Wallace’s book of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, is one of my favorites. His writing skill blows me away, and he can also be incredibly funny. It’s very hard to pull off the kinds of stylistic quirks that are his trademarks (abrupt diction switches between polysyllabic/formal and slangy, long-than-what-they-comment-on footnotes, arch Nicknames That Are Capitalized, etc.), but he makes it seem effortless and right. My friend Rani highly recommends his novel, Infinite Jest, but it’s so long that I hesitate to get it through ILL. I’m waiting for a cheap used copy to come along. But this short story collection caught my eye at the Scranton library. I had read one of them, “The Depressed Person,” in the Atlantic or Harper’s, and remember not enjoying it but being mesmerised by it.
That earlier experience typified the way I feel about most of these pieces. The writing is so good I can’t put it down, but when I’m done I don’t feel any kind of transcendence or redemption, let alone pleasure. Minutely examining the ways humans can be horrible & lost in their own neuroses–I feel like screaming “WHAT’S THE POINT???” and yet it is done so skillfully that I wonder what I’m missing. In “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon” a father who loathes his son compellingly describes the details of parenthood through the darkest possible lens–it’s awful to read and yet I am drawn to speculate about what’s going on, the clues Wallace leaves, etc. Some of the stories are so avant-garde/meta-fiction/playing with the boundaries of narrative that they leave me cold. “Datum Centurio,” a sort of SF piece which consists of dictionary definitions from 2096, is just stupid.
BIWHM exactly fits my impression of “contemporary fiction”–it may be skilled but it’s not what I’m looking for in reading. Give me contemporary non-fiction, but I’ll stick to old-fashioned fiction.