Kicking a dead writer isn’t a particularly classy way to go; after all, he can’t kick back. This isn’t egregious though (at least I hope it isn’t). When I read this particular essay by this particular dead writer, it – besides pissing me off and making me really sad – turned on all the lights, gave me a handle on my discomfort with a whole bunch of writers a little bit older than me and a lot more successful. The essay is called ‘Shipping Out: on the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise.’ David Foster Wallace wrote it.
In 1995 Harper’s Magazine sent David Foster Wallace on a ‘megaship’ luxury cruise. You have to appreciate the hook: young novelist with straight-razor wit encounters fat, ignorant Americans and starts carving blubber, hilarity sure to follow. It didn’t hurt Wallace that he’d done similar stories for Harpers’s before and was about to publish a chapbook called Infinite Jest. Harper’s was right about the humor but maybe they missed a couple of things.
The piece opens in a mock heroic voice: ‘I have seen a lot of really big white ships. I have seen schools of little fishes with fins that glow. […] I know the difference between straight bingo and Prize-O.’). It’s an invocatory ‘I’, a drumming cadence, witness’s statement to a jury turned to comic effect, as if to say that we live in a world without heroes, or at least that a mega cruise isn’t the place to find one – in case we didn’t know that already. It isn’t until page three though, that the strangeness kicks in, the moment when you realize that all is not sunny in the mega-cruise Caribbean. DFW mentions a kid, sixteen, who ‘did a half gainer’ off the upper deck on another megaship cruise. It wasn’t just adolescent angst that made the kid jump though. No, according to DFW it was something else, some malaise inherent in the cruise itself, something ‘no news story could cover.’ His experiences on the cruise lead DFW to believe that he has penetrated the darkness beyond the news.
So what is DFW’s insidious killer, the asp in his expense-account Eden? ‘Pampered to Death’ is the title of the section that highlights the upper deck leap and DFW claims that there is a horror at the center of the big white ships: ‘…the ultimate American fantasy vacation involves being plunked down in an enormous primordial stew of death and decay.’ (He’s talking about the ocean). The word DFW uses for this malaise is ‘despair’, despair at the fact of ‘absolutely nothing.’ Not only does DFW witness the despair, he experiences it. Eventually, jumping off the deck becomes as attractive to him as it was to the teenager.
Over ten thousand plus words, DFW chronicles those aspects of the cruise that drive him toward suicide. These include the fascist inclinations of the Greek captain, the sadism of the cruise magician, the stupidity of the passengers, and the suffering of the lower-ranking crew members. DFW aims for laughs in all this and he finds them: fellow passengers catch most of rounds. We learn that Americans are fat, that their menfolk like to play golf, that the bodies of the middle-aged are unlovely and should probably eschew bikinis and Speedos. Rarely do these the victims of DFW’s intellectual drive-bys rise to the level of the fully human. They exist only as lists of physical shortcomings, bad hobby choices, or fashion atrocities. For these other passengers on the 7NC Luxury Cruise, what DFW refers to as ‘hard play’ ‘activities, festivities, gaieties, song,’ keeps their fear of death at bay, renders them infantile with pleasure; DFW however, is the infant who will not be pleased, who squalls, who won’t fool himself and ‘hard play’ the game. Typically, DFW is proud that he didn’t bring a video camera. ‘I’m not like them!’ he wants us to know. As with much of the literary writing of his generation, DFW’s tone combines snark and sarcasm (let’s call it ‘snark-casm’.).
The distinguishing feature of DFW’s snarkcasm is how distant it is from his targets, so distant you could measure it in light years. He barely interacts with anyone on the cruise, and his putdowns remain broad and indistinct. In fact, his isolation on this cruise is the outstanding feature. We’re seven pages into the article before individual passengers are introduced (or culled for butchering). The only people DFW seems to get to know at all are his dining-room tablemates, of whom he writes: ‘I like all of my tablemates a lot…’ Mostly, it seems, because they laugh at his jokes – although the way they laugh terrifies DFW. One of the people he likes best is Trudy. ‘Trudy…looks – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – rather like Jackie Gleason in drag…’ DFW tells us that her laugh is so vulgar that it can cause heart attacks. It’s a good thing DFW likes her, or he might have been really mean (a typical DFW strategy is to write ‘I really like him/her but…’ as we’ll see later). The one tablemate he doesn’t like, eighteen year-old Mona, gets both barrels: she’s too tall, she has the face of a corrupt doll, she complains too much, she isn’t grateful for the money her parents give her, she lies about her birthday to get free cake, and she doesn’t know the difference between Mussolini and Maserati. Mona seems like a typical spoiled teen but she becomes DFW’s latrine. For DFW, Mona is the human embodiment of the emptiness at the heart of the big-ship experience, as empty as death.
