Jeffrey Meyers

The Dreadful Cruise of David Foster Wallace

Philip Roth, blurbing on the dust wrapper of Saul Bellow’s collected nonfiction, declared, “Rare are the novelists who write nonfiction comparable in strength to their fiction.”  In fact, the opposite is true.  David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) exemplifies the general rule that applies to most post-war American novelists, whose realistic essays are more powerful and persuasive than their imaginative works.  The incisive nonfiction of Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates is far better than their novels.  Wallace’s 1,079-page magnum opus Infinite Jest (1996) is unreadable; his essays combine Bellow’s intelligence with Nabokov’s wit.  His brilliant essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (in a book with that title, 1995), is one of the very best in American literature.  It contains all the qualities of the genius who was also an accomplished athlete, mathematician and philosopher.

Wallace’s comic and caustic 100-page essay eviscerates his seven-night Caribbean Celebrity Cruise on the megaship Zenith (which he irresistibly calls Nadir) from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Cozumel, Mexico and back.  The ship has Greek owners and officers, and is stuffed to capacity with 1,374 passive passengers.  Wallace assumes an ignorant and naïve persona who’s never been on a ship or out of America.  Suspected of being an over-inquisitive journalist, he’s not allowed to see the bridge, galley and staff quarters or interview any of the crew.  Though he’s obliged to observe the passengers and describe the cruise, he pretends to be agoraphobic to avoid his shipmates and their banal activities.  Paradoxically, he spends a lot of hermetic time in his single cabin and does not go ashore for the organized excursions.

Wallace calls his writing a “hypnotic sensuous collage.”  He achieves dazzling effects with deliberately offensive exaggerations as well as abbreviations and pedantic footnotes, elevated and debased diction, current slang and esoteric words to keep us alert: erythema, popliteals, sapropel, piacular and fianchetto.  He consistently and amusingly undermines the luxurious ambience by emphasizing physical deformities and making repulsive comparisons.  The ship has a snout, the hostess wears an orthopaedic shoe, the waiters seem to have broken and withered arms, the crowd resembles exudations of ectoplasm.  The Florida oil derricks bob fellatially, claustrophobia is uterine, the ship’s horn flatulent, the clothing menstrual pink, the elevators anal retentive, the shower cataract loosens his sphincter, and he worries about an ever-threatening outbreak of salmonella and E. coli.  His startling diction turns the ship into a floating medical facility with blatant revelations of bodily functions that usually remain hidden.

The super-charged toilet merits special consideration.  The swirling sea reminds Wallace of his flushing WC.  The malevolent vacuum-exhaust frightens him.  The “flush produces a brief but traumatizing sound . . . as of some gastric disturbance on a cosmic scale. . . . Your waste seems less removed than hurled from you.”  In this “existential-level sewage treatment” his innards could easily be sucked right out of him.  The toilet theme concludes with a long, laborious joke by the egomaniacal Cruise Director.  He recounts how his naked wife was trapped in the excremental void with “her own personal pudendum clearly visible above the rim of the occlusive seat that holds her fast.”

Wallace makes a whiplash attack on the lying, paid-to-write, prostituted advertising brochure by the American author Frank Conroy.  With ecstatic approval Conroy asserts, “For all of us, our fantasies and expectations were to be exceeded, to say the least. . . . It is hard to imagine a more professional, polished operation, and I doubt that many in the world can equal it.”  In contrast to Conroy’s “sinister and despair-producing” imaginings, Wallace tells us what the cruise was really like.  He condemns the vulgarity and excess of this unreal world, the oppressive aspects of insincere service and overwhelming luxury.

He reverses the traditional travel-as-torment trope by writing about a supposedly fun cruise instead of the leeches and leopards of the Amazon jungle.  He doesn’t fit in on the ship (or anywhere else, even with himself); and there seems to be something radically wrong with a man who, unlike all others, refuses to enjoy the cruise.  What pleases the average dolt—the bingo, the disco, the casino and the gift shop with special bargains—is torture for him.  The abysmally untalented “entertainers,” who can’t get a gig on land and have reached the nadir of their profession on the ship, are embarrassing.  It’s quite impossible to politely sneak away from their small and ever-shrinking audience. 

Eavesdropping at the Guest Relations Desk, he hears grown-ups ask “whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the skeetshooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleep on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is.”  He is trapped with these foolish people who sit with him at the same table for every meal—one of the worst aspects of the cruise.  If he ever managed to escape terminal boredom, the only person willing to exchange places would probably come from a table even worse than his.  To avoid his tablemates, he eats an early breakfast while the others sleep in (if there are no unstoppable announcements in the cabin).  Pretending to be hard at work, he takes many of his meals alone in his “own personal” space.

