PDF: Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise
In this essay, David Foster Wallace uses observation and description to offer sharp cultural commentary.
The setting in Wallace’s Shipping Out serves more than a background. It is the center for his narrative arc and source for his perspective on luxury cruises and economic entitlement. Whether it is the boarding pier, the Megaship, the passengers and most of the cruise staff, the cabin and its bathroom, the image and sensory driven descriptions allow the reader to take an amusing and ironic ride with the author.
For example, the almost lyrical opening paragraphs immediately establish a sharp and humoring tone. The repetitions of “I have” phrase provide specific sights, sounds, smells, tastes, body sensations and movements for the reader to immerse in a superfluous and absurd experiences of the Nadir world:
“I have now seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue (later a blue beyond any blue)… I have smelled suntan lotion spread over 2100 pounds of hot flesh…I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced…I have seen and smelled all 145 cats inside Ernest Hemingway residence in Key West…I have felt the full, clothy weight of a subtropical sky…I have heard steel drums and eaten conch fritters…I have pointed rhythmically at the ceiling to the two-hour beat of the same disco music I hated pointing at the ceiling in 1977…I have burned and peeled twice… I have jumped a dozen times at the shattering, flatulence-of-the-gods-like sound of a cruise ship’s horn… I have now heard – and am powerless to describe – reggae elevator music…”
Right beneath the surface of these vivid images, Wallace introduces his poignant point of view of vacationing on a luxury cruise ship. We can discern his emotional and psychological tension with the popular notion and advertised version of floating free in a Caribbean sea. As this narrative tension leads us reading on, we gain new insights on “a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad”, as well as our innate nature of insatiable “WANTS” in any “environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering”.