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.

Clean Breaks — Richard Hammond and Jeremy Smith

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In Pulp’s caustic 1995 anthem Common People,” singer Jarvis Cocker delivers what has to be one of the best lines in any pop song: “Everybody hates a tourist.” Ironically, I bought the album when I was visiting London as a tourist. I’d never heard of (or heard) Pulp at that point, but our tour guide (it was a high school class trip) told me that they were the best Britpop band to date, better than my beloved Boo Radleys, he assured me. He had great taste; the album is fantastic and “Common People” became a dance party classic (this same tour guide took our entire group of high school juniors, seniors, and chaperons (teachers and parents) to a screening of Trainspotting, which had just come out in Great Britain. Many of the students and chaperons got quite upset, but for me it was kinda sorta life-changing (I was 15 or 16). Later, in Heidelburg, Germany, this same tour guide took a small group of six or seven of us out to one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been to, and laughed about the whole Trainspotting incident. He said he told our teachers that it would be an important “cultural enrichment experience” for us, but in reality it was just a great movie that he thought some of us would like to see).

I realize that this is a long, overly-personal lead-in to a book review, but Clean Breaks, from Rough Guides, embodies the spirit of the trip I discussed above. Richard Hammond and Jeremy Smith’s travel guide is not so much about how to avoid looking like a loathsome tourist, but about how to engage in the real culture of the place you are visiting while getting to know the real people who live there. In this sense, the book is not for everyone, but if you want Disney World or Las Vegas, I’m sure you won’t have any trouble figuring out what to do. However, if you’re interested in, say, hearing the desert music of Mali, or volunteering on a ranch in Brazil’s Patanal wetlands, or fishing for prawns in Kerala, then Clean Breaks is a great starting place for you. As the authors put it in their introduction, a “clean break” is essentially “about minimizing your environmental impact–on your journey and at your destination–by choosing carefully how you travel and the nature of the place you choose to stay at.” To that end, the book concentrates not just on eco-friendly hotels and restaurants that specialize in locally grown food, but also on the type of adventure trekking and activities that put you in real contact with the real people of the place you are visiting. There’s an emphasis on bicycling and walking, guest houses and natural parks, and volunteering.

Again, the adventures in Clean Breaks are certainly not going to be every tourist’s cup of tea, but they aren’t all exactly uncomfortable either. I’m lucky enough to have actually experienced a (very) small fraction of the 500 trips suggested, and can attest to their awesomeness. Taking The Ghan train from Adelaide to Alice Springs, for example, was a highlight of my young life, as was visiting a glacier in the Otago province of New Zealand. And did I mention that there are lots of pretty, pretty colorful pictures and maps accompanying the book’s 500 suggested trips (with key info like email addresses and phone numbers, of course). While Clean Breaks‘s emphasis on “ecotourism” did seem a bit suspect to me at first–just another marketing ploy, perhaps (I’ve attacked the rhetoric of “going green” in the past”)–the  authors’ intentions and tone seem wholly sincere. They acknowledge, for example, that terms “such as ‘responsible,’ ‘sustainable,’ and ‘ethical’ are becoming . . . overused (and abused) by websites and tourism companies looking to ride the green wave,” and their repeated emphasis on localism and action over passive “sight-seeing” is admirable. And even though most people will never have the money and time to complete the 500 trip wish-list that Hammond and Smith present here, the book still makes for a great fantasy. Good stuff.

Clean Breaks is now available from Rough Guides.

Cannibalism and the Economy of Sacrifice in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative

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I’ve been re-reading Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, a fascinating autobiography/travel book detailing Equiano’s experiences being kidnapped from West Africa at a young age and sold into slavery. During this time, Equiano migrates all around the world, earns and loses and earns again his freedom, and eventually comes to identify himself as an Englishman, replete with English values. Today, the book is widely regarded as a key abolitionist text; it remains a fascinating document of the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery. It’s also a pretty interesting adventure story.

The early part of the book is chock full of images of consumption and sacrifice. Prominent among these images, the threat of cannibalism looms as the ultimate horror at stake in an alien encounter between two different cultures. The first image of cannibalism, however, becomes a sort of baseline of the rhetoric of cannibalism. Equiano relates the following Ibo proverb concerning villagers with bitter tempers: “if they were to be eaten, they were to be eaten with bitter herbs,” noting that many Ibo “offerings [sacrifices] are eaten with bitter herbs.” This seemingly light-hearted proverb locates the consumption of the human body as a site of holy sacrifice, acknowledging that the cost of existence always figures as a displacement of one person’s access to resources in favor of another’s. Equiano later expresses a wish to sacrifice himself to gain his sister’s freedom—“happy should I have ever esteemed myself to encounter every misery for you, and to procure your freedom by the sacrifice of my own,” here echoing the Ibo proverb’s realization of a sacrificial economy. This sacrificial economy plummets into the taboo horror of cannibalism, as a terrified Equiano, kidnapped and dragged to the West African coast, first encounters Europeans. He asks his fellow Africans “if [he] were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and loose hair.” The terror of this alien-encounter is not abated when the Africans assure Equiano that he is not to be eaten; “I expected they would sacrifice me,” he writes.

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As the horror of his sea voyage increases, so does his belief that he is to be voraciously consumed by his captors. While “all pent up together like so many sheep in a fold,” Equiano avers that “We thought […] we should be eaten by these ugly men.” Equiano here figures as a sacrificial lamb, consumed by brutal barbarians. The slave-traders tap into and exploit this fear, using it to manipulate the behavior of Equiano: “the captain and people told me in jest they would kill and eat me, but I thought them in earnest.” Equiano puts his horror even more bluntly: “I very much feared they would kill and eat me.” Equiano’s horror at the threat of cannibalism contrasts greatly with the captain’s playful attitude about the eating of human flesh. The captain “jocularly” threatens to “kill” and “eat” Equiano, and also threatens to eat his young friend as well. The captain then inquires about the cannibalistic practices of West Africans, jokingly averring that “black people were not good to eat,” thus implying he had tasted their flesh before. The captain’s rhetorical technique further destabilizes Equiano’s sense of safety as well as confounding any attempt to systematize knowledge of the ethics, morality, and diet of his new captors; in short, the captain further alienates Equiano’s experience. However, a future Equiano, reflective and knowledgeable, assesses these structures of consumption and sacrifice in terms of economy. “Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice?” Equiano demands of the “nominal Christians” who participate in the slave trade. Equiano thus translates the literal consumption of enslaved labor into the spiritual, emotional consumption that occurs when people cannibalize each other. The captain’s humor—and indeed, the slight and humorous tone of the Ibo proverb—both serve as defense mechanisms to psychologically mask the taboo terror of cannibalism that figuratively underscores the enslavement of human beings.