In a very real way these ‘fellow’ passengers aren’t human to the forever distant Wallace. Even their personal tragedies are subjected to the same snarkcasm. The kid who committed suicide ‘did a half-gainer.’ People who are taking the cruise for relief from a death in the family have ‘finally buried’ someone. This inability to empathize is nearly autistic in its imponderability. You can make the argument that sardonic distance is DFW’s way of showing how middle-class American leisure has become an ‘air-conditioned nightmare’ that robs us of individuality and courage. Of course, this contempt tells us as much about Wallace as it does about his subjects. Wallace has an equally distant relationship with the ship’s crew. He hates and fears the bosses, and he has a puzzled admiration for the workers, with whom he can’t communicate. In each case, distance remains the defining feature of all his interactions. DFW claims to talk to people yet no other voice even registers, no personality, nothing except the crudest caricature.
To be fair, DFW doesn’t let himself off the hook: he’s a self-styled uber-nerd, the kid who used to ‘memorize shark-fatality data’, who can’t shoot skeet targets without endangering onlookers, who embroiders his text with the now-famous footnotes (for the book version of the essay, DFW added over a hundred new footnotes). Who spends a lot of time flushing his hi-tech toilet, then develops an irrational fear that it will ingest him…. There is self-satisfaction in this of course. Nietzsche wasn’t wrong to say: ‘Whoever despises himself still admires himself as one who despises.’ The crew, captain and passengers might think DFW is pathetic but he’s securely insecure in the knowledge that he sees through the charade of their lives. It’s cold comfort, and the tone reminds me of no one so much as that J.D. Salinger mannequin, Holden Caulfield, still railing against ‘phonies’.
DFW’s satire takes on greater precision when he doesn’t have to deal with human being: inanimate objects, while also threatening, are not quite as hellish as les autres and therefore can be examined more closely. DFW is especially witty on the cruise brochure and pages of text are devoted to his interaction wit his cabin, where he seems to spend the majority of his time. There is extensive complaint about the ubiquity of towels and how clean his room is kept. It’s meant to be funny, and it is, in a way, but you start asking yourself: ‘Can’t he find something more interesting to talk about?’
The focus and tone of DFW’s critique marks a major shift in literary journalism. Writers practicing the form in the generation before DFW had equally severe critiques of mainstream American society, but their critiques came from very different places. In typically grandiose fashion, Norman Mailer tried to channel an entire country through his voice, as in his book-length pieces on the presidential conventions of 1968 and the march on the Pentagon. Joan Didion never failed to reveal her fragile psychic state, but she attempted to link it to the disintegration of the mainstream consensus that had nurtured her (her articles appeared in places like the Saturday Evening Post!). Who then, is DFW writing ‘for’ as he writes ‘against’?
Although DFW took some ‘conservative’ positions, his audience is without a doubt liberal America, and a very particular segment of it at that. One defense I’ve heard of DFW’s contempt for the other passengers is that he’s castigating the rich. But it isn’t only the rich who go on those cruises. I know a cosmetologist in Fountain Valley who sells her ova to pay for luxury cruises (perhaps not the best use of her earning but still…). My far from wealthy parents took such a cruise to Alaska. For my mother, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Since her feet and knees are ruined from standing as a nurse for forty years, it was impossible for her to do it any other way (I had firsthand experience of her infirmities when we tried to rough it on a trip to Newfoundland and she could barely hobble along in my wake). Those DFW pisses on are members of the only group that NPR liberalism allows to be despised: white mainstream Americans (in another Harper’s essay, DFW displays typical liberal guilt when he tries to correct a student for writing in ebonics, then realizes that no, he, the teacher, is actually the oppressor).
