In our “Why’s this so good?” series, contributors break down a favorite piece of journalistic storytelling. In honor of this, the season of Spring Break, three great reads in first-person major, on excursions tinged with existentialism. Megan Garber, Paul Kix and Brent McDonald revisit an ocean voyage, a music festival and a county fair.
Megan Garber, a Nieman Lab alum who now writes for The Atlantic, chose the David Foster Wallace piece “Shipping Out,” in which Wallace, on behalf of Harper’s, famously applies his acute observational powers to the experience of taking a cruise. Garber writes:
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.
Brent McDonald, the Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times’ video unit, also chose a Wallace piece, “A Ticket to the Fair,” in which Wallace went home to Central Illinois to cover a county fair for a 1994 issue of Harper’s. McDonald writes:
The “fun” here is not so much what happens on the press tour or on carnie rides or at livestock shows, but rather how our narrator internalizes each situation. His downstate subjects accept a certain amount of discomfort for the sake of genuine excitement. They recover, ignore, laugh, brush off. Our narrator, on the other hand, has a harder time. Wallace flees, he frets, his stomach turns. Episode after dramatic episode — it’s a bit like channel surfing, the way he flits from one scene to another — causes him distress and alarm. Call it pandering to readers’ hunger for suffering, but his fragility adds a certain white-knuckled element to an otherwise ho-hum affair.
Paul Kix, an editor at ESPN The Magazine, went with John Jeremiah Sullivan‘s celebrated “Upon This Rock,” in which Sullivan, on assignment for GQ, rents an RV and camps out at the nation’s largest Christian-rock concert. Here’s Kix:
The employee who rings up the 29-footer is a woman named Debbie. “She was a lot to love,” Sullivan writes, “with a face as sweet as birthday cake beneath spray-hardened bangs.” (Do you not immediately know this woman?) Meanwhile, the inside of the RV, “smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun.” Outside, a man named Jack helps Sullivan inspect everything else:
We toured the outskirts of my soon-to-be mausoleum. It took time. Every single thing Jack said, somehow, was the only thing I’d need to remember. White water, gray water, black water (drinking, showering, le devoir). Here’s your this, never ever that. Grumbling about “weekend warriors.” I couldn’t listen, because listening would mean accepting it as real, though his casual mention of the vast blind spot in the passenger-side mirror squeaked through, as did his description of the “extra two feet on each side”—the bulge of my living quarters—which I wouldn’t be able to see but would want to “be conscious of” out there. Debbie followed us with a video camera, for insurance purposes. I saw my loved ones gathered in a mahogany-paneled room to watch this footage; them being forced to hear me say, “What if I never use the toilet—do I still have to switch on the water?”
It is so much fun to read a John Jeremiah Sullivan story.
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