Diving Into the “Uncanny Despair” of the Cruise Ship Narrative
Lara Williams on David Foster Wallace, Wabi-sabi, and the Luxurious Veneer of Decay
I know the opening paragraphs of David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” so well I could probably recite them by heart.
I have learned that there are actually intensities of blue beyond very, very bright blue. I have eaten more and classier food than I’ve ever eaten, and eaten this food 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 comedian tell folks, without irony, “But seriously.”
It has the rhythm of indulgence. The childlike breathlessness of recounting a very exciting anecdote. I! I! I! Here I am! A person full of stuff! It is the title essay of his 1997 collection, originally commissioned by Harper’s magazine (called “Shipping Out”), exploring his one-week experience aboard a cruise ship—a boat named The Zenith. It was this essay, and the Jon Ronson story Lost at Sea, that inspired me to write a novel set on a cruise ship.
Like in his essay “Consider the Lobster,” a similarly complicated travelogue that is about so much more than travel, Wallace finds the despair in the pageantry:
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.
An early draft of my novel, The Odyssey, imagined a near future in which beach holidays were rendered impossible due to coastal erosion. Cruises become the de-facto luxury vacation, the place to go to relax and indulge. However, the more time I spent with the novel, the more I realized that like Wallace, I was interested in the cruise ship as this uncanny site of despair. I’ve always been interested in place in my writing, and this is what attracted me to writing about a cruise ship: it has this overcompensatory hyperarticulation of place yet is essentially placeless. “There’s something about a mass market luxury cruise that’s unbearably sad,” Wallace writes.
The Odyssey is set on a gargantuan cruiseliner called The WA, helmed by the monomaniacal captain of the ship, Keith. He is obsessed with the Japanese aesthetic tradition of Wabi-sabi: a concept that celebrates the transient, that accepts decay. “Things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness,” writes artist and aesthetics expert Leonard Koren in his book Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers.
Some of the themes I was interested in exploring in the book were cultures of work and the search for meaning. When I came across the concept of Wabi-sabi at an art exhibition, I knew it would work for the cruise ship setting: speaking to the tenuousness of being on a huge heavy mass floating out at sea, the precarity of dayglo abundance. Decay is the only place left to go. On The WA, passengers routinely drop dead: the implication being that they find it all a bit much.
When I was around 12, when my parents were still together (and could afford it!), they took my sister and me on a cruise of the Mediterranean. I don’t remember a lot about it other than spending much of my time in the cabin, too spoiled, self-conscious, and hormonal to enjoy any of the manifest activities on offer. But one thing I do remember: it wasn’t exactly relaxing. Wallace writes of the marketing brochure for the cruise exclaiming RELAXATION BECOMES SECOND NATURE. “Not hard work but hard play,” he goes on to say.
A theme I am consistently interested in writing about is a kind of death drive compulsion to engage in experiences that are in some way annihilating: eating to the point of being sick, obsession and sex. If the customers on The WA are seeking annihilation through pampering, the protagonist of The Odyssey, an employee of The WA, is seeking annihilation through work. The employees facilitating Wallace’s experiences of “constant activities, festivities, gaiety, song; the adrenaline, the stimulation,” exist in its fringes. If Wallace writes the chromatic experience of the guest, Jon Ronson explored the arduous and isolating experience of being a member of the crew—something Wallace only skirts around, mostly in the footnotes.
This is perhaps because the ship’s hotel manager will not allow him to interview any staff on the record, or to see the staff decks or galley. A press liaison officer later tells him the staff are all part of one big family. Wallace comments this is not what he observes, stating, “[they] worked almost Dickensianly hard, too hard to feel truly cheery about it.” He also explores the perplexing ways the guests interact with the staff: asking the Guest Relations Desk whether the staff sleep on board, complaining about minor aesthetic imperfection at the dinner table. The staff exist as ever-smiling, eager to serve (at least in the guests’ eyes) facilitators of the broader cruise artifice, as performative as the fake pier the passengers dock from.
Wallace comments on the fundamentally infantilizing experience of requiring so much cloying, pandering customer service: a “pamper-swaddled” self emerges:
[The] infantile part of me is, by its very nature and essence, insatiable. In fact, its whole raison consists of its insatiability. 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.
I partly intended The Odyssey as a satire of contemporary work cultures, of the broader economy and class structure driving them. A reference I used for The WA is a cruise ship called the Symphony of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, currently the largest there is. It features glow-in-the-dark laser tag, robotic bartenders, two surf simulators. The more time I spent reading about it, the harder it felt to satirize, such is the eye-watering color saturation of its ridiculousness.
I have spent an awful lot of time looking at the Royal Caribbean website, and in my more idle moments, have imagined I am commissioned to write “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”–esque essay. And I would like to say, Harper’s Magazine or whoever: I’m ready.
Lara Williams’ The Odyssey is available now from Zando.