This Isn’t Water

Putting David Foster Wallace onstage at the Public Theater.

Daniel Fish's A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

Daniel Fish’s A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

Photo courtesy Brian Rogers/Public Theater

Brief Interview No. 42 from David Foster Wallace’s story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men concerns the job of one hideous man’s father: bathroom attendant. “Imagine not existing until a man needs you,” the son says. “Being there and yet not there.” He pictures in rich detail his dad’s daily sensory experience, the “ghastly metastasized odors of continental breakfasts and business dinners,” the “rich belches of expense-account lunches.” The vivid, revolted accounting goes on for 10 pages.

Imagine hearing those pages read by a young woman who’s doing jumping jacks under a spotlight, who barely breaks stride to remove her jacket and then sweatshirt as she gets too hot, her jumping jacks getting smaller as she visibly tires. “Defecation, egestion, extrusion, dejection, purgation, voidance,” she recites. “The damp lisp of buttocks shifting on padded seats. The tiny pulse of each bowl’s pool.” The effect of those jumping jacks is to underline all of the work involved: in the father’s repetitive job, in the son’s thorough (and rather eloquent) imagining of that job, in Wallace’s careful rendering of this fictional character’s imagination, in the recitation of that writing, and in our attentive listening, if we’re still listening.

I was still listening. I was at the Public Theater in New York, where the Under the Radar Festival is presenting A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again—After David Foster Wallace through this week. The performance piece was conceived by Daniel Fish, and having initially been grabbed by the thought of seeing Wallace’s work transformed for the stage, I became fearful when I saw a clip online, dreading 90 minutes of arty proclamation. But among the thousands of pages Fish could have selected, he chose well, and his choices pinged each other in surprising ways. I was fascinated through most of the evening, and I walked out thinking differently about what Wallace did in his writing, and marveling at how he did it.

As the performance begins, the small stage is lined with tennis balls on a criss-cross grid. The floor and the walls are black. A machine shoots tennis balls at a photo of Tracy Austin (I’m guessing; more on her in a minute) taped to the black back wall. (At this point, by the way, I was still full of dread.) Four young adults in casual clothing—actors John Amir, Therese Plaehn, Mary Rasmussen, and Jenny Seastone—come out and sit against the back wall, put headphones on. These apparently pipe in the sound of Wallace, beginning, I gather, with his audiobook introduction to Consider the Lobster, in which he addresses the problem of audiobook footnotes. All four begin declaiming that introduction, not quite in unison.

Soon one young woman is alone reciting a section of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Wallace’s existential and occasionally uproarious account of a cruise on what he calls the Nadir. These sections are funny, and the audience laughs at Wallace’s jokes, even delivered, as they are, in stagey monotone with bits of performative reaching and crouching. Then the first ping: Petra, the cleaning lady on the Nadir who makes Wallace’s lodgings immaculate and whose movements Wallace tries and fails to track, is a real-life (maybe) analogue to the bathroom attendant of Brief Interviews. One’s perspective shifts: from Wallace’s to Petra’s; from the crazy-making mystery of her ninja-like appearances and disappearances to the sheer drudgery of the labor she is repeatedly performing; from the unpleasantly antiseptic quality of the cruise to the overwhelming privilege of Wallace’s position (of which, it should be noted, he was fully aware).

Is this the point of the performance? Maybe not. The promotional copy on the Public Theater website emphasizes the spontaneity of each night’s show—the audio recordings, we are told, are “mixed live during each performance.” “Wallace’s work,” the copy continues, “asks us: how present can we be? How generous in the way we experience the cacophony of our world?” Wallace’s work does ask us these things, but the in-the-moment–ness of A Supposedly Fun Thing, insofar as it stems from the unpredictability of that live mixing and the increasingly random arrangement of those tennis balls as the evening progresses, feels, perhaps unfairly, like a put-on. The precise mixing and matching of the selections—which performer says what when and how fast or slow—may change nightly, but, for what it’s worth, the 90-second clip on the Public’s website shows the same actors saying the same lines I heard the night I attended.

For instance, after the “Supposedly Fun” section, the one young man of the four gets up and reads Wallace’s very funny and fairly devastating essay about Tracy Austin’s autobiography, Beyond Center Court: My Story, which Wallace convincingly argues is superlatively banal, featuring such lines as, “I immediately knew what I had done, which was to win the U.S. Open, and I was thrilled.” The young man on stage reads Wallace’s lines, and one of the young women reads the quotes from Austin, and the latter gets a laugh nearly every time she speaks. The essay is ultimately about the kind of Zen thoughtlessness a great athlete might need to achieve in order to perform at such a high level, and Fish, who mans the mixing board, speeds up the recording piped in through the headphones, so that eventually the young man is reading at an impressively breakneck pace. This, of course, makes him an athlete of sorts, too, just like the jumping-jacker was, and so it occurs to us that perhaps these actors need to not think at all in order to do this, and that perhaps the generous attentiveness that the promotional copy seemed to promote is in some sense their enemy. They can’t look out at us, or even think of us at all, or it would break their concentration, and ruin the performance. This isn’t a very cheerful realization.

But then the whole piece, despite the many laughs, is not especially cheerful. A bit after the Austin essay, the lights go dark and Elliott Smith’s cover of the great Big Star song “Thirteen” plays, and when they hear the line “Won’t you let me meet you at the pool” many Wallace fans will likely guess that what’s coming next: a reading of “Forever Overhead,” the stunning short story from Brief Interviews that traces the internal monologue of a boy at a swimming pool on his 13th birthday. And the story, read from beginning to end by one actor, with a second echoing her voice for a long stretch, is even more stunning read aloud than it is on the page. In it, the boy decides to jump off the high dive for the first time. He notices impossibly specific physical details, from the seven new hairs in his left armpit to the “abrupt little squiggles of cold blue shattered vein under the white skin” of the legs on the woman in front of him in line for the high dive.

This intense attention to detail echoes the son of the bathroom attendant, and the pool “spreads and fizzes” with the arrival of each diver, calling to mind the tiny pulse of each bowl’s pool in the bathroom his father attended. One thinks, too, of the ocean of water surrounding the Nadir. And one thinks of “This Is Water,” the secular sermon Wallace delivered at Kenyon College, which became a gift-sized book in 2009, a year after Wallace died. That graduation speech opens with an allegory about water being the stuff we all move through every day without noticing it, but in the stories and essays you hear in Supposedly Fun Thing, water seems less like life than like death, a thing we all eventually plunge into, and the speakers of these stories seem determined to stay dry—even though they know they can’t forever. And it’s that impossible task that I walked out of the theater wondering about, convinced that Wallace didn’t imagine that thinking, or attention, was any kind of solution, really.