Everybody Hates a Tourist (I Sort of Review the Audiobook of David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

I recently listened to Hachette’s new audiobook version of David Foster Wallace’s essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a collection of essays that I’ve read and enjoyed several times. My outline and notes for a review of the Fun Thing audiobook quickly swelled into an ugly, unmanageable bruise sporting a lengthy intro and dithering asides, when what I really intend to say boils down to “The audiobook is not very good.”

Why is it not very good? I hate to rest all the blame on voice talent Paul Garcia, because I’m sure that there were other people involved—a director, a producer, etc.—who also abetted this thing. If you’ve heard Wallace read—and I had to go back and listen to the few essays from Lobster that he reads to reconfirm this (more on that in a minute)—-if you’ve heard Wallace read his own stuff, you know that he brings this wonderfully restrained not-quite-affectless tone and rhythm to his work. I hesitate to call it naturalistic, but I guess that’s the closest word I can think of for what I’m trying to describe. Another way of putting this might be that when you hear Wallace reading his work, there’s a conversational tone to it, and that even when he’s reading something that is grossly hyperbolic or soaked in venom, he restrains himself from over-emoting these positions. It’s as if a barrier is removed between reader and auditor. In contrast, Paul Garcia mugs and hams his way through the essays in Fun Thing as if he’s doing bad dinner theater. He seems to delight in overzealously stressing every other syllable. The affectations tend to highlight how a certain way of reading—or perhaps hearing Wallace, in reality—can make him seem like a pompous, verbose asshole.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that hearing Garcia read Wallace’s first-person pronoun essays made me hear a different version of Wallace, one that I’d never heard in my own head when I’d read these pieces. Garcia made me hear a version of Wallace that I often disliked—finicky, vituperative, arrogant—one at odds with my own reading.

Reaching for an antidote, I then audited a few of the essays Wallace reads in Consider the Lobster—“Big Red Son,” recounting his trip to the AVN (porn film) awards in Las Vegas, and “Consider the Lobster,” where he visits the Maine Lobster Festival. These two essays balance neatly with the pair that likely stands out the most in Fun Thing: the title essay, Wallace’s infamous documentation of a luxury cruise, and “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” an account of the Illinois State Fair. (I think “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a rumination on Lynch’s place in cinema set against the backdrop of the filming of Lost Highway also holds up remarkably well—even in Garcia’s reading—but I’ve used some notes on it for another essay I’m working on about Roberto Bolaño and evil, so I’ll hold off any discussion). In any case, these four essays together illustrate the pattern Wallace’s reportage is most often identified with: Wallace goes to some place that he’s not really familiar with and writes about it, usually in obsessive, personal detail, mixing both humor and pathos as he details its absurdities and contradictions.

Several themes unify A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (one of the biggest is Wallace’s ever-present agon with irony), but what stood out most in going through the essays again was the sense of despair, the strange sadness that Wallace expresses when he shows us what happens when large groups of people get together for a good time. One of my favorite lines from pop music comes from Pulp’s “Common People,” where crooner Jarvis Cocker gently snarls, “Everybody hates a tourist.” I guess I love the line because I think it’s true, and it’s especially true in its own self-awareness of what it means to be a tourist—that a true tourist must be either oblivious (and thus hated) or self-hating (and thus in despair). So much of David Foster Wallace’s travel writing (if you want to call it that; I mean, it’s not travel writing, it’s more writing-about-mass-groups-of-people-in-contrived-situations) seems to be trying to work out these strange poles, to somehow understand what he is witnessing and overcome the hatred and disgust he feels at the vulgar, venal displays he’s seeing. In a footnote in “Consider the Lobster, Wallace lays it all out better than I can:

I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud hot crowded tourist venues in order to sample a “local flavor” that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists. This may (as my Festival companions keep pointing out) all be a matter of personality and hardwired taste: The fact that I just do not like tourist venues means that I’ll never understand their appeal and so am probably not the one to talk about it (the supposed appeal). But, since this note will almost surely not survive magazine-editing anyway, here goes:

