The essays in this collection tend to be long, as there’s not nearly as many here as in Consider the Lobster, especially given that this book is longer. But they spend more time. There’s two very good tennis essays, one a memoir essay of playing while a tornado is brewing. There’s a very long discussion of television and postmodern fiction, in which Wallace admits that the ways in which television seems to absorb culture and play around with it makes the job of writing metafiction more challenging. There’s a long essay about spending time on set with David Lynch as he films Lost Highway, which closes with the worry that if critics are harshly unwilling to even try to figure out what Lynch is going for, the film will flop as badly as Fire Walk with Me — prescient or maybe prefiguratively defensive. There’s short, but concise essay of “Death of the Author” which I think more people should read both Wallace and Bathes (Wallace is actually reviewing a book that discusses it) because people love to toss it around and not try to think about what it means. Then the last two essays are a brilliant rumination on contemporary men’s tennis and then the title essay.
There’s a cultural meme that occurred with some regular occurrence, wherein some regular person, and not someone who was ever great at someone, generally believes they could hang with a professional for some amount of time in a one-on-one match up. Usually this is sports, and of course, it’s usually men, often believing they could beat or score against a woman athlete. It’s entirely false of course, unless of course someone was some kind of ringer, which would void out the entire premise. I have never been good at any sport really. I am still an ok softball player, at the level of a company picnic. I won more wrestling matches than I lost, but just barely. I once wrestled a national champion, and while this champion beat almost everyone as badly as he beat me, I lost to non-national champions just as badly a few times to not harbor any illusions. In his essay about pro tennis player Michael Joyce, David Foster Wallace uses his years of amateur but competitive AAU-level tennis experience to thoroughly dispel this self-delusion. You’ve probably never heard of Michael Joyce, unless by chance you have. I watched a lot of pro tennis at the time Wallace is writing this essay and I know the names about 80% of the players he’s mentioned, and I don’t know Joyce. I’ve even read this essay before, and didn’t remember Joyce’s name. Joyce was a pro, but not hugely famous, and was ranked about 80th in the world at this time. All of this is to mention that David Foster Wallace is embarrassed and ashamed of even harboring the barest possibility of suggesting hitting around with Joyce, let alone holding with him at all. The level at which pros of any sport play is impossible to understand in any full way, unless you’re good enough to be allowed to compete against them, and bad enough to get thoroughly destroyed by them.
I seriously love this essay, and this is the essay itself and not the collection. David Foster Wallace, brilliant cranky asshole, is sent to review a cruise liner. And instead of taking the cruise as an individual experience, he expounds upon the concept at large. Make no mistake: he’s perfectly willing to admit that the cruise delivered 100% on its promises. The service was stellar, if terrifying at times. He talks about insisting on carrying his own luggage, not realizing this sets off a chain of events in which the porter who should have carried it is chewed out and Wallace is personally apologized by a terrifying Greek officer. He’s also treated very much as a spy aboard, as if he is an investigative reporter looking to find out whatever dark secrets the ship holds. He’s just a guy who is asked to meander around and talk about the experience. He is partially drawn to the assignment after reading an essay, then published by the cruise line, by a well-known travel writer and former professor of Wallace’s, and he thinks a lot about the fundamental difference between an ad and an essay and worries some about what his own will end up being.
He loses terribly to a nine year girl at chess, which makes him defensive, and so he takes out on the DJ/ping pong pro who runs “tournaments”. He tries out all the classes, and even the luxury dinner, where he’s glowered at for wearing a tuxedo t-shirt, instead of a tux. Like most of his nonfiction, there’s a constant tension between his relative nondescriptness as a narrator and the asshole he would much more like to be at times. He’s kindest to the people who seem to offend him the most, because he sees in his judgment something that most be broken about himself, as if he’s worried that he’s tapping into a layer of despair that he didn’t know was there until he felt it. He’s nice to the workers, and that’s all the really matters. This essay, like most of his experiential ones, has a wonderful understated humor to it.