Photo by Paula Court
'A Supposedly Funny Thing' performance at the Walker in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Exactly how you imagined a David Foster Wallace novel would look, right?
When David Foster Wallace’s doorstop of a novel, Infinite Jest, was published in 1996, he quickly became the “voice of his generation,” and reading his tome became a rite of intellectual passage akin to previous generations reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.
Wallace committed suicide in 2008, and since then, his estate reportedly gets one or two requests a week from people seeking permission to use the record of his prodigious verbal output—in fiction, essays, articles, videos, speech transcripts, etc.—for various initiatives. One of those projects—A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace, by New York director Daniel Fish—will be presented during the Walker Art Center’s annual Out There performance series this month. As unusual as Fish’s theatrical experiment is, this may be the most accurate depiction of Wallace’s peculiar genius yet.
Translating Wallace into a different medium isn’t easy, as his stories are so rooted in hyper-kinetic prose and the inner contours of human consciousness that they don’t lend themselves very well to conventional narrative. A Supposedly Funny Thing succeeds because it doesn’t even try. Instead, Fish has devised a theatrical experience around the idea of what it must have been like to live inside Wallace’s relentlessly intelligent, bandana-wrapped head.
Five actors appear onstage and each puts on a set of headphones. Through the headphones, Fish plays recordings of Wallace and the actors try to communicate what they are hearing—by speaking the lines, moving, and using various props (including several hundred tennis balls). To keep the actors on their toes, Fish doesn’t tell them which recording he will play during the show, and he often speeds them up so that the actors can’t possibly speak every word they’re hearing.
It’s Fish’s attempt at creating “spontaneity” within the context of a formal theater piece. He is also trying to create a feeling of illogical cacophony, and in that way, A Supposedly Funny Thing may be the closest we can ever get to feeling like David Foster Wallace without actually having to be him. In the end, that could be a huge relief.
A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace, Jan. 14–16, Walker, walkerart.org