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part that my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

I suppose it’s too easy, maybe even intellectually lazy to gravitate to Wallace’s despair in the cold light of his suicide, but this despair nevertheless is a thick vein that runs through his work. Just a few paragraphs above I offered a bit of bad logic, wherein I suggested that being a tourist is always an either/or position (oblivious, ignorant, smiling or hyper-aware and self- and other-loathing); if I’m more honest I suppose there are third and fourth ways, maybe fifth and sixth, but they become hard to imagine.

Frankly, I’ve always liked Wallace’s essays so much because I relate so strongly to his first-person pronoun’s experience of other people. When Wallace tries to navigate his contempt for the rubes at the Illinois State Fair (“Kmart People,” he calls them!) against the idea that he should try to understand and empathize with other human beings as, like, real human beings with complex inner-lives, hopes, dreams, desires, despairs, I get all that. I’ve been there. Every damn day. But it’s these complex articulations that put Wallace’s travel journalism in such a desperate position. Unlike Hunter S. Thompson, who fully embraced nihilism, Wallace couldn’t simply write off the people around him as creeps, mutants, and lizards; neither could he fully empathize or love them the way that William Vollmann seems to. In the essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a wistful Wallace admits that he would love to jump from one ship to another in “a bold and William T. Vollmannish bit of journalistic derring-do” — but of course such a feat would never even be on Wallace’s radar (aside from a literary reference): this guy will spend the entire last day of the cruise alone in his room not talking to anyone. Which again, would probably be me.

I quoted a pop song above so I’ll indulge myself and cite another one. I love The Breeders’ fantastic 1993 LP Last Splash, and the song “Saints” is a great jam, but I’ve always felt a little alienated by its opening lyrics, where Kim Deal howls: “I like all the different people / I like sticky everywhere / Look around, you bet I’ll be there!” I guess I couldn’t hang with Kim Deal at the fair, because, if I’m honest, I don’t like all the different people, and I don’t like sticky everywhere. And even when I can enjoy a carnival atmosphere, there is usually some mediating substance like alcohol or irony involved.

This is perhaps a long-winded way of saying that I relate to the central discomfort-cum-despair that runs through Wallace’s essays about having to be in the midst of large groups of people. And while comfort isn’t the sign of great art or great writing (Wallace handles this issue as well in his Lynch essay, but more on that another time), I feel admittedly comfortable in his essays. Which is perhaps why I didn’t care for the Garcia-read audiobook: it made me feel like a tourist.

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10 comments

  1. ccllyyddee · June 5, 2012

    This is the kind of review that helps me decide if I want to try a literary work or not. I like audiobooks, but a bad reader can make listening tedious. This reader seems like some of the announcers on my local public radio station. Whatever happened to elocution and diction classes? Has pronunciation and dynamic rhythm succumbed to relativism also? Many public speakers seem to have learned to go from sound bite to sound bite, with multi-syllabic words divided up into biteletts, as if any thing longer than 3 letters is a superlative.

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  2. seymourblogger · June 5, 2012

    For ccllyyddee

    Sadly as Toynbee tells us when a civilization is in disintegration language is an early sign (architecture, music, etc etc etc) and TV raised generations now can only process sound bites. Reading like this blog is a dying art, but I will go down with it gladly. On my blogs I have developed a style to say what I think is important in a way masses can understand. Some tell me they are too intimidated to comment but that they read me. I go through post modern thinking in the media. I write in fragments as taught by Nietzsche, Baudrllard, Canetti to name a few.

    I love love love this essay on cruise ships by DFW. I went on ONE in 1961 to Bermuda. My gf and I got off in Bermuda, looked across the street at a tourist office (she had been sick the whole time, I had been desperately bored) and she said, “Do you want to fly home?” I grabbed her and yanked her across the street.

