Also known as “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” David Foster Wallace’s “Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise,” is a long, absurdly detailed portrait of one of the many morbidly bloated vacation staples in these here United States of America: the five-star luxury cruise. A month ago someone’s tweet led me to this blog post, which led me to this episode of The Simpsons, which references Wallace’s aforementioned 1996 Harper’s essay, which I then placed in my reading queue, saving a PDF of it to my desktop before promising myself I’d eventually get to it. It only took me a few weeks to muster the intestinal fortitude to plow through its roughly 20,000 words, but this past weekend I finally finished. It’s a good read, if not sad, but when it was all over I was left with an unsatisfied itch that really had nothing to do with what I felt about the conclusion of the piece. I just felt like there had to be something more.
So I returned to and re-read the blog post, again chewing on the author’s conclusion that “the main point” of Wallace’s piece “is that cruise vacations are mercilessly inhuman” (I still took away a feeling that Wallace neglected to share at least a few moments of enjoyment that might have softened his point), and read all the post’s comments which are mostly comprised of peanut gallery nitpicking about whether or not the show felt like a Simpsons episode (though due to the suggested deteriorating quality of the program, readers of this particular site often refer to it as Zombie Simpsons). Still hungry (for brains?), a quick Googling for Wallace’s article kept me on the prowl.
The Awl has a piece about how (acclaimed author and a longtime close friend of Wallace) Jonathan Franzen had openly raised issue with how fictitious Wallace’s journalism — particularly “Shipping Out” — might have been. Again, I took to the comments which offer a variety of straying ideas often veering from the pair’s relationship and the accusation itself to discussion surrounding mental illness and suicide (some were surprisingly topical however, including one person who quoted author David Shields in adding, “Anything processed by memory is fiction”). A 1996 Charlie Rose interview segment with Wallace, Franzen, and Mark Leyner referenced by the article’s author added a secondary dimension to the debate (discussion repeatedly returned to that of television’s role in society, with Wallace drawing similarities, in my mind, to the modern-day Internet by commenting on how we recognize that while we’re intently satiated by it, we believe there to be something more), but overall the whole package left me feeling that it’s sort of tasteless to revert back to such conversation without Wallace actually being around to either confirm or deny such a statement. Franzen and Wallace went back many years, had a sordid history (as DFW apparently did with many of those close to him), and it just seems like a cheap shot more than anything; many of the comments on the post explain it better than I can.
The rest of the crop of results I harvested ended up yielding remarkably balanced perspectives: I read both a bubbling and complimentary recap (“What makes ‘Shipping Out’ such a fantastic specimen of literary journalism is how insistently un-literary it is”… Although that led to me daydreaming up a scene of an art gallery where a rather tidy pair is standing together, each looking intently at a well-constructed canvas hung on an otherwise empty wall. “What’s so great about that?” asks the first. “That, right there?” the second replies. “My dear, that’s great simply because it’s not trying to be great.”) as well as a sharp and insightful rebuttal to Wallace’s entire approach (“In most [of] 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.”). Again, more comments, more ideas set to simmer on the backburner.
The entire time I was still not fully understanding though, still taking into account my own belief that I’m probably not smart enough to realize why we’re here, over 16 years later, watching one of the greatest television shows of all time (zombified version or no) pay homage to an article that succeeded because it was able to structure the largely mundane details of life aboard a cruise line in such a way as to please stuffy college professors everywhere: Wallace told us that he was going to reveal how such experiences are sad, explained precisely why such experiences are sad, and wrapped it up by essentially confirming, “Now, wasn’t that sad?” The dueling perspectives and after-the-fact revelation (as well as the lengthy online discussion that surrounded each) helped me gain a deeper understanding for what was both positive and negative about what I’d just read, but even after spending the better part of the day in contemplation there was still something missing from the equation. Then it hit me.
I needed a cookie.
