For many years since reading A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, I’ve wondered irritably: was David Foster Wallace mocking real people in his essay on the cruise-ship experience? Specifically, this passage stayed with me:
"My favorite tablemate is Trudy, whose husband…has given his ticket to Alice, their heavy and extremely well-dressed daughter… every time Alice mentions [her boyfriend Patrick, Trudy] suffers some sort of weird facial tic or grimace where the canine tooth on one side of her face shows but the other side’s doesn’t. Trudy is fifty-six and looks –and I mean this in the nicest possible way– rather like Jackie Gleason in drag, and has a particularly loud pre-laugh scream that is a real arrhythmia-producer…"
Because Wallace returns to and discusses this group repeatedly and seems fond of them, it was hard to understand how he’d simultaneously savage them with sardonic insults like these; to be clear: he is mocking them for their appearance, the sound of their laughter, their personalities of their children, etc., in a national publication.
I was often told that Wallace was surely using an amalgam of characters, or even entirely conjured ones, despite the verite nature of the essay; these barbs, after all, are hard to square with the ethics expressed elsewhere in his work, and seem difficult to justify from the reader’s or writer’s perspective.
Nevertheless, it turns out that, in fact, he was mocking real people. He was asked about it long ago in “There’s Going To Be the Occasional Bit of Embellishment”: David Foster Wallace on Nonfiction, 1998, Part 3, an interview with Tom Scocca at Slate. The relevant portion is below:
Q: Also when you’re writing about real events, there are other people who are at the same events. Have you heard back from the peoplethat you’re writing about? Trudy especially comes to mind—
Q: —who you described as looking like—
DFW: That, that was a very bad scene, because they were really nice to me on the cruise. And actually sent me a couple cards, and were looking forward to the thing coming out. And then it came out, and, you know, I never heard from them again. I feel—I’m worried that it hurt their feelings.
The. Thing. Is. Is, you know, saying that somebody looks like Jackie Gleason in drag, it might not be very nice, but if you just, if you could have seen her, it was true. It was just absolutely true. And so it’s one reason why I don’t do a lot of these, is there’s a real delicate balance between fucking somebody over and telling the truth to the reader.
Scocca does not press him on what sort of truth an insulting analogy is; in my opinion, it is a low order of truth, at the absolute best a physical description that could have been achieved in a less derisive way; that is: it is not a meaningful enough truth to matter much. But more importantly: there is a way to describe Trudy that isn’t a punchline. (The notion that there isn’t would reflect a total poverty of literary imagination).
Note that Wallace himself equivocates about the utility of the analogy:
DFW: I wasn’t going to hurt anybody or, you know, talk about anybody having sex with a White House intern or something. But I was going to tell the truth. And I couldn’t just so worry about Trudy’s feelings that I couldn’t say the truth. Which is, you know, a terrific, really nice, and not unattractive lady who did happen to look just like Jackie Gleason in drag.
Q: Maybe if you’d emphasized that it was not in an unattractive way. Which is sort of a hard thing to picture.
DFW: Actually the first draft of that did have that, and the editor pointed out that not only did this waste words, but it looked like I was trying to have my cake and eat it too. That I was trying to tell an unkind truth but somehow give her a neck rub at the same time. So it got cut.
Q: But you actually did want to have your cake and eat it too. Not in a bad way.
DFW: I’m unabashed, I think, in wanting to have my cake and eat it too.
I think he ought to have been a little abashed by the proximity of phrases like “I wasn’t going to hurt anybody” and “I couldn’t just so worry about Trudy’s feelings” and “not unattractive” and “Jackie Gleason in drag.” So close to one another, they aren’t coherent.
Even Scocca has to note that it’s hard to picture someone looking like Jackie Gleason in drag yet not being unattractive. This means it is a poor analogy, a bad description. Wallace wants to convey that she looks a certain way and is not unattractive; instead, he conveys that she is maximally unattractive and makes a punchline of it, then says it’s for the “truth” before ambivalently wishing it didn’t have to be this way in writing (which it doesn’t).
It is a parting amusement (and a reminder of the 1990s) that Wallace asserts that he would never "talk about anybody having sex with a White House intern…but I was going to tell the truth"; eager to establish his bona fides as a reputable thinker who supports the right politics, Wallace seems not to consider very clearly the relative value of these two disclosures:
- That a sitting US president cheated on his wife with an intern employed by the government, then lied about it to a country that —however much this pains me and Wallace alike— wants to moralistically examine and judge the private lives of their elected figures and has every right to do so, as they are the people and this is a democracy (to avoid confusion: I wish America were more like France, indifferent to the private affairs of public citizens; but that is my wish, not the wish of most of my fellow citizens, to whom journalists are theoretically beholden)
- That a friendly, ordinary private citizen was overweight, ugly, had an awful laugh, and made faces at her heavy-set daughter whenever the latter mentioned her boyfriend.
It’s hard for me to understand the reasoning he must have employed in deciding that the first is either unimportant or merits the protections of discrete privacy, supported by strangers, while the latter —that a woman and her daughter aren’t attractive— is important in light of the imperatives of journalistic truth!
(Originally answered on Quora).