She wants us to write a narrative essay and she’s sure we’re going to fail. We’re young and we’re undergraduates, half of us have never even attempted to write creatively before this class, certainly not with an instructor such as her. Nonfiction is synonymous with “boredom,” an essay is a mock-academic affair written in stuffy prose with a borrowed, unfamiliar lexicon. An essay has page length requirements. Introduction, Thesis, Supporting Paragraphs, Conclusion; a method drilled into us since middle school, since high school, out of workbooks with names like “Writing Correctly.”
To inspire us she passes out packets of poorly-photocopied pages. Marks like splotched ink abound, words on the margins are barely legible or sliding off the page into nonexistence. She’s giving us excerpts from a 1994 essay about a visit to a Midwestern state fair. The author’s name is three names and I’ve never heard of him before, but the prose is impressive, inventive, funny, and blunt in a way that’s almost mundane.
We spend ten minutes discussing the relative merits of the sentence “August corn in Illinois is as tall as a tall man.” Most everybody declares it ridiculous, and it is, it really is, but it’s also charming and I love it. Even better is the description of the horses. They “have tight hides and apple-sized eyes that are set on the sides of their heads, like fish… The horses' faces are long and somehow suggestive of coffins.” I’m strangely excited by the notion that anyone would need to be told what a horse looks like. It’s ingenious. In a small way, this grainy five-page excerpt is one of those artifacts a young writer encounters that reminds her just how limitless and varied are the avenues for creating good writing. It is rather like seeing a remarkably new human face in a crowd and thinking “I didn’t know a person could look like that.”
The essay is “Ticket to the Fair.” The author is David Foster Wallace. As of this particular moment it’s been just shy a year since he hung himself. I start hearing his name spoken by classmates. I don’t think she ever tells us that he’s dead.
Mom is skeptical as hell. She thinks Postmodern Fiction sounds just awful, and can’t fathom how a class centered on contemporary authors can have a reading list eight books deep without a single woman’s name included. In fact, Wallace briefly mentions this phenomenon in his 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” an essay I don’t read until much later. It seems that postmodern fiction, like Prog Rock before it, is an artistic genre whose alluring qualities don’t quite draw in females; at least not as its authors (1). Sorry mom. I take the class.
Midsemester we turn our postmodern gaze to DFW’s Infinite Jest. I’ve heard whispers of this one in the corridors, seen grim-bearded strangers lug it around to the most obscure corners of local coffeehouses. To call it a “book” is a laughable understatement. Infinite Jest is a tome, an enchiridion; it is a labyrinthine tower to the heavens. I dive in but quickly become utterly lost. In terms of story, Infinite Jest takes place both in a tennis academy atop a hill and a rehabilitation clinic at the hill’s base. It is set in a dismal hypercorporate near-future in which time itself is indicated no longer by numbers but by corporate branding: “Whopper” and “Depend Adult Diapers” rather than 2020, 2021. Infinite Jest is a masterfully crafted tangle of interwoven narratives, endnotes (2), and wholly invented filmography, and every page I read brings me closer to frustrated self-loathing, closer to dozing off into a troubled sleep. I make it to page 333 of 1079 and give up. Fuck Infinite Jest, and fuck David Foster Wallace.
Professor Brooks Landon informs us that Wallace is all about sincerity. Wallace himself disapproves of certain postmodern fiction, particularly the fiction of Mark Leyner. He says it is overly hip, pop-culture obsessed, insincere. As a class we read Leyner’s Et Tu, Babe? Leyner’s novel may be hip but it’s also fun and genuinely hilarious. Is that such a shameful thing? I decide that what Infinite Jest lacks is a certain human element, emotional and passionate. What it lacks is warmth. It is cerebral and cold. As if it were birthed like Athena not out of nurturing loins but painfully, in one molten effusive burst, straight from the old god’s brain.
I never return to Infinite Jest, nor do I venture to read any of Wallace’s other fiction. But that’s not the end of things.
Essays, it turns out, are art. An essay is not only a unit of currency in the economics of academia, words on a page in exchange for a grade. A proper essay is to be held aloft alongside short fiction. A proper essay can be just as playful and poetic, just as boldly lyrical. There is a directness to argumentative essay I find particularly attractive: the author may write exactly what she means without being criticized for preaching; for the preaching is precisely the point. What luck, a new thing to love.
