Cruise ships are a shameless caricature of American capitalism and a working symbol of how dreadful life can be.
There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes yet simple in its effect: on board the Nadir (especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety ceased) I felt despair. The word “despair” is overused and banalized now, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously.
In what is easily my favorite section of the reading, Wallace sets up his transition from brochure style prose prodding you on the benefits and beauties of cruise life to sober but scathing criticism. And don’t get me wrong, I love American capitalism. I love standing in the cereal section of one of the six closest supermarkets to me, staring aimlessly at the fifty-odd options for empty calories. But I hate cruises. I’ve never been on a cruise, but I don’t have to to know. With deckhands and window cleaners and painters and their curated schedules, like Wallace talks about, cruises work as magicians toiling over their long form illusion. An illusion for which you pay generously, to be tricked into thinking that you’re sailing away from your worries and for a week, as you tour some exotic land, you get respite from your life. But what a cruise truly is is a more confining, more unpleasant, and more demanding version of everyday life that does more to remind you of your own mortality and insignificance than a near death experience can.
[the cruise] presents itself as being for my benefit. It manages my experiences and my interpretation of those experiences and takes care of them for me in advance.
I don’t hate cruises because I think I’m above them in some way. I see the appeal of being released from the shackles of decision making. Life as one of those people in Wall-E. It seems incredibly easy. But what I love most about vacation is getting lost, and cruises leave no room for getting lost in any enjoyable way.