David Foster Wallace

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

  • This summary of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997) is a collection of seven non-fiction essays by American author David Foster Wallace. The subjects Wallace covers range from competitive tennis, the works of director David Lynch, and a Caribbean cruise, the experience of which serves as the basis for the book’s title essay. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again “should serve as a model for anyone writing cultural comment” (Publishers Weekly).

In the first essay, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” Wallace reflects on his involvement in competitive junior tennis. As a youth in Urbana, Illinois, Wallace discovers a talent for visualizing the geometry of the tennis court, a skill he uses to his advantage. This tactical approach allows him to execute a defensive style of play, involving little more than returning volleys until his opponent makes a mistake, exhausts himself, or suffers an emotional breakdown. This approach serves Wallace well until he and his opponents reach puberty, at which point Wallace finds himself developing much slower physically than other boys his age. Before long, his defensive mathematical approach fails as bigger, stronger opponents simply overpower him.

The Latin phrase in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” means “from one, many” and is a play on “E Pluribus Unum”—”out of many one”—a motto of the United States. Here, Wallace offers one of the earliest expressions of his “New Sincerity” ethos, an approach toward art and literature that the author is frequently credited with introducing. According to Wallace, the New Sincerity mentality dictates that artists abandon the irony and cynicism that came to dominate literature during the post-modern era of the 1960s and which the author currently sees reflected in modern television: “The next literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles.”

“Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All,” details Wallace’s experiences at the 1993 Illinois State Fair. The fair is a microcosm of Illinois and Midwestern culture in general. People from rural and urban areas alike come to enjoy the fair’s activities, most of which revolve around food. He senses clear distinctions between the agriculture professionals, the event competitors, and the laypeople who simply want to go on carnival rides and indulge in unhealthy food.

In “Greatly Exaggerated,” Wallace reviews Morte d’Author: An Autopsy, a work of prose by the American poet and literary critic H.L. Hix. In Wallace’s telling, Hix wishes to preserve the idea of the author from poststructuralist critics who seek to destroy it. Poststructuralism is a school of thought that deemphasizes the role of writers, rejecting the structures on which they rely, under the premise that readers can never truly know a writer’s intended meaning. Thus, poststructuralist critics shift the emphasis onto readers who will inevitably process and perceive the meaning of a given text in different ways.

Wallace travels to the set of director David Lynch’s upcoming movie, Lost Highway, on assignment for Premiere magazine in “David Lynch Keeps His Head.” Despite his press credentials, Wallace is afforded almost no contact with the director. In lieu of interviewing Lynch, Wallace reflects on the impenetrability of Lost Highway‘s baffling plot before recalling the mysterious and profound power of Lynch’s earlier films, particularly Blue Velvet. Using as an example the scene in which the protagonist watches from behind a closet door as one character sexually assaults another, Wallace argues that Lynch gets under audiences’ skin by implicating them in the deviant, sadistic behavior on screen.

Wallace attends the Canadian Open to watch the American professional tennis player Michael Joyce compete in “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness.” The author finds himself in total awe of the degree of talent displayed by Joyce and the rest of the competitors. In reflecting on Joyce’s commitment to the sport, Wallace wonders whether Joyce chose tennis or tennis chose him.

In “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Wallace describes the experience of embarking on a seven-day luxury Caribbean cruise. As his fellow passengers engage in what they presumably consider fun and relaxing activities, Wallace finds himself driven to introspection and despair. In the extreme pampering passengers receive from the cruise’s hospitality staff, he sees an analogy to a mother caring for her infant’s every need. Wallace views this as evidence that by going on a cruise, passengers express a desire to revert to a state of infancy themselves. As the days pass, Wallace comes to take the degree of luxury and pampering for granted, demanding more of it in hopes of fulfilling an adolescent impulse to want it all—despite knowing the impulse can never be satisfied.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is a considerable achievement in the art of personal essay writing that is at turns funny, insightful, and deeply personal.