02
Nov
10

a supposedly fun think I’ll never do again

That is the title of the book I’m reading (and the essay that this post is about) by David Foster Wallace. I think that he gets name dropped a lot as a hip and excellent writer that anyone who is anyone should have read, so that is not my intention by mentioning him here. I want to try, and this post and maybe a few others, to engage critically with him as a serious writer.

First things first. I’m reading his essay about taking a 7 day cruise in the Caribbean. Second, I think it is an excellent piece of writing. Third, I think he is an excellent writer more generally.

With that out of the way, I can try to dig at his style a little bit. The thing that shocks me most of all is that his writing is, for all its craziness, colloquial style, and digressionness, it is very LITERAL. His descriptions almost never take the form of “The x was like a y” or “The x y-ed as if it were a z.” Instead of describing the bright blue of the water on his cruise by comparing it, lamely, to the sky or some other blue object, he says this “I have learned that there are actually intensities of blue beyond very very bright, blue.” Nice.

On his cruise, he relentlessly lampoons everyone around him, and he’s hilariously funny while doing it. Also, he gets unbelievably close to my own views about everything he talks about. I’m not sure if that means I’m like him or that he has the capacity to make his writing like the person reading it. Either way, he talks about the types of things that make him feel despair, and his eye for the abnormal and the eccentric, as well as his mild agoraphobia, something I definitely share. He also speaks in an interesting way about indulgence, self-indulgence, and self-conscious self-indulgence. He’s from the midwest like me and he takes a kind of educated but at the same time down-home perspective on everything. He notices the waiters working hard and makes friends with them. He is concerned about polite he is to them.

And there it is. Politeness. It shows up sooner or later in every southerner or midwesterner (and other people too, but I’m generalizing for the sake of making a point). Some claim it is just a patina of faux-kindness, but as I’ve argued many times in this blog, it points to something deeper, just as our opposable thumbs point back to our chaotic but dramatic evolutionary past, or how our appendixes point to the eventual obsolescence of all things.

Anyway, my one criticism of this essay, and it’s not really a criticism since Wallace (is it Wallace or Foster-Wallace, or just Foster Wallace? Why have three names?) doesn’t dwell superficially on these topics, is that its SO EASY to write articles savaging the activities of large numbers of people. I share Wallace’s belief in the utter buffoonery of the average, not the average person, but the average activity and the type of people that will intersect with it. At heart, Wallace thinks cruises are for lunatics, and I agree, but he ignores the fact that he is on the cruise (and he’s undoubtedly a lunatic too, but for other more interesting reasons) and so it may well be that other people have interesting reasons for being there as well.

The high class people strutting about in polo shirts and boat shoes while getting drunk during the day, yea, easy targets. Rampant consumerism and imperial tourism (Wallace talks about how one woman said to him that “In these countries (Caribbean countries) the dollar is like a UFO, the people worship it when it lands.”) are easy to spear too. The question though is what about the rest of the people. What does it mean to work on a cruise and what does the ocean signify in the human psyche. Wallace investigates labor and existential crises on the cruise too and his observations are priceless.

For now, I’ll say that this is probably one of the best essays I’ve ever read and I’m really glad that its something like sixty pages, but maybe later I’ll respond even more thoroughly to it.

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1 Response to “a supposedly fun think I’ll never do again”



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