David Foster Wallace - Famous Cruise Essay

| July 12, 2013

David Foster Wallace as depicted on the Simpsons

The definitive cruise essay is long, spellbinding, hilarious and sad

The most famous article about the cruise experience ever written was published in 1994 by Harpers Magazine, written by author David Foster Wallace. It is called "Shipping Out - On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise." The piece is 24 pages of double column small text, the length of a mini-novel, and it explores every facet of the cruise experience at the time. The piece is also the title essay in a folio of works by Wallace published in 1998 called "A Supposedly Really Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again."

Read the essay here: Harper's Magazine

To give you an idea of the fame of this essay, an episode of the Simpsons called "A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again" features a cartoon character look-alike of Foster.

As a cruise virgin who knew next to nothing it is a testament to Wallace's talent that people still cite this 20 year old essay as one of the best ever written about cruising. Wallace captured his cruise experience succinctly, albeit from a decidedly cynical perspective. Still, most of the piece is pertinent today even though it was written 20 years ago.

But most important to me is how the essay is swayed by the fact that Wallace was sailing solo on the Celebrity Zenith in 1994; a time when cruises were much more traditional and destination focused than they are today. Celebrity Cruises, still owned by its founder John Chandris at the time, was singularly renowned for its outstanding cuisine and exquisite service, two points where Wallace was in full agreement.

Setting the Scene

It's important to remember that in 1994 pleasure cruising was still considered unusual and exotic. The television series Love Boat had ended over a decade prior, and only a few million Americans had ever sailed on a cruise. Today, 20 years later, almost 20-million cruises are taken every year. David Foster Wallace was a very talented writer but a complete cruise novice when he got the assignment to write about it for Harpers. He had very little opportunity to prepare; no Internet, few guidebooks, and it appears that he chose to go in knowing as little as possible.

While this approach makes the essay funny and poignant in many ways, it also sad in one essential aspect that I believe needs to be clarified for the record. Wallace failed to note, possibly to even realize, how his point of view was affected by the fact that he was sailing solo on a 1994-version cruise ship. Nowhere does he interview couples to ask how they liked the cruise, for example. In the end, the piece is a definitive description of what novice solo cruisers could expect from a cruise in 1994, but it does not represent the true cruise experience of most people who sail with loved ones and friends on today's much more active and diverse newer cruise ships, and who have realistic expectations about the cruise experience.

But that doesn't mean it isn't a very good read.

The Wallace Experience

Foster took his solo, seven-day cruise in an oceanview (porthole) stateroom. He begins the cruise with anticipation, intrigue and wonder, so as the piece unfolds he goes into incredible detail about every facet of his trip; from the people at the Fort Lauderdale airport to the scene at the pier while waiting to board the ship. Wallace had terrific powers of observation and his descriptions of Americans on vacation are often hilarious, reminiscent of Mark Twain's most popular (non-fiction) book, "Innocents Abroad."

During the course of the cruise he encounters many feelings that are common to young people taking a solo cruise. I know, because I have been in his shoes. However, in Wallace's particular case I think it is important to also note that he suffered from serious depression. At the time of the cruise he was controlling it with a medication called Phenelzine, an MAO inhibitor from the generation of anti-depressant drugs that preceded the far more ubiquitous Prozac-family of serotonin uptake inhibitors.

The Best Parts

He begins with, "I have now seen sucrose beaches … an all red leisure suit with flared lapels … smelled suntan lotion spread over 2,100 tons of hot flesh … been addressed as "mon" in three different nations and jumped a dozen times at the shattering flatulence-of-the-gods-like sound of a ships' horn."

