This was Wallace's first collection of essays. It's not quite as good as the follow-up, Consider the Lobster, but it does contain some brilliant pieces, particularly the title essay. [amtap book:isbn=0349110018]
There are seven essays here, all published between 1992 and 1996 and covering literature, television, film, tennis and, of course, Wallace's now well-known social observation.
The weakest is E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction, which is an incisive look at the effect of television and TV advertising on society and on fiction writing. Wallace's argument is that watching too much television is bad because "it engages without demanding". However, he is smart enough not to damn the medium entirely.
Wallace makes lots of interesting points but the essay is over-long and too academic in tone. In places it's a bit of a slog. There is plenty of fascinating stuff in there, though, if you persevere.
Pretty much everything else in the book is excellent. The two pieces about tennis - one of which relates Wallace's experiences as a teenage tennis player and the other which focuses on minor player Michael Joyce - give a great sense of what it means to play the game and to play it well. Wallace is honest about his limitations and disarmingly self-deprecating when faced with a professional player:
"But the idea of me playing Joyce - or even hitting around with him, which was one of the ideas I was entertaining on the flight to Montreal, to hit around with a hot young US pro - is now revealed to me to be absurd and in a certain way obscene, and during this night match I resolve not even to let Joyce know that I used to play competitive tennis, to play seriously and (I'd presumed) rather well. This makes me sad."
The tennis writing prefigures much of Infinite Jest (released in 1996, the year before A Supposedly Fun Thing…) and so does much of the writing about television in E Unibus Pluram. There's even a person named Antitoi in one of the essays.
The book also contains an illuminating profile of film director David Lynch and a piece in which Wallace considers the notion of the 'death of the author'.
The two most interesting pieces are the ones that, for want of a better category, I will simply call social observation pieces. It's these kind of pieces that Wallace became known for, at least in his non-fiction writing. Four of the ten essays in Consider the Lobster could be placed in that category.
The first of the two, Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All, is the story of Wallace's visit to the Illinois State Fair. It doesn't quite work, partly because it's longer than it needs to be.
That's the second time I've made that criticism and many will feel that it's a fault that runs through Wallace's work. I disagree. Wallace often wrote very long pieces, of course, but he almost always had the material and the writing ability to justify it. In the case of 'Getting Away…', the material is lacking. Wallace just doesn't find enough of interest at the Fair to justify the length of the piece.
There is still much to enjoy in that article but it's not a patch on the final essay in the book, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. In that essay Wallace takes a Caribbean cruise and his bemusement at the experience is hilarious.
I found everything in this essay to be spot-on, perhaps because I once went on a cruise myself and it was every bit as horrible as Wallace describes. Here are just a few highlights:
"A second Celebrity [the cruise company] crowd-control lady has a megaphone and repeats over and over not to worry about our luggage, that it will follow us later, which I am apparently alone in finding chilling in its unwitting echo of the Auschwitz-embarkation scene in Schindler's List."
"And a major percentage of this overheard chitchat consists of passengers explaining to other passengers why they signed up for this 7NC Cruise. It's like the universal subject of discussion in here, like chitchatting in the day-room of a mental ward: "So, why are you here?"
"The very best way to describe Scott Peterson's demeanour is that it looks like he's constantly posing for a photograph nobody is taking."
There are so many other great moments too: when Wallace is beaten at chess by a 9-year-old girl; his attempt at skeet shooting; and his closing encounter with stage magician Nigel Ellery.
It's a great piece and worth the price of the book on its own.