    I have had many discussions about this kind of tourist travel mainly with a woman who is the director of a wonderful animal rescue group in St. Louis. She has taken over one hundred of these awful things and loves them loves them. She has brought back puppies from Russia, cats from Chinese restaurants, birds from somewhere in Southeast Asia, and I guess they let her do it because she is a fantastic customer taking friends and family with her. I volunteer for her and I think she was feeling me out for an invitation. What a gift NOT for me.

    BTW this is not to imply she makes any money from her adoptions. She tries to break even. She lives on a trust fund.

    Read the book, listen to the tape, read everything this man wrote. He is like no other in the world. I tear up everytime I think of him. What a tragedy he will not tell us anything more.

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    • ccllyyddee · June 5, 2012

      Thank you for replying to my comment. I wonder what Toynbee would make of the simultaneous disintegration of the populace into illiterate inability to think for oneself and the renaissance of the arts. Hear how Rock & Roll has resurrected itself into many different idioms. 2 dimensional art has gone from sloppy express yourself to precise techniques of meaning greater than oneself.

      When I started reading this blog, there were very few comments. I searched biblioklept’s archives and discovered a cadre of intelligent responders and occasionally a good conversation going between a few people. Biblioklept has not been all that controversial since I have been a fan, so being who I am, I like to stomp on the fire ant mound to watch the soldier ants run out totally dedicated to killing and dying for their society. This hasn’t worked all that well with me here, and I have wondered if I were intimidating biblioklept’s other readers. I decided that probably not since there is usually a plethora of ‘likes’, quite often with people who have not responded before. Biblioklept is the first site I have responded to with ‘like’, and now I do it for YouTube videos. I try to stick to subject, but that is some times hard to do because of the branches I see in the conversation. I refuse to debate religion, and certainly not politics, and rather than confrontation, I would rather put my two cents worth into the conversation and read what others have to add. Additive rather than combative. I always like new insights and perspectives revealed that are not my own. Which is why I read biblioklept’s blog. His writing makes it easy for me to immerse myself in the subject at hand and draw conclusions as to whether I would like to read the work he writes about. Today, i was reading blurbs and short reviews on the www of some of Count Luchino Visconti’s works and realized that for most, criticism is defined by tearing down rather than offering perspectives on works of art. There is a difference between Deconstruction and demolition.

      I wish I could remember the audiobook that was so awful to me that I didn’t listen to it more than 15 minutes – now it comes to me, it was an autobiography of Bob Dylan. The narrator sounded like he was trying to imitate Dylan’s speech – which was a total mistake. Only a take off of Dylan has ever worked that I have heard. ‘All The Pretty Horses’ was the first audiobook I ever listened to. It was, unfortunately, an abridged edition. But, it was read by Brad Pitt, who does have a way with words. He would read along in a cool, not-attached nonchalance for awhile. His voice would tighten up and sound like he had a tear in his eye when he would be reading dialog of narrative that brought me back to the days of my youth, invoking feelings of quiet desperation and the fatality of existence and that gentle sadness that befits young manhood. It made me a fan of Cormac McCarthy.

      Unless I could find a good audiobook copy of some of the books I read about in biblioklept, I would rather trudge through the printed page. I am a slow reader. Bad reading habits. With movies, I prefer to view the movie first, then read the book, because the other way around always produces disappointment in that the director never creates the images that I have formed in my mind. I know a woman who refuses, never ever, to watch any thing Clint Eastwood does again, because she was so let down by his rendering of ‘In the Garden of Good and Evil’. Her anticipation ruined the experience for her. I thoroughly enjoyed that movie, never having read the book. Because of the way Mr. Eastwood handled Southern archetypes and social style without resorting to cliche or vulgarity. You might be too young to remember the Hollywood drawl that actors would affect that would send Southerners into paroxysms of laughter. Even Paul Newman and Joan Woodward were guilty of that tackiness.