That is just the start of thousands of observations. He soon starts referring to the Hotel Manager as "Mr. Dermatitis," for whom he holds "a potentially lifelong grudge," while he also develops a "searing crush" on his room stewardess Petra. The ship itself, "Zenith" he redubs as "Nadir." He describes the various "7NC" (seven-night Caribbean) cruise niches filled by competing cruise lines as, "Singles, Old People, Theme, Special Interest, Corporate, Party, Family, Mass-Market, Luxury, Absurd Luxury and Grotesque Luxury." He describes the service as "more like a feeling: … that special mix of servility and condescension that's marketed under configurations of the verb "to pamper" as you've "never been pampered before," " to-pamper yourself in our Jacuzzis and saunas;' "Let us pamper you," "Pamper yourself in the warm zephyrs of the Bahamas." The fact that adult Americans tend to associate the word "pamper" with a certain other consumer product is not an accident," he says in reference to the state of cruise marketing at the time.

34-years can be a cynical age, but Wallace reveals his darker side early on as he touches on shipboard suicides and the effect of sea water on the older, non-cruise vessels he sees in ports (correlating rust and decay with the process of aging for humans, a metaphor he then uses for the some of the people he sees on board). He says "Here's the thing: A vacation is a respite from unpleasantness, and since consciousness of death and decay are unpleasant, it may seem weird that the ultimate American fantasy vacation involves being plunked down in an enormous primordial stew of death and decay." A bit of a stretch to equate port facilties with cruise passengers, I think.

Wallace's Transition

After that somewhat dark introduction the essay restarts by describing the Ft Lauderdale airport, waiting to board at the pier, the labyrinth to the gangway, being escorted to his cabin by two female "Aryan" crewmembers Inga and Geli, the elevator ride, and landing in his room where he eats the entire bowl of fresh fruit, lays down on the bed and drums his fingers on his tummy. The cruise begins.

As the epic essay unfolds Wallace reviews every detail of the cruise experience, from his tablemates to the brochure-like editorial printed inside the shipboard guidebook. He mentions the "authoritative nature" of the brochure where they not only promise you will have fun, they mandate it. Foster ingeniously explores the minute details of cruising that we experienced sailors already take for granted.

It is interesting that Wallace never mentions his expectations; he was solely there to record the experience as an uninitiated cruiser with no preconceptions; just to see what happens. But unlike a trip to Disneyworld where specific experiences are waiting for you, a cruise ship is not a theme park (especially back in 1994) but a floating hotel. You do not check into a hotel expecting the staff to keep you amused all day. Foster never seems to realize that finding ways to enjoy the cruise was his own responsibility. Rarely does he even mention reading the schedule of activities, and never mentions plans to leave the ship in a port of call.

So, it is little surprise that before long his fascination turns into feelings of stress and isolation - with no companion Wallace's essay soon devolves into a series of encounters with ship's staff - none of whom bond with him in a significant way - and once again, his frustration and cynicism over this is a perspective only a novice solo cruiser would take. Cruising is an activity designed for couples, families or groups of like-minded people who enjoy spending time together. The cruise ship staff is only there to facilitate the experience, not to define it.

The first telling scene of his psychological devolvement occurs in Cozumel when the Norwegian Cruise Line ship Dreamward pulls up alongside. He writes that he stood there and compared every detail he could see between Dreamward and the ship he was on, and he then writes:

"I start to feel an almost prurient envy of the Dreamward. I imagine it to be cleaner, larger, more lavishly appointed. I imagine the food as even more varied and punctiliously prepared, its casino less depressing, its stage entertainment less cheesy, its (vacuum-powered) toilets less menacing, its pillow mints bigger. The little private balconies in particular seem far superior to a porthole of bank-teller glass, which now seems suddenly chintzy and sad."

(Oddly, we experienced cruisers know he was actually on the better ship at the time.)

He continues….

