David Foster Wallace’s dismaying suicide sent me back to “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” his seminal, riotous essay on taking a Caribbean cruise. I had remembered, or thought I did, a sentence in the piece in which Wallace refers to his death as something exquisitely awful to contemplate and sad beyond imagining— or something to that effect.
I couldn’t find that passage— it may be in another Wallace essay— but I did find this:
“There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effects: on board the Nadir [the derisive name Wallace gives his cruise vessel]— especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased— I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture— a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.”
I read “A Supposedly Fun Thing” when I was trying to break away from the bland, corseting strictures of conventional journalism and turn myself into a writer of narrative nonfiction. For me the essay was an elixir. As I took in Wallace’s joyful three-page-long footnotes, his celebratory combination of high and low English, and his enthusiastic, creative deployment of capitalization and newly coined words, I kept thinking: “You can do that?…. You can do that?” The piece was a paean to the authenticity of voice, the most liberating essay I ever read. I became a different writer because of it. Only a few other writers have had a similar impact on me: Henry Adams, Norman Mailer, and George Orwell are among them.
Now Wallace has succumbed to temptation, and jumped in. Reading the essay in the light of his death, I realize that its general hilarity masks its seriousness, that in passages like the one above, he meant exactly what he said. I know nothing of his personal life, but my guess is that his highly sensitive receptors picked up too many of the myriad contradictory, appalling, exhilarating sensations of early twenty-first century life, until he was overwhelmed. His loss is an enormous tragedy.
Causes Jacques Leslie Supports
Resource Renewal Institute
Earth Island Institute