In factory-fresh cushioned swivel chairs, in a seminar room whose blinds and projection screen are manipulated by unseen mechanisms and activated by the push of a button on the wall, I sit across from a young woman of subtle talents and even subtler physical presence. I’ve found my voice and take the floor too often, she says comparatively very little. The story she submits is tragic and deeply personal, a young mother contends with the sudden death of her husband. Its narrative structure, centered on Jewish burial rites, strikes me as slightly gimmicky, but the story is unusually tactile and sensuous. Later, we discuss essays.
“Have you read any David Foster Wallace?” she says.
I’ve never read John Updike, nor have I heard much about him besides that he is no great lover of women, but David Foster Wallace’s “Certainly the End of Something
or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” a response to Updike’s novel Toward the End of Time
, grabs hold of me as if I had personal stake in the matter. Wallace, with amusing coolheadedness, separates Updike’s literary talent from his repulsively pervasive self-love, the latter of which has apparently reached tipping point in this particular novel. And the final line is so shockingly funny it seems the whole nine-page review is a brilliant setup to the most satisfying of jokes. So, I’m a fan.
I revisit “Ticket to the Fair.” I struggle with “Consider the Lobster.” I Tackle “E Unibus Plurum,” and finally understand just what literary sincerity is all about (3). But what really seals the deal is the discovery of a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005, since published online and in print and occasionally given the title “This is Water.” (4) In “This is Water,” Wallace speaks out against a universal phenomenon of human existence, one that has been troubling me immensely: the fundamental selfishness that stems from experiencing one single life (5). He argues, “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.” Facing off against that selfishness “involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
So, I fall in love. Present
Have you ever been to Las Vegas? I went once, with a group of friends, driving down from the northeast on highway 15 past black hills and seas of dust, past orange-tinted sagebrush voids, past prisons and testing sites and honest-to-god tumbleweeds into new suburban developments glimmering and slick with a moneyed sheen, into that city of façades of which I’m sure far too much has already been said. It was a Tuesday night; we burned through cigarettes and imbibed and made poor choices and conducted endless transactions and had a damn good time, and in the morning with empty wallets and brains smoldering like bonfire leftovers we quit the city. You know how Las Vegas works. Once was enough, for me.
Quivering with neglect in the recesses of my hard drive is a short story that I wrote in the aftermath of the experience. Protagonist James Ashpool proclaims early on that to enjoy oneself in Las Vegas, “There was an illusion to which one had to subscribe. Once this was done, everything, anything, was understandable.” I held that view then and I hold it now. Because there really is a whole hell of a lot one has to ignore in order to have a damn good time. One must ignore the city’s general ugliness, its gaudiness — particularly noticeable after dark — its falseness. Ignore the fact that everything fun costs money, and too much of it. Ignore the faces of immigrant men whose livelihood is earned passing out pornographic escort-service cards to disinterested tourists on the street, ignore the fact that the longer the night wears on, you and your dearest friends become more and more the very rowdy loudmouthed obnoxious group of young men you so typically loathe. Ignore it, or embrace it as part of the experience.
David Foster Wallace was not one to embrace or ignore the troubling details, particularly where travel and vacations were concerned. One need only read through “Consider the Lobster
,” originally published in August 2004 by Gourmet
magazine to see just how obsessively diverted by the more troubling aspects of life he could be. What begins as a typical magazine article6 about a trip to the 56th annual Maine Lobster Festival quickly falls away to a rather intensive questioning of the morality of boiling lobsters alive, (7) of meat industry practices in general, and ultimately of what it means to consider oneself a gourmet. But before the façade of travel writing fades completely, Wallace makes it entirely clear that he did not enjoy himself at the festival. He writes: “Be apprised, though, that the Main Eating Tent’s suppers come in Styrofoam trays, and the soft drinks are iceless and flat, and the coffee is convenience-store coffee in yet more Styrofoam…” and this list of minor grievances extends to a length that is rather comical. But the conclusion he reaches is almost alarming in its seriousness: “What the Maine Lobster Festival really is is a midlevel county fair with a culinary hook… and shares with these venues the core paradox of all teeming commercial demotic events: It’s not for everyone.”