The key word in the ship’s marketing brochures is the nearly insanity-producing  “pamper,” as in “pamper yourself. . . . let us pamper you. . . . as you’ve never been pampered before.”  The ad-men seem absurdly unaware of the Pampers product (there are actually Pampers Cruisers) for incontinence, which affects an alarming percentage of elderly passengers.  In contrast to the Ecstasy cruises, which feature conspicuous carnal consumption for singles in their 20s, Wallace is pleased to report there is no concupiscent behaviour aboard the Nadir

Wallace gets a lot of comic mileage by seeing everything from his own perverse perspective and transposing all the supposedly pleasant experiences into soul-shattering negatives.  “Duty Free” not only means cheap liquor, but also the mindless freedom from all responsibility.  He degrades the ship’s tricky manoeuvring to the dock to “parallel parking a semi into a spot the same size as the semi with a blindfold on and four tabs of LSD.”  The waiter’s towering pepper mill threatens “to put pepper on pretty much anything you don’t lean forward and cover with your upper body.”  Snorkeling passengers, whom he observes from the upper deck doing the Dead Man’s Float, look “like the massed and floating victims of some hideous mishap—a macabre and riveting sight.”  His most outrageous comparison (which made me laugh out loud) occurs when passengers boarding the ship are assured by megaphone not to worry about the luggage that will follow them later on.  Wallace finds this “chilling in its unwitting echo of the Auschwitz-embarkation scene in Schindler’s List.”

Passengers, wobbling uneasily between doing absolutely nothing and doing it all, are placed in protective custody and confined in a cross between a high-class prison and a convalescent home with a cosmetic mortician.  Wallace is especially bugged by the staff’s micromanaged, undeserved attention and their “steely determination to indulge the passenger in ways that go far beyond any halfway-sane passenger’s own expectations.”  The Towel Guys are always on hair-trigger alert.  When Wallace gets up for a moment to put zinc oxide on his nose and gaze at the sea, the Guys race in behind his back to steal his towel and change the angle of his chair, forcing him to reequip and readjust all over again when he returns to sit down. 

His room cleaner, the diaphanous, elusive and manically obsessed Petra, seems to be spying on him from some secret place in the narrow corridor.  In Chaplinesque scenes, whenever he leaves his cabin for more than half an hour—he tests this by departing for exactly 29 and 31 minutes—she rushes in to give his room a completely unnecessary re-cleaning, including a newly minted mint-chocolate on his fluffed-up pillow.  Wallace finds something creepy and “deeply mind-fucking about this Type-A personality service and pampering.”

Where others see beauty under the warm zephyrs and azure skies, Wallace sees only decay, corrosion, disintegration and death on the primordial and surrealistic ship of fools.  As the mercifully short cruise progresses, his mood becomes increasingly dark and he’s overcome by a tsunami of woe.  He feels shame and guilt, a deep, accretive uneasiness and irritation about the unwanted attention and unwarranted comfort.  He descends from tolerable dissatisfaction and grievances to uneasiness and discomfort, is unbearably sad and “as bleak as I’ve felt since puberty,” and finally sinks to absolute despair.  The ship becomes sinister, and even the innocuous game of shuffleboard fills him with Kierkegaard’s Concept of Dread: “everything about it suggests infirm senescence and death.”  It seems, in an eerie foreboding, that Wallace is cascading toward the depression, paranoia and breakdown that eventually led to his suicide: “a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that also presents as a fear of death.”

Two serio-comic scenes symbolize the unreality of the cruise experience.  While solipsistically playing chess with himself in lieu of another partner (not as boring as it sounds), Wallace is approached by a spooky and preternaturally precocious nine-year-old child.  She tugs at his sleeve, calls him “mister” and asks him to play.  He politely condescends, and after losing his rook the serious carnage starts.  In another reversal of expectations, he suffers a humiliating defeat in 23 moves.  The girl walks off without even suggesting a return match.

An excruciating professional hypnotist, who recalls Wallace’s “hypnotic sensuous collage,” symbolizes the deceptive nature of the cruise.  He exploits the foolish victims who surrender control and regress to infantile dependence.  The hypnotist compels the various humiliated victims to believe that “a loud male Hispanic voice is issuing from the left cup of her brassiere,” that “a horrific odor is coming off the man in a chair next to her,” that “the seat of his chair periodically heats to 100 degrees C.,” that “they are not just nude but woefully ill-endowed, and are made to shout ‘Mommy, I want a wee-wee!’”

The passengers are treated with callous indifference unless they’re actually on the ship. They must wait for hours to board and wait even more hours for their plane when they are prematurely evicted.  It also takes a lot of time for the funereal procession of the 1,374-people to leave the ship and get into the long line of busses, which severely limits the already limited time spent on land.  It’s not clear why the passengers accept and even love the conditions that Wallace finds so dreadful.  They seem to take it stoically on the chin as part of the experience, and must suffer a kind of premature penance that makes them worthy of the hedonistic voyage.  These people like to be pampered with the sybaritic comfort and slavish service, and don’t see how they are being manipulated and what is really happening to them.

Jeffrey Meyers has lectured on cruises to Quebec, the Amazon, Burma and twice to Southeast Asia.  Even though he went for free, he could not bear the delays, the crowds, the passengers, the activities and the entertainment.  Wallace’s experience matched his own.

To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.