      I’ve never taken a cruise or a tour because I prefer the generic ‘peasant’ and being in the every day world of where I am visiting. Backpack and thumb with an occasional first class sleeping compartment when distance needs to be covered sooner rather than later. If I were to go to Europe again I would want to visit all the remote rural regions if remote is possible any more. Were I to do an antiquities trip, then I would take a tour boat to visit the capitals. Putting up with phonies is preferable to dragging all that luggage in and out of transportation and taking numerous modes of vehicles into and out of town at my advanced age.

      I’ve always fantasized doing a jazz tour in Europe and going here and there all over catching groups that I would like to hear playing.

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      • Biblioklept · June 5, 2012

        Thanks for the replies, guys. Yeah, not much heated conversation here—back in my yawping 20s I was more inclined to pick fights, I guess, but the past few years I’m a bit more evenhanded. Still get comments on some older posts (got a few today, even)—stuff like Derrida, Chomsky, etc. — but on the whole I’m not a fan of matching wits on the internet. It drains my most precious resource (time). I enjoyed the travel anecdotes.
        Clyde, have you listened to the audiobook of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian? It is one of my favorites ever (the unabridged one read by Richard Poe, not the abridged nonsense):

        http://www.demonoid.ph/files/details/2595676/0012784238604/

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        • ccllyyddee · June 5, 2012

          Great to read some dialogue going. No, I don’t want to start fights. I’m more into what some one has to say without being (what’s the word for cute-look how clever I am?). I’ll look for the Blood Meridian. I have a complete unabridged audio of the trilogy, but haven’t listened to it yet. It’s somewhere in the backup DVD’s file. As in the movie versus original book conundrum, I am afraid that the reader will disappoint, as he did with the Bob Dylan book. Brad Pitt’s voice and expression were so mesmerizing that the book seemed like a dream. About all I can remember from the movie was the rich Mexican arriving in his bi-plane, and the sparking of love in the principle. I am in the process of creating an audio library and database from years of backup DVD’s. Not being particularly ‘religious’ I am not susceptible to superstition, but the last time I tried this my iBook ate itself. Mentioning self-cannibalism, there is another string going on over at the Chomsky article. I suspect there is a Pygmy Rattler in Rat Snake skin disguise. Someone who needs to consult with a pharmacological doctor for adjusting his meds. I am glad that my rant and rave days occurred during alcohol and herb and took place in Australia where they appreciate a good rave, being the bunch of juice heads that they are. Here, people take everything personally, since this is such a self-obsessed society. I much prefer being Ferdinand the Bull these days. lalalaifs (languising and lying about in the Florida sun). Except that it’s raining right now. Hallelujah. As my grandfather used to say, ‘I can hear the garden laughing’.

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  4. Mitch Kroener · June 5, 2012

    I know that this is an old post, but this is dead on in my view. I listened to about half of the first story and it scared the hell out of me, in a way, because it made me question my whole love of Wallace and sense of his particular literary voice. It felt kind of similar to seeing a really bad film version of a book you love (although, at least films seem to involve more research and at least attempt to approximate tone, generally). My impression of Garcia’s reading is that he walked into the studio, having never before read the book, or any other Wallace for that matter(thus the random emphasis and weird staggering of his breathing). The result sounds kind of like an episode of “This American Life” if the whole transcript was read by William Shatner at his most pompous and narcissistic. I don’t mean to suggest that Garcia is pompous or anything, but I think this made me realize that Wallace really doesn’t speak to some people. To me, his non fiction and essays have always sounded (in my own head) like a smarter and more perspicacious version of my own internal monologue. I suggest that anyone who shares this feeling not listen to this audiobook, lest it be spoiled forever.

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    • Biblioklept · June 5, 2012

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, Mitch. I think you’re absolutely right about the way that Garcia’s reading would put off anyone new to Wallace. He really manages to make DFW sound like a total asshole—and when you hear Wallace read his own stuff, it just doesn’t come across like that.

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