About five years ago I attended a martini party (who says short socks and martinis don’t mix?) and during conversation with one of the well-read, well-dressed, well-respected hosts, he casually boasted of how much he reads every day online (explaining how his reading habits were changing with times) after I gestured to the couple’s rather impressive collection of books. I remember trying to explain that I, too, spent a lot of time online (true) reading (not as true). And in a move of confession that could deal a swift blow to any credibility I might have built to this point, after years of reading others’ praises, and even adding a few of my own opinions, it’s with great weakness that I announce that “Shipping Out” was actually the first long-form piece I’ve ever actually read of David Foster Wallace’s (aside from the Kenyon College commencement address). I’ve watched plenty of online interviews with the guy, but I’m hardly a student of Infinite Jest. The point is, when I was having a hard time deciding whether to continue with the essay I convinced myself that in finishing there would be a reward of some sort. If I do finish and DFW came through with an earth-shattering revelation, I’d be rewarded with the sort of reflection that follows an earth-shattering revelation. If he didn’t, I could still at least brag about how I had actually read the whole thing. I might not be the aging playwright with the pencil-thin mustache and impossibly gorgeous girlfriend, but at least I could try to squeak out some sort of validation in the process.
I’ve often found myself considering the motivation behind a lot of what I do (online at least, although what I do in Real Life hardly makes sense most times either). Take Twitter, for instance, and in particular re-tweeting: sure, it’s passing along someone else’s point, and maybe communicating something hilarious or insightful that you couldn’t voice prior, but it’s also sort of begging others to recognize that you saw something of value, identified it as such, and shared it with the expectation that it would reflect on you accordingly: A RT Gandhi quote is hardly ever just a RT Gandhi quote. Same goes for “Liking” articles online and adding disposable status updates. I mean, how telling of my coolness would it be to toss up a quick note reading, “Wow, just read an interesting essay on how depressing cruise lines are: DFW = truth”? It’d be a tad silly, sure, but it gets the point across: I accomplished something and might have even learned something today. Which I did, I guess. The problem is that despite any reflection on my own, without that validation from others the whole practice felt a bit empty. Empty and kind of sad.
It might not be as bad as I’m making it to seem though. I mean, I’ve actually read quite a few books lately (there I go again…) but haven’t jumped online to say how bored I was by Michael J. Fox or how The Great Gatsby hardly rocked my world. But this was different. Reading DFW felt like it came with a sort of factory wrapped brag cookie to be indulged in after the meal, filling my stomach with the much craved acknowledgment of others, satisfying the validation junkie I’ve become. But it’s not worth it (says the guy dedicating an entire blog post to the idea). Something’s wrong here (says the guy who will plug this blog post on Twitter and Facebook as soon as it’s published).
I have a hard time with social media: I think it can be helpful and I think it can be terrible. But this cycle of putting yourself out there only for the cheap stimulation of someone else saying, “Hey, you exist!” is a tough one. I’d like to think that there’s a place for a lot of the throw-away conversation that exists online, and sometimes there’s even some real good that can slip through the cracks and impact someone’s life. But after all of this — the reading, the searching, the viewing, the contemplating — I’m left wondering what happened to the 1997 me (aside from too many burgers and not enough exercise) who spent countless hours listening to music by himself in his room, without a single thought of calling someone on the phone to tell them how great live Black Sabbath was when listened to in the dark? It just was, and that was good enough. I always thought I had low self-esteem growing up, but looking back I don’t think it was ever low enough to the point where I craved such continual feedback from others, begging onlookers to recognize that such commonplace nonsense as getting a sunburn or reading an essay has simply taken place (Hey, I exist!). I love connecting with people online, but is sitting around with a chat window open all day with the hope that someone (anyone) reaches out to comment on how cool an essay you is read really the point of reading an essay? What’s worse is that I know — even as I look ahead to attempting to snuff out this habit — that the need for validation is one I’m not bound to escape any time soon.