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David Foster Wallace is the greatest American writer of the last fifty years. His contemporaries, such as Jonathan Franzen or Bret Easton Ellis, pale in comparison. His magnum opus "Infinite Jest" is like 5 novels in one, each a different style, story and writing technique. He took his own life, as he struggled without the medications that kept him from depression, but at the same time, destroyed his talent. A measure of his greatness is the many books written about him and his life.
"A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" is his essay about his vacation on a Cruise Ship. But like everything else DFW writes, the story is only a milieu for him to reflect on the American condition, and something deeper- the very meaning of life. If you have read his commencement speech "This is Water," you will recognize the same fears, concerns, observations and style.
DFW writes sentences with such genius, and has such an extensive vocabulary, that reading him can be exhausting.1 I often read his longest sentences, looking for grammatical errors, and it is impossible! The only writer with a vocabulary like his is Nabakov.
But where DFW really soars is when he discusses the human condition. He can do it in a brutally descriptive way, showing his brilliance without being unlikable:
"I have seen fuchsia pantsuits and menstrual-pink sportcoats and maroon-and-purple warm-ups and white loafers worn without socks."
He is luring us in, thinking we are going on a Cruise with a clever joker, with pithy snark about our silly fellow passengers. This trip is going to be a lot of fun.
But this is only a trap he is setting for us. If all he wanted to do was write about how goofy people dress and act on a Cruise that would not even be worthy of his genius. No, he has bigger plans.
Instead, the central theme of this work is the depressing, predictable manner in which we will NEVER be satisfied by attaining more goods and services. This parallels his theme of Americans requiring constant entertainment, which he mines so deeply in "Infinite Jest." He writes:
"I mean, if pampering and radical kindness don't seem motivated by strong affection and thus don't somehow affirm one or help assure one that one is not, finally, a dork, of what final and significant value is all this indulgence and cleaning?"
He struggles viscerally with his preternatural intelligence, marveling at the doe-eyed patrons that are able to enjoy this faux affection delivered by the vapid staff. His genius is his burden.
But finally, he explains the perpetual dissatisfaction all Americans suffer from, as they attain material possessions and progress further with career, bigger houses, and more channels of s*** on television. Some call it adaption, or the luxury effect. This is the BIG IDEA of this essay:
"I am suffering from (...) this envy of another ship, and still it's painful. It's also representative of a psychological syndrome that I notice has gotten steadily worse as the Cruise wears on, a mental list of dissatisfactions and grievances that started picayune but has quickly become nearly despair-grade."
"...more precisely that ur-American part of me that craves and responds to pampering and passive pleasure: the Dissatisfied Infant part of me, the part that always and indiscriminately WANTS."
"...the promise to sate the part of me that always and only WANTS - is the central fantasy the (Cruise) brochure is selling."
"...the real fantasy here isn't that this promise will be kept, but that such a promise is keepable at all. This is a big one, this lie."
"But the Infantile part of me is insatiable. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the Insatiable Infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction."
"...part of me realizes that I haven't washed a dish or tapped my foot in line behind somebody with multiple coupons at a supermarket checkout in a week; and yet instead of feeling refreshed and renewed I'm anticipating how stressful and demanding and unpleasurable regular landlocked adult life is going to be now that even just the premature removal of a towel by a sepulchral crewman seems like an assault on my basic rights..."
Mercifully, after making us painfully aware of the Insatiable Infant inside us, he ends the story on a slightly positive note:
"...subsequent reentry into the adult demands of landlocked real-world life wasn't nearly as bad as a week of Absolutely Nothing had led me to fear."
1Now, DFW does have a few "tics" or quirks that grate on some people:
1. He loves to use abbreviations constantly, such as w/r/t (With Respect To)
2. He overuses the word "like" in the beginning of sentences
3. His best sentences run a paragraph long
4. He likes to use obscure words, sometimes the same one often, which becomes distracting (lapis lazuli, in this case)
5. He constantly uses footnotes, in order to not break up the rhythm of the writing, but it does anyway because a curious reader will go back and look at the footnote before reading further. The footnotes have some of the best stuff. It's hard to imagine any editor having the balls or intellectual firepower to get in a discussion with him on the merits of simply including the material from the footnotes with the rest of the prose, but I sure wish one would have.