The main reason for DFW’s NPR-approved contempt is that these other people don’t get it, and seem perfectly content not getting it. They didn’t attend a small northeastern liberal arts college or an Ivy League school, and they, poor things, never learned what culture is. They haven’t been raised in the atmosphere of subtlety and nuance that cloaks a college campus, a particular kind of college campus, that is, one that swaddles the upper-middle classes, the rich, and those who possess what Pierre Bordieu refers to as: ‘cultural capital.’ For NPR liberals, stupidity is the only explanation as to why these hippopotami would vote for Bush, live in the suburbs, watch American Idol (in a non-ironic way). By about page ten page of the article I felt as trapped a DFW did. The adolescent self-regard is mind-numbing. It does in fact lead to despair, but despair for the hell that DFW inflicts on you. To experience the world as he does is suffocating.
The reason for the celebration of DFW has as much to do with how he came to represent a particular segment of Generation X – the Believer, McSweenys, This American Life segment, which has now become institutionalized in bohemian theme parks across the country. Along with writers like Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, DFW became the mirror of a generation – a generation that really, really likes to look in the mirror, snickering all the while, but finding nothing else so pleasing to look at . I call them ‘soft ironists.’ ‘Irony’ because everything is fallen for them; ‘soft’ because it doesn’t really matter anyway. Enthusiasm, for anything, is suspect, although the ‘soft ironists’ descend into sentimental mythologizing, as in Lethem’s superhero book or in Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay. In most these cases it feels like you’re reading the effusions of very smart, extremely insecure children. DFW’s inability to interact with people who don’t have a subscription to the Utne Reader explains why he spends so much time in his cabin playing with the various mechanical utilities.
Like most members of this generation, Wallace is an expert bet-hedger. After brutalizing Frank Conroy’s throwaway prose on a insert he wrote for the cruise line, Wallace tells us in a footnote that Conroy is a really, great, guy, a great guy who understand that he’s a whore. If I was Conroy I’d find this passive-aggressive behavior more insulting than a simple dismissal. What is the great lesson from Conroy’s sell out? Apparently, even writers, even good writers, will take on less than virtuous gigs to make a little extra cash. Yet since DFW’s footnotes mention Conroy’s ‘serious’ work, Conroy is being assured that he’s not being thrown under the bus. After all, DFW tells us that Conroy has written one of the great memoirs of his era. This is what’s known in the business as ‘covering your ass.’ With this defense in place, DFW could run into Conroy at a writer’s conference and not be too uncomfortable.
In April of 1932, Hart Crane, drunk and depressed – for good reason, as he’d just gotten a beating for coming on to a male crew member – jumped off the deck of the S.S. Orizaba into the Caribbean after shouting, ‘Goodbye everybody.’ His body was never recovered. There is an appeal to death in the sea, the warm welcome and slipping away. A friend of mine who has a few suicide attempts under her belt said DFW’s death-wish was the most obvious thing in the world. ‘Well of course that’s why he went,’ she said. ‘You don’t go on a cruise like that to have your joy in life reaffirmed.’ While Harper’s saw it as a great opportunity for humor, DFW saw it as something else entirely. If anything redeems his work, it’s that frustrated sensitivity, always giving in to the snarkcasm, yet always unhappy with his lack of connection to the people he either lionizes or skewers. The footnote mania becomes a desperate attempt to create meaning that he can’t find in the actual experience, a cry for help: ‘Talk to me, before I add another footnote!’ But can you connect to people you either have complete contempt for, fear, or idealize? In this context, DFW resembles Salinger’s most tragic figure, Seymour Glass, whose Florida honeymoon ended in suicide. It may well be that the flipside of this contempt is despair.
It’s only in the last few paragraphs of the essay that DFW returns to the dead boy and to an empathy with him. For DFW, being on the cruise made him want ‘…to die in order to escape the unbearable sadness of knowing I’m small and weak and selfish and going, without doubt, to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.’ As too many biographers fail to understand, it’s dangerous to conflate writing with psychology. But given DFW’s unnecessary death (which I will refrain from calling a ‘half-gainer’), it’s hard not to read ‘Shipping Out’ as a suicide note written a decade in advance. The death he saw in the water may have been the one he was looking for.