“Fun” at Sea: Following David Foster Wallace’s Caribbean Tour

I finished rereading the essay ”

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

” on my last day at sea, in a chair on the fourth deck of the Navigator of the Seas, starboard side, under the bright yellow lifeboats. The waves were blue-black and the setting sun threw a pink glow onto the puffy clouds in the east. The moment the last sliver of sun disappeared, a crew member appeared to shoo everyone inside, because of high winds.

In “A Supposedly Fun Thing…”,

David Foster Wallace

wrote about how a Frank Conroy advertorial “essay” in the cruise company’s brochure sought to construct the experience of being on a cruise in a way that anticipated and supplanted the reader’s own experience. The problem Wallace identified was commerce and the fundamental dishonesty of the transaction; still, it was hard not to notice, as a first-time cruise-ship passenger and a repeat Wallace reader, that Wallace himself had supplanted Conroy as the first-and-last word on the experience at hand. There was the cleaning crew endlessly tending the stairways, as promised; there was the “dreamy” sensation of the brain quietly adjusting to the rolling and pitching as one walked. (It felt to me more like being always slightly drunk, with a wooziness and a narrowing of mental focus.) There was the small but powerful shower nozzle and the violent vacuum toilet. There was the “canyon of shadow” on the Cozumel pier between side-by-side megaliners. I walked through our version of that canyon before I had reread that passage, but when I got to that part, there it was, as it had been. Wallace got there first.

The existential despair, though—well, for all the generosity and bravery with which Wallace sought in his work to wrestle with despair, his engagement with the subject of despair was evidently not a thing to go generalizing from. One should not automatically accept his subjective views as a proxy for one’s own consciousness. That is to say, it’s not really so bad, being on a cruise ship. It’s mostly like a nice seaside hotel, only so close to the seaside that the staff has to make sure you don’t get blown into the waves.

I did feel despair once, when all the waiters had to line up and dance through the dining room to a medley of national anthems and other nationality-themed music, after which they stood on the stairway and sang some Royal Caribbean service theme song. But it was no worse than the feeling of seeing in the Sky Mall catalog, on the flight down, an entry for a product that shines a hot light bulb onto scented wax to produce a scented-candle effect without the fire hazard. Or wandering from one locked-up restaurant to another, on foot on dry land, in the strip malls off Dixie Highway in Fort Lauderdale, trying to find lunch on Thanksgiving Day.

Life has bleak parts. Wallace’s essay is a masterpiece, but it was a bit nonrepresentative of the human experience for Harper’s to have sent him on a cruise ship by himself. Most people go on cruise ships with other people, and that fact informs or defines the whole experience. There was a reason it took me five days onboard to get through rereading a single David Foster Wallace essay; ordinarily, on a cruise ship, it takes considerable effort to be alone.