For seven days and seven nights in mid-March of 1995, David Foster Wallace took a cruise.
He did not have a very good time.
The results of the voyage are recorded in “Shipping Out,” an extended essay, framed playfully as an ad for a cruise ship, that ran in Harper’s in early 1996. (It was later re-titled “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and set as the anchor to Wallace’s 1998 essay collection of the same name.)
What makes “Shipping Out” such a fantastic specimen of literary journalism is how insistently un-literary it is. It is not delicate; it is not subtle. Wallace, given his remarkable talents, could easily have Shown Not Told and Onion-Peeled and Sublimated his way through the story, suggesting, through the intricacy of his diction and the elasticity of his prose, all the little ironies and oddities that a Seven-Night Caribbean Cruise (line: Celebrity; class: Luxury) might convey. He could have made the cruise a metaphor – for death, for life, for capitalism, for colonialism, for America – and called it a day. (Or seven.)
Had “Shipping Out” been written by someone else – had it been written, actually, by anyone else – the result would probably have been a perfectly lovely magazine essay embodying the kind of rhetorical doubling that perfectly lovely magazine essays tend to strive for: on the one hand a travelogue with a transformative narrative arc and appropriately Dickensian details…and on the other a cultural critique of the m.v. Zenith, its curiosities, its context, and the various Global Phenomena it represents: economic entitlement, imperative leisure, people who use “cruise” as a verb.
But Wallace isn’t just a writer. He is a philosopher with a writer’s imagination. And “Shipping Out,” despite its lyricism (“I have felt the full, clothy weight of a subtropical sky”), is an argument whose poetry and provocations orbit around a single point: “There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad.” A thesis Wallace will prove through taxonomic considerations of ship-borne sorrows, through vignettes conveying both humanity and the absence of it, through rhythmic repetitions of the word “despair,” through inventories of assorted atrocities that have, in the topsy-turvy moral terrain of the Seven-Night Caribbean Cruise, adopted the guise of Mandatory Fun.
These indictments will all be incredibly un-subtle. Wallace rechristens the Zenith the Nadir, which name it will maintain for the remainder of the voyage’s 18,000 words.
“Shipping Out” begins with a list. “I have now seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue,” its author tells us, the “now” hinting – three words in! – that a Seven-Night Caribbean Cruise comes with certain obligations.
I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled suntan lotion spread over 2,100 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as “Mon” in three different nations. I have seen 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide. I have seen sunsets that look computer-enhanced. I have (very briefly) joined a conga line.
I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the ship’s Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the trapshooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is. I now know the precise mixological difference between a Slippery Nipple and a Fuzzy Navel. I have, in one week, been the object of over 1,500 professional smiles…. I have absorbed the basics of mah-jongg and learned how to secure a life jacket over a tuxedo. I have dickered over trinkets with malnourished children.
I have eaten more and classier food than I’ve ever eaten, and done this during a week when I’ve also learned the difference between “rolling” in heavy seas and “pitching” in heavy seas. I have heard a professional cruise-ship comedian tell folks, without irony, “But seriously.”
He goes on in this way for an entire page-and-a-half, an inventory of experience that is often amusing and occasionally confusing and always, until the end, refusing to stop. And while the nouns-without-verbs approach is often the wrong one – there’s a fine line, after all, between listing and laziness – here, it allows Wallace-the-narrator the freedom of panoramic memory, and Wallace-the-author the ability to mold memory into argument. (“List,” intr. v., arch. ShipSpeak, “to tilt.”)
This is, in other words, narrative without a narrative, its arc propelled by the suggestive spray of bullet points. The items pop; they peal; they pierce. In their tell-don’t-show insistence, they speak to the aggression that simmers beneath the pseudonymous servility of the m.v. Nadir, the struggle between entitlement and indignation that reveals itself gradually, mercilessly, in the buildup of such apparently innocuous announcements as “I have met Cruise Staff with the monikers ‘Mojo Mike,’ ‘Cocopuff,’ and ‘Dave the Bingo Boy.’ ”
Wallace is plunging us, forcefully but (this being Wallace) also charmingly, into the world of the Nadir. In ceding his story, at least at its outset, to a kind of narrative nihilism, he is revealing the essay’s upshot – sadness, emptiness and the causes/manifestations thereof – even before he comes out and, un-subtly, says it. Conga lines notwithstanding, this was not a fun trip. It was actually, for no specific reason and for every big reason, kind of a horrible trip. And right away, as ship leaves shore, Wallace has stretched his Caribbean Cruise to taut implication. We are about to learn what it means to spend seven days and seven nights on an island of floating fun, surrounded by nothing save a sea of very bright blue and 1,500 professional smiles.