But that isn’t the whole of it. That final phrase ends with a subscript number hanging off like dire fruit, a number directing us to the bottom of the page, to the dreaded Footnote Six. Footnote Six is, to me, so heartbreaking and painfully honest that it needs be addressed. Here it is, quoted in entirety:
“In truth, there’s a great deal to be said about the differences between working-class Rockland and the heavily populist flavor of its Festival versus comfortable and elitist Camden with its expensive view and shops given entirely over to $200 sweaters and great rows of Victorian homes converted to upscale B&Bs. And about these differences as two sides of the great coin that is U.S. tourism. Very little of which will be said here, except to amplify the above-mentioned paradox and to reveal your assigned correspondent’s own preferences. I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud hot crowded tourist venues in order to sample a “local flavor” that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists. This may (as my Festival companions keep pointing out) all be a matter of personality and hardwired taste: The fact that I just do not like tourist venues means that I’ll never understand their appeal and so am probably not the one to talk about it (the supposed appeal). But, since this note will almost surely not survive magazine-editing anyway, here goes:
As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part that my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”
I’ll go ahead and dismiss the final phrase as a bit of morbidly hyperbolic linguistic theatricality. But how to proceed? Is it possible that, in terms of mass intranational tourism, there is any virgin territory yet to be spoiled? I don’t believe so. I mention Las Vegas because it stands as the ultimate example of mass tourism. The city exists for consumption and transaction, the city is in this sense “realer” with me there than it could ever be without me. In fact, in “Big Red Son,” Wallace refers to Las Vegas as “the least pretentious city in America,” “a city that pretends to be nothing but what it is, an enormous machine of exchange.” But the same goes for the Maine Lobster Festival: it is not meant to be an example or even a mockery of “unspoiled” Maine culture, it is meant to attract a large amount of people to a certain place for the consumption of lobster and other products, and for the sheer experience of being among a mass amount of people. The same goes for Milwaukee’s Summerfest, for Lollapalooza, for Pitchfork, for any music festival. If mass tourism is a form of doom, then to these events and venues I insist that it is a doom of their own design. And perhaps I give too much credit to strangers, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an attendee at the Maine Lobster Festival who felt they were experiencing the “true” Maine.
But am I so sure? Don’t I also, when visiting a locale I don’t call home, occasionally suffer from intimations that here is a place I don’t belong? And what of international travel, a realm in which American travelers in particular are often seen as imposters, as fat fiscal conquistadors; is it then that we really are the swarm of flies?
What ultimately fascinates me about Footnote Six, besides of course my own contradictory response to it (a resigned and unspoken agreement with him, a sighing belief that he may just be right, contrasted with countless protestations to the contrary) is Wallace’s willingness to admit that it all might just be him. And “Consider the Lobster” isn’t the first time he invokes this notion. “Ticket to the Fair” contains several references to the author’s “neurological makeup,” [sic]. For example, Wallace’s neurologic makeup renders him “extremely sensitive: carsick, airsick, heightsick.” These unchanging, luck-of-the-draw biological factors are, Wallace suggests, what render him unfit to enjoy the carnival rides and ultimately unfit to enjoy the Illinois State fair in its entirety.
But for Wallace, neurologic makeup went far deeper than Woody Allen-style nebbish neuroses. His neurologic makeup had fatal consequences; he suffered for much of his life from depression, which ultimately became so severe that it led to his suicide. It’s difficult for me to look at certain portions of his writing without wondering whether certain facts and truths he proposes to the reader are not simply constructions of his unhappiness. He had a miraculous brain, he was capable of real original thought and striking insight, his writing talents were protean yet consistently astounding, and still his was a brain I’m not sure I’d wish on anyone.
This question of truth or perception struck me the most while reading “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
,” a 97-page, 137-footnote goliath essay about a week spent aboard Celebrity Cruise Line’s MV Zenith, a megaship Wallace immediately renames the MV Nadir (8). Wallace hasn’t even hopped the plane to Florida before he informs the reader that “there is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad… on board the Nadir — especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased — I felt despair.” Despair is subsequently defined as “a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death.” Is this despair, this unbearable sadness, a fact of cruise ship travel? Or is it merely one man’s experience?
Consider that Wallace admits to a lifelong equation of the ocean with death, and that because of its overwhelming corrosive saltiness he proclaims it “an enormous primordial engine of death and decay.” Consider further that Wallace has not quite chosen to climb aboard the Nadir so much as he has accepted an offer from Harper’s magazine (“They are sort of disingenuous, I believe, these magazine people”) so that while the other passengers are on a real vacation he’s there as a professional Observer and Experiencer (9). Consider ultimately that he is here on this ship more or less completely alone, something very few of the passengers have chosen to do.