"I am suffering here from a delusion, and I know it's a delusion, but still it's painful, and representative of a psychological syndrome that I notice has gotten steadily worse as my Luxury Cruise wears on, a mental list of dissatisfactions that started off picayune but has quickly become despair grade. I know that the syndrome's cause is not simply the contempt bred of a week's familiarity with the Nadir at all but rather that American part of me that craves pampering and passive pleasure: the dissatisfied-infant that always and indiscriminately WANTS. Hence, for example, just four days ago I experienced such embarrassment over the perceived self-indulgence of ordering even more gratis food from cabin service that I littered the bed with fake evidence of hard work and missed meals, whereas by last night I find myself looking at my watch in real annoyance after fifteen minutes and wondering where the [email protected]@k is that cabin service guy with the tray already? And by now I notice how the tray's sandwiches are kind of small, and how the wedge of dill pickle always soaks into the starboard crust of the bread, and how the port hallway is too narrow to really let me put the used cabin service tray outside 1009's door at night when I'm done eating, so that the tray sits in the cabin all night and in the morning adulterates the olfactory sterility of 1009 with a smell of rancid horseradish, and how this seems, by the Luxury Cruise's fifth day, deeply dissatisfying."

This rant actually goes on for three more paragraphs, but my point is that Wallace is not denying his source of dissatisfaction - very high personal expectations over truly mundane details. He rightly notes that the cruise lines use "pampering" language to suggest that is the little things in life that matter, and that perfection in every detail of food and service is their goal. But what Wallace gets wrong, like so many other dissatisfied cruisers, is in seeing those minor details as the most important aspects of the cruise. That is not the point of a cruise, it is to let the cruise line to handle these small details so well that you, the customer, can completely forget about them. The idea is to free you from the mundane, not to ensconce you in it.

So Wallace missed the bigger picture. His infatuation with his room stewardess begins with adoration, but it soon turns into suspicion as he spies on her to figure out how she knows when he will be out of the room long enough to clean it. He speculates about spy cameras or other crewmembers watching him and reporting to her. In other words, while he could have just asked her about the instincts she has developed after years on the job, his thoughts have become completely internalized and suspicious.

Unfortunately, this is still a common reaction by cruise passengers. They feel alienated from other people and crewmembers because they don't speak up. They internalize their questions, uncertainties and problems. Wallace's essay is so powerful because he masterfully describes this syndrome, yet at the same time it is flawed for the same reason, because he allowed his experience to be defined by his own feelings of isolation.

What Works in the Essay

Still, Wallace's humor and personality remain irresistible and for experienced cruisers the essay is a page turner. I only wish I could have been on that cruise with him to distract him from thinking so much. As a veteran cruise reporter it is also my job to notice all of these details, and although I can't write as eloquently as David Foster Wallace, I think the bigger difference is in how I view my job. I think about these things so you don't have to - to help you to relax and enjoy the freedom of being at sea.

I say, "Go ahead and order room service twice in a row, take an afternoon nap and then watch a movie in bed rather than dress for dinner. Lie in the sun without worrying about your body image, drink a little more wine than usual because you don't have to drive home."

And to reiterate, Wallace's cruise experience was not unusual for a novice solo cruiser. This is why I always encourage people to cruise with friends or family. Don't expect the cruise line to provide you with real companionship. They owe you good service, food, destinations and some entertainment - but that is all. How you choose to feel about the experience is up to you, and you can either accept your solo status, or share the cruise with a good companion.

Finally - here is one of my favorite parts of Wallace's essay; skeet shooting (abbreviated).

"Yes, my own trapshooting score was noticeably lower than the other entrants' scores, so, I'll simply make a few disinterested observations for the benefit of any novice contemplating trapshooting from a 7NC Megaship: (1) A certain level of displayed ineptitude with a firearm will cause everyone who knows anything to converge on you with cautions and advice and handy tips. (2) A lot of the advice boils down to exhortations to "lead" the launched pigeon. (3) Whatever a "hair trigger" is, a shotgun does not have one. (4) If you've never fired a gun before, the urge to close your eyes at the precise moment of concussion is, for all practical purposes, irresistible. (5) The well-known "kick" of a fired shotgun is no misnomer; it knocks you back several steps with your arms pinwheeling wildly for balance, which when you're holding a still loaded gun results in mass screaming and ducking and then on the next shot a conspicuous thinning of the crowd in the 9-Aft gallery above."

Read the essay here: Harper's Magazine

Just for the record, cruise lines don't offer skeet shooting any more. Maybe Wallace's essay had more effect than I realized?

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