This is a series highlighting interesting books and essays that I’ve been reading lately. Some are new books, some are old classics, but they are all texts that I have found to be very worth reading, both stylistically and for the ideas they present.
David Foster Wallace. As an essay enthusiast, I’ve had Wallace on my list of “people to read” for a very long time and, now that I’ve finally come around to it, I wish that I had started reading him earlier. “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” is a humorous, yet critical commentary on North American culture and privilege written from his perspective as a passenger on a cruise ship- the Nadir.
Wallace’s writing is enjoyable to read. The essay is largely descriptive; told with a sharp eye and a witty observation to detail that, paired with his characterization of certain people on the cruise ship, actually made me laugh out loud at times. The point is, though, that although the text is fun and engaging to read on the surface, something starts to feel slightly amiss as the essay progresses. On a fundamental level you start to sense that things are a bit too squeaky clean and perfect on this cruise ship and that realization, at its core, leads to an exploration of human nature and some very uncomfortable and deep imbalances in our culture that often creep up in subtle forms. Paying attention to these imbalances, however, shed light on more chronic problems that are easier left on the shelf. This is entirely the point.
The whole essay is like peeling back layers: it all seems cozy and safe until Wallace confesses slight misgivings about the situation and then you start seeing things that you really can’t unsee. It is enlightening and uncomfortable and right all at the same time. Since, at a certain point, you can’t backpedal, you must move forward, ploughing through the anecdotes and observations and still chuckling through it all, but, somehow, in the back of your mind feeling more and more strange about the whole concept of the cruise ship and luxury and why we’re escaping there in the first place.
To give you a better idea of what I mean, here is a quote from Wallace:
. . . the Infantile part of me is insatiable . . .. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the Insatiable Infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction.
This essay is a journey through that idea: the illusion that luxury and pampering will give us some kind of deep satisfaction when, truly, it hollows us out, blunts us, and raises our entitlement to the surface of our nature. This all draws to a pinnacle when Wallace finds himself standing on the deck of his cruise ship in port and, seeing another cruise ship pulling in, begins to feel distinctly that his own cruise ship experience on the Nadir must be sub-par to the one he is staring at- the Dreamward. There must be some kind of party on the Dreamward that he is missing out on.
In Wallace’s own words:
I’m standing here on Deck 12 looking at a Dreamward that I bet has cold water that’d turn your knuckles blue . . . part of me realizes that I haven’t washed a dish or tapped my foot in line behind somebody with multiple coupons at a supermarket checkout in a week; and yet instead of feeling refreshed and renewed I’m anticipating just how totally stressful and demanding and unpleasurable regular landlocked adult life is going to be now that even just the premature removal of a towel by a sepulchral crewman seems like an assault on my basic rights, and plus now the sluggishness of the Aft elevator is an outrage, and the absence of 22.5 dumbbells in the Olympic Health Club’s dumbbell rack is a personal affront. And now as I’m getting ready to go down to lunch I’m mentally drafting a really mordant footnote on my single biggest peeve about the Nadir: soda pop is not free, not even at dinner . . .
Do you see the irony? Do you see how, when stripped of the obligation to do anything but indulge yourself it somehow throws small things out of proportion and skews perspective? It is as if something feels missing and that is uncomfortable so, therefore, it must mean I am lacking comfort. So another fluffy towel and another expensive meal and another night on a giant boat with people catering to my every need must be the best prescription to deal with the situation . . .
This is, ultimately, Wallace’s perspective. The title speaks to this: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. It’s a sarcastic tug at the irony at the heart of it all. The cruise was supposed to be fun. However, the introspective Wallace cuts through the fluff and makes the whole experience seem just like that: fluffy, hollow, lacking substance or weight. You get the feeling that all of the pampering makes for a really numbing experience overall, which is kind of like the feeling of being a waterlogged sponge: too much of a good thing really can be too much.
I appreciated this essay, mostly for the commentary it provides on what I see as a particularly glaring problem in our culture. I love the angle that Wallace cut in at. I’m not suggesting that cruises are bad and relaxing is inherently wrong, exactly. Rather, I’m focusing on the difference between numbness and awareness in the way we spend our time, energy, money. Also, do we use comfort and luxury or material possessions as a bandage to cover a hollow place inside? It is worth asking ourselves these kind of questions and honestly evaluating our answers.
As a little warning: if you are sensitive about profanity, this essay probably won’t be your favourite thing. If it distracts you from the overall message and intention of the essay, then you definitely won’t get the full experience and I would advise that you just pass on this one: which is entirely ok. We all have different capacities for this sort of thing. However, I would encourage/challenge you to look beyond the language itself and ask why the author uses it, rather than slashing a big red X through the word itself and writing off the whole text because of it’s inclusion (not everyone does this, of course). I’m not a huge proponent of scattering fistfuls profanity through texts or speech. To me, moderation is really important for a variety of reasons. However, I’m sometimes willing to critically overlook it or accept its place in the text because it is contributing to a larger overall message that I consider to be more important than reading a bad word or two. Some may disagree: that is ok. I totally respect that opinion.