Reviewed: Daniel Fish Takes on David Foster Wallace for the Theater

Tennis balls in a slanted pattern cover the floor of the performance loft. As you walk in you immediately see a machine named the Lob-ster fire tennis balls at a paper picture of a young girl in tennis clothing with her back to us. (The setup feeds right into my David Foster Wallace dorkiness as I catch the numerous allusions throughout the room. I laugh at the reference to Consider the Lobster, and to perhaps the funniest scene in the DFW oeuvre: the game of Eschaton.) The director, Daniel Fish, a lanky man with unwashed long hair, a wild beard, and army boots, sits behind a small sound board. Five cords creep out of the sound board attached to loose headphones sitting next to the actors, many of them dressed in tennis paraphernalia and waiting for the show to start. I am at Fish’s adaptation of DFW’s nonfiction work for the theater entitled, “A (radically condensed and expanded) SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN (after David Foster Wallace)” at the Chocolate Factory with 40 other people, and I have little clue what to expect. The actors don their headphones and began reciting works that DFW himself recorded to audio. Fish not only appeared to decide who spoke when, but he, in perhaps his most original artistic choice, controlled the speed of the incoming feed, forcing the actors to play catch-up.

Adaptation requires a different artistic set of skills then creation. DFW’s work, we generally assume, is one not easily given to adaptation into any other form. His fiction — sprawling, full of asides, digressions and footnotes; heavily internalized, and always philosophical  — doesn’t lend itself, easily, to the world of concrete world of images or performance. Consequently, I went into the performance with serious skepticism.

Despite these biases, Fish surprised me in orchestrating an illuminating, fresh take on DFW’s work. However, in some ways, Fish chose the easy way out. First off, he used mostly DFW’s nonfiction, including interviews, and his few forays into fiction focused on shorter, more self contained, less experimental pieces from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. “Forever Overhead,” a story of a 13-year-old jumping off the diving board for the first the time signifies, stylistically, one of DFW’s most straightforward stories. Gone are the endless sentences, internal monologues at the speed of thought, big words, and the recursive language that we generally associate with DFW. The other fiction pieces also veer from the more dense works: “Interview #40,” like all of the brief interviews, amounts to a monologue; “A Radically Condensed History of Post-Industrial Life,” though poignant, entails a measly five short sentences; and “Death is Not the End,” in my humble opinion, one of the weaker fiction pieces, also lacks the density we expect from DFW. On top of the content, the type of performance, i.e. repeating the actual voice of DFW, blurred the line between adaptation and simple recitation of DFW’s work.

Not that these factors take away from the success of the show, they just contextualize it. In fact the performance offered a heady rush in which everyone in the room, the actors, the director and the audience, attempted to explore not only the pieces themselves, but the relationship between the author and his audience in a new, visceral manner. This format takes on specific poignancy because DFW cared and cultivated that relationship in his works and words more than any author of the past 50 years. For him, one of the purposes, or redemptive qualities of literature lay in its ability to cross that existential, inherent gap between people. Consequently, when we try to embody his voice, we explore that relationship in a novel manner. What does it truly mean to connect to an author? If I speak his words, act them out as his disembodied voice speaks to me, does that change our relationship, our connection?

I cannot speak for the actors, but I did not experience any additional nuances to my already complicated relationship to DFW. Instead, Fish, managed to highlight numerous important aspects of DFW’s work that grow more prominent with public performance. As mentioned, Fish, during the performance controlled the speed of the incoming voice of DFW. This created an odd situation in which it looked and sounded like the actors were receiving a desperate, or important SOS, hands against the earphone, attempting to spew out the words as fast as they came in. (At one point, in perhaps the most human part of the show, one of the stellar actors couldn’t keep up and yelled, “Fuck!”)

To my mind, this mimics how we all think DFW thinks, or mimics the experience of the reading of DFW: that dizzying feeling of reading his essays, or chapters, or footnotes full of minute details, paranoia, humor, sadness, and insight all wrapped into one sentence; the feeling of needing a mental break after the intellectual exercise of his work. For me though, what stood out as the actors served as sped up microphones for DFW, was the sheer weight of his often neurotic mind.  During his lifetime, I think his genius overwhelmed his clear neuroses, and after his death, his work became holy, unimpeachable, but with distance, with time, I think the neuroses grows more prominent. Listening to the cruise essay at hyper-speed, as DFW thinks through the knotty mess of his maid who he concludes care less about him as a person, and more about him as a nuisance, as an annoying obligation, highlights the sense of neurotic self-awareness he carried around. While I still feel immense respect and admiration towards DFW’s talents, with age, it grows clearer to me that so much of what we appreciate in his work grows from a neurotic, obsessive mind. Not that this takes away from his brilliance, but to me, it makes many of his opinions highly idiosyncratic.

Though many of the techniques felt post-modern: using a pastiche of voices, using competing voices, cutting and pasting from his interviews etc., the techniques were not simply, as DFW would put it, to show off, or simply Post-modern pyrotechnics. For the most part, each technique served a discreet purpose, usually a way to explore, or make a statement about the general thought of DFW. Some techniques floundered, but most worked.

Specifically, besides for the aspect of speed, the choice of competing voices worked beautifully. During the Tracy Austin essay, the funniest performance of the night, a number of the actors intruded on the main voice as they quoted DFW from an interview in which he explains Wittgenstein’s thought on a jokes ability to illuminate dense philosophical ideas. In a similar manner, but with a different purpose, one of the actors read “A Radically Condensed History of Post-Industrial Life,” only to then repeat it on a loop. Then, in a similar manner to what we would call a round in music, the next actor began reciting the same story over the other person, changing the piece from a story into a chant, an incantation, a meditative mantra. This continued with a third actor, but the fourth actor then read from the story, “Death is Not the End,” all in all creating a cacophony of DFW, or what he might refer to as Total Noise.

This method illuminates numerous important, related insights into DFW’s oeuvre. First, it’s almost impossible to read any of his works, critically, separately. No work stands alone. His fiction informs his non fictions which informs his interviews, which informs his graduation speech. Often, writers can write completely disparate books, but DFW, in the vein of Isaiah Berlin’s helpful categories, is as one fan put it, a hedgehog in a fox’s clothing. Though he writes on many topics, he essentially, variates on a few central themes. Lastly, in this vein, what we can realize from so much of the legacy work being done currently on DFW is that it’s impossible to speak about his work without referencing his others works. He commented so much on his own work, provided so many keys, clues and themes to his work that one of the only way to say anything of substance on DFW is to reference his other works.

Besides for the obvious poignant moments from the works themselves, Fish orchestrated some moving, wrenching, and tender moments. During the Charlie Rose segment, the interview ended on a heart-shattering note as we hear DFW discuss how for many artists who accomplish their goals, it becomes increasingly harder to think of reasons to get out of bed. “But don’t worry,” he says, “I’m not jumping off any building anytime soon.” Silence stunned the room, and the weight of the unspoken, the fact of suicide, permeated the air. In a more tender manner, Fish chose to end the show with an actress sitting on a pile tennis balls, performing the only words not spoken by DFW. Instead, she ended in the voice of Amy Wallace, DFW’s sister, speaking about her brother, telling a fitting story of DFW driving her on a seven-hour trip, singing with her, forcing her to learn how to harmonize. As a harbinger, Fish’s performance, despite dragging on a bit too long, represents a great start to what promises to be a rich but challenging afterlife for the works of David Foster Wallace.