I don’t mean to suggest that what follows are 96 pages of endless suffering and emotional pain; the MV Nadir is by no means the City of Dis. Wallace befriends his dinner companions, plays chess and ping-pong, eats extraordinarily well-prepared meals and drinks ambrosial coffee, and every night on board feels “rocked to sleep, with the windows’ spume a gentle shushing, the engines’ throb a mother’s pulse.” But he also obsessively reads through Celebrity’s advertising materials and catalogues, parsing the coded messages and projected fantasies; Wallace spends much of his cruise trying to figure out what this cruise is all about.
An early thesis is that because day-to-day suffering is caused by a sense that we’ve made some mistake-that we chose incorrectly and now all the other options are closed to us forever-a luxury cruise mitigates that suffering by making sure our sense of choice is “removed from the equation… The ads promise that you will be able – finally, for once – truly to relax and have a good time, because you will have no choice but to have a good time.” All this comes to a head in a brilliantly unsettling scene while the MV Nadir is at port in Cozumel. Wallace watches his American shipmates disembark to take photographs and buy overpriced tchotchkes , upset at the “bovine” quality of his countrymen and further upset that he, observing from aboard the ship, exposes in himself a “100% upscale American” hyperawareness of “how I appear to others.” And when a new luxury megaship pulls into the Cozumel pier, the MV Dreamward, Wallace begins to “feel a covetous and almost prurient envy” of the new ship. This is the rock upon which his earlier thesis is smashed. The “big lie” of the whole thing is that wanting can ever be totally silenced or sated. “In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering,” Wallace concludes, “the Insatiable Infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction.”
Here again is my conflicted response. Here again is my tacit agreement, my volley of protestations.
The title of this essay comes from a sentence in “A Supposedly Fun Thing” I find to be the loveliest and most painful of all: “And that time I was floating, too, and the fluid was salty, and warm but not too-, and if I was conscious at all I’m sure I felt dreadless, and was having a really good time, and would have sent postcards to everyone wishing they were here.” The joke, of course, is that the luxury cruise should have taken away his choices, his regrets, his consciousness, his dread. One week aboard Celebrity Cruise Line’s MV Zenith did none of these things.
Look: In the end I don’t care whether Wallace’s insights are born out of biased perceptions or out of clear-eyed visions of Truth (some days I doubt there could ever even be a Truth), whether there really is
an unbearable sadness to mass-market Luxury cruises or whether it’s just the tragic neurological makeup of a young man alone in that “primordial engine of death and decay,” aboard a ship that’s too big, too opulent for its own good. I don’t care because the essay is still here, all 97 pages and 137 footnotes of it, asking to be considered.
Last year New York Times Magazine
published a piece by Maud Newton, titled “Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace
,” in which Maud suggests that Wallace’s “dizzying mix of arguments and asides, of reportage and personal anecdotes, of high diction (“pleonasm”), childlike speech (“plus, worse”), slacker lingo (“totally hosed”) and legalese” as well as his “recursive self-second-guessing “ have driven a generation of young writers and bloggers to be equally indirect, noncommittal in their arguments, and to ultimately ruin modern intellectual debate by obscuring it “behind a veneer of folksiness and sincerity and is characterized by an unwillingness to be pinned down.” Maud claims the ultimate purpose for these evasions employed by Wallace and now utilized by the whole young breed of writers is a simple, unambiguous “craving for admiration and approval.”
It’s a reasonable argument, and useful for those of us who respect that even our heroes come heavily laden with flaws. And probably is true that some of Wallace’s linguistic tricks get in the way of what could be direct, unambiguous arguments. But I emphatically reject the claim that Wallace ever wrote as he did for the sake of “admiration and approval.” And I confess I don’t read as many blogs as perhaps I should, but it seems to me that what young internet writers need is far more self-doubt. There is plenty of directness in internet debate, and I don’t always think it’s for the best. Consider the Lobster
ends without any satisfying conclusion. Wallace admits that in the realms of animal rights and culinary ethics, “I am also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused.” He asks of those who eat meat happily and thoughtlessly, “is their refusal to think about any of this a product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it?” But rather than driving the point home, rather than condemning the uncritical thinkers, Wallace admits “it’s probably best to stop the public discussion right here. There are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other.” Maud would argue this is exactly the sort of dancing around the issue one ought to, with all one’s powers, avoid. But I ask: is it a crime for a writer to be conflicted, to ask questions for which one has yet to figure out the answer, to invite the reader to join in the conversation and ultimately to work things out for themselves?