“Shipping Out” is, again, framed – and, within its Harper’s setting, designed – as a brochure (“THE FOUR-COLOR BROCHURE”) advertising the Nadir and its assorted delights. On the one hand, this is an extended visual joke at the expense of the ship’s own very real, very earnest, very cringe-worthy marketing document. (“When the curtain comes down after a standing ovation, the talk among your companions turns to, ‘What next?’ Perhaps a visit to the casino or a little dancing in the disco? Maybe a quiet drink in the piano bar or a starlit stroll around the deck? After discussing all your options, everyone agrees: ‘Let’s do it all!’ ”)
The advertorial overlay, though, is more than a frame: It’s also a visual explanation of why the Nadir is, finally, so sad. The brochure, like the Luxury Cruise itself, is not an invitation so much as an exhortation. It requires things of you, the carefree vacationer, the primary among them being that YOU WILL HAVE FUN. It’s persuasion that takes the persuading for granted.
This is advertising (i.e., fantasy-enablement), but with a queerly authoritarian twist. Note the imperative use of the second person and a specificity out of detail that extends even to what you will say (you will say “I couldn’t agree more” and “Let’s do it all!”). You are, here, excused from even the work of constructing the fantasy, because the ads do it for you.
You are excused, in other words, from choice – and thus, finally, from yourself. “The promise is not that you can experience great pleasure but that you will,” Wallace says.
They’ll make certain of it. They’ll micromanage every iota of every pleasure-option so that not even the dreadful corrosive action of your adult consciousness and agency and dread can fuck up your fun. Your troublesome capacities for choice, error, regret, dissatisfaction, and despair will be removed from the equation. You will be able – finally, for once – to relax, the ads promise, because you will have no choice.
Again, the lack of subtlety here is powerful. “You will have no choice” ranks among the most chilling sentences in the English language; Wallace plunges us into it. The advertisement, the embodiment of the Nadir’s ethic of cheery indenture, literally surrounds Wallace’s discussion of the ship’s constraints. The mandatory fun is inescapable.
In the face of all this fun – the Midnight Buffets, the shuffleboard games, the anonymous Towel Boys, the upscale cruise companions – Wallace (inevitably, he suggests) starts to lose it a little bit. Five-star meal after five-star meal, lobster after lobster, make him constantly hungry. Room service taking longer than a few minutes to arrive makes him cranky. Likewise the smudge on the elevator window. Likewise the lack of volume control in hallway speakers. Little indignities are, suddenly, everywhere.
Finally, we get a plot. And it is an anti-arc, a movement toward regression and moral morass. Wallace becomes greedy. He becomes needy. He talks about his tummy. (“The fact that adult Americans tend to associate the word “pamper” with a certain other consumer product,” Wallace points out, “is not an accident.”)
In most stories, plot points are defined by ruptures in normalcy, by frustrations of expectation. In “Shipping Out,” the key moments of dramatic transition play out in fusion, in the blending of expectation and reality. Wallace, once so defiantly detached from the Nadir’s insistent indulgence, succumbs to it. The divisions he’s so carefully constructed through his own objectivity – the human over here, the hedonistic over there – collapse into each other. Need, moralized, feeds on itself, daring him – requiring him – to take one more trip to the Five Star Caravelle Restaurant, to take one more turn at the craps table. The Luxury Cruise converts WANT (Wallace renders it, appropriately, in caps) into not just an impulse, but something worse: an imperative.
But if enjoyment is an ethic, and you’re not having any fun…what then? What happens in a world whose only purpose is desire? A few weeks prior to his own sail, Wallace mentions, a sixteen-year-old boy had done “a half gainer off the upper deck of a Megaship,” killing himself. The incident was ruled a suicide. This is, of course, its own moment of tragic foreshadowing. But it’s also remarkable how perfectly logical the boy’s jump seems in the context of the world Wallace has created – a world in which “the very sun itself seemed preset for our comfort”; in which the Caribbean’s “almost retouched-looking prettiness” looks not beautiful, but “expensive”; in which even the purest of sights carries the weight of synthetic appropriation. A world in which the only choice that seems, finally, fully yours – the only choice that seems fully real – is a leap.
 It’s worth noting here, via shameless-rip-off-of-Wallace’s-trademark-footnote, that Wallace “underwent” (his word) his maritime holiday for the sole purpose of writing about said maritime holiday. He approaches his time aboard the Zenith/Nadir not as a sunscreen-swathed fun-seeker, eager to shed his conscience along with his cares and most of his clothes, but rather as a reluctant, or at least recalcitrant, observer. One whose shipboard baggage includes, instead of the 1995 cruiser’s typical Bermuda-short/flip-flop/fanny-pack trifecta, a journalist’s penchant for skepticism and a novelist’s bias toward Bigness. There is, as such, an element of fatalism animating Wallace’s experience of his Seven-Night Luxury Cruise. An enjoyable cruise would have made for a boring essay. He is, in his way, a colonist.
Megan Garber is an assistant editor at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, where she writes about the future of news.
For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.