a whole array of things in and with these essays – yes, for instance, he visits the Illinois State Fair, he goes to the shooting of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and he spends a week on a Caribbean luxury cruise ship – and then he goes ahead and writes these pieces about his experiences in an extremely funny, unbelievably smart, reflexive and self-reflexive nerd-gonzo style, while he also ruminates extensively about American society and about the strata and members of said society who are predisposed to go to state fairs, go on luxury cruises, or move to Los Angeles (which is, according to Wallace, a city just as over-colored and surreal as you’d imagine based on the movies, therefore there will be no surprises there for anyone.)
In other essays (two out of the seven), Wallace deals with tennis – and when he talks about tennis, that’s also enlightening and more importantly: mesmerizing. (I’ll write more about this – about the mesmerizing quality of his writing.) Wallace himself used to play tennis in his teenage years, and he was quite a successful young talent. He never became a professional, though – and this half-in, half-out perspective adds a lot of intensity and charm to his words when he deals with this topic. Wallace evidently knows what he talks about when he talks about tennis, yet, compared to the real pros, he’s also just an enthusiastic amateur who’s easily enchanted by true greatness, so – even if I’ve never even held a tennis racket in my life – I have no choice but wonder about the complicated mechanics, trigonometry and other features of this beautiful sport with deep awe. (I don’t even watch tennis, let alone play it. And still – reading Wallace’s essays on the subject convinced me deeply and immediately that probably there’s no sport in the world more beautiful than tennis.)
In the remaining two essays, Wallace digs into topics of (contemporary) culture: Is the author dead or alive (cf. Roland Barthes)? What’s the connection between television, American culture, and irony? I have no words and talent to summarize these essays in a few sentences, but I can briefly testify to their effect. Reading these essays made me feel that I want to read Barthes, preferably right now, and that I want to lie down and cry huge tears of relief because I’ve never been able to explain – not even to myself – why irony makes me want to scream sometimes – but Wallace explains this. Beautifully, elegantly, logically.
And I promised something about mesmerizing. It’s just that: Wallace is mesmerizing. It seems no matter what he talks about, his words are a delight to read. Wallace was a writer so extremely smart and perceptive that theoretically, his work should be intimidating by the sheer force of its erudition. But it is not intimidating – perhaps because beside all his unearthly smartness, there’s a whole lot of stupid fears (of vacuum toilets, for example), illogicality, deep and basic curiosity and a general playfulness in his writing, and all this make his work deeply human and ultimately approachable. And this is something I can never put (and don’t want to put) differently: the writers who blow my mind the most are usually the ones who can make me believe that I am there. Anywhere, anytime. On the vomit-inducing ferry-wheel (even if Wallace himself hadn’t boarded it); in David Lynch’s unique mind, as it comes across Wallace’s unique mind; at the Elegant Teatime event on board of a Caribbean luxury cruise ship. And Wallace makes me believe all this.
On a related note: about two years ago I tried to read Wallace’s Infinite Jest – I failed. I thought at that time that Infinite Jest is wonderful, only – it’s too huge (in every sense), it demands too much from the reader, and I felt that the infinite jest is too much on me, the reader. Now, having read these essays I’m no longer afraid of this last one, and I plan to start Infinite Jest again the first convenient time – perhaps on a week-long luxury cruise while I’m being pampered to death.
And I feel this might be a good course of action in general in approaching Wallace’s work – starting with his essays. His essays are not that extremely demanding as Infinite Jest (to read Infinite Jest, I feel you must be 100% awake and ready and willing to think hard – to read these essays, it’s only highly recommended), and by reading them, you can learn relatively quickly whether you are compatible with Wallace’s prose or not, and receptive for his manias or not.