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CONTEMPORARY DISPLACED WRITING: David Foster Wallace – A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

A few weeks ago I found myself in Claremont, California. I hadn’t intentionally planned to stop there, it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I’d been at a wedding in Southern California the day before, and as I made the long drive back home the next day my stomach began to rumble, and there were signs on the highway for Claremont. That name rang a bell with me, but I couldn’t quite recall why. Possibly, being not the world’s greatest driver, I was too busy concentrating on the road, and the suicidal, kamikaze driving of the locals, to really stop and think on why the name Claremont was so familiar to me. My wife told me that it was probably because I’d heard of Ponoma College, a liberal arts university, which is based in downtown Claremont. That certainly sounds familiar. Yep, it must be that, I thought. And being a college town, it seemed like the perfect place to stop for lunch on a Sunday afternoon.

It was only as after lunch as I was getting back into my car – already dreading the thought of getting back onto the highway, staying on it for another 6 hours, and sharing it with mad men – that I realised why the name Claremont and Ponoma College had seemed so familiar. It wasn’t through a synapse suddenly working, finally passing a neuron to that part of my brain that stores all my thoughts on Claremont. No, it was my wife googling Ponoma College on her iPhone. Reading its Wikipedia entry, she said, “Oh, David Foster Wallace was a professor here. You must have known that, surely?”

David Foster Wallace had taught at Ponoma College, and it was in Claremont that he had sadly taken his life in 2008. You probably already know about him, so I won’t waste time repeating things here that you already know. What I will note is what an important writer he has been for me. Foster Wallace was not, as far as I know (or as far as I can remember, and as we have established, it’s not clear if we can really trust my synapses) an expat, which is what this blog focuses on. His writing does, at least to me, convey better than any other writer of his generation a sense of displacement with himself and with his America.

Moving to the U.S. in 2007, Foster Wallace’s essays were something I eagerly reconsumed. I’d read them early, but that was from the position of being a young Englishman in his early 20s who had never been to the U.S. Somehow, it didn’t count as much. Now with an I-551 visa stamped in my passport, Foster Wallace’s essays, along with de Tocqueville were the first books off my shelf as an American resident. Like de Tocqueville, Foster Wallace, though American, gave me an outsider’s perspective on my new homeland.

So this week’s displaced writing is David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” It was first published in Harpers and has since been republished in book form along with other Foster Wallace essays. It’s the Harpers version that I’m going to link to as it’s still available for free on the web. The essay details an assignment Foster Wallace had, trapped and displaced, on a Carribean cruiseliner and which is the supposedly fun thing he’ll never do again.

Click below to read.

“I have seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 21000 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as “Mon” in three different nations. I have watched 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide. I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced and a tropical moon that looked more like a sort of obscenely large and dangling lemon than like the good old stony U.S. moon I’m used to. I have (very briefly) joined a Conga Line.”

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, when we explore next month’s theme: “An Enchanted August.”

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