Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All
Originally published in Harper's Magazine (not the Bazaar) under the title "Ticket to the Fair" in July of 1994, "Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from It All" was a finalist for the National Magazine Award. "Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from It All" was Wallace's first pseudo-journalistic, "pith-helmeted anthropological reporting" assignment (83), the springboard from which Wallace was offered myriad writing assignments for high profile magazines, most of which were subsequently published as Wallace's own short stories, including: "Up, Simba!", "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again", "David Lynch Keeps His Head", "Big Red Son", "Michael Joyce", "Consider the Lobster", and "Host". Harper's also featured a correspondence between Wallace and students from an English class at Yale who were particularly taken by this essay. The essay displays Wallace's knee-slapping humor, both through his unendingly skeptical critique of the fairgrounds and their goings-on and his potentially embellished details, woven together to create a work that's as much short story as it is journalistic report. Superficially, "Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from It All" represents one week in 1993 during which David Wallace returned to his home state of Illinois with the intention of assessing the Illinois State Fair, held in Springfield.
Consistent with other essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, particularly the title essay, Wallace presents a dichotomous commentary on the simultaneous pleasures and disgusts of tourism. While extraordinarily critical of the tourist role, and reluctant to place himself in it, Wallace acknowledges his inability to entirely separate himself from tourist identity at times:
The crowd moves at one slow pace, eating, dense-packed between the rows of booths...Picture Tokyo's rush-hour subway on an epic scale. It's a rare grand mass of Midwest humanity, eating and shuffling and rubbing...It's maybe significant that nobody looks like they're feeling oppressed or claustrophobic or bug-eyed at being airlessly hemmed in by the endless crowd we're all part of...Something East-Coast in me prickles at the bovine and herdlike quality of the crowd, though, i.e. us, hundreds of hands rising from paper tray to mouth as we jostle and press toward our respective attractions. (103-104)
Exemplified in the above is a zoomorphic tendency Wallace exhibits in each of his tourism-influenced pieces, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Big Red Son, and Consider the Lobster. It represents in equal parts lament at the byproducts of mass consumption and caveat of post-industrial Americans inability to communicate in meaningful ways, relying instead on mindless distractions. Yet Wallace is careful not to blanket the entire fair with sustained cynicism.
Perhaps best exemplifying Wallace's enjoyment/cynicism complex is his "Native Companion," a woman he has asked to join him on the Fair's Opening Day, since "no anthropologist worth his helmet would be without the shrewd counsel of a colorful local" (90). Even this brief explication of the Native Companion's purpose in Wallace's essay reflects his enjoyment/cynicism complex. He continuously mocks both the notion of performing the "anthropological" work Harper's has requested of him and the "shrewd counsel" of the Native Companion--a woman interested exclusively in "free access to sphincter-loosening high-velocity rides"(96) and filling her stomach with deep-fried food--throughout the piece. Yet despite this chiding there are moments in which Wallace clearly acknowledges an essence within the Native Companion, allowing her to enjoy herself, that Wallace possesses but cannot access through his cynicism. More than that, there are moments in the text when Wallace concedes his own enjoyment at the fair and at the task Harper's assigned him, particularly during the Prairie State Cloggers Competition (123-126). It is arguable that Wallace pays homage to this complex through his inclusion of a terse conversation between himself and his Native Companion after she is the victim of "manifestly overt sexual-harrassment" by ride-operators at the fair (100).
"Did you sense something kind of sexual-harassmentish going on through that whole little sick exercise?" Wallace asks.
"Oh for fuck's sake [Dave] it was fun," His Native Companion replies.
"They were looking up your dress. You couldn't see them, maybe." "Oh for fuck's sake" Native Companion says again.
"So this doesn't bother you?" Wallace asks incredulously. "As a Midwesterner, you're unbothered?"
"So if I noticed or I didn't, why does it have to be my deal...Maybe I shouldn't ever go to the pool or ever get all girled up, just out of fear of assholes?"
Wallace then goes into a commentary on the stark contrast between Native Companion's perception of the situation and Wallace's imagined East Coast woman's reaction.
"This may be just the sort of regional politico-sexual contrast the swanky East-Coast magazine is keen for. The core value informing a kind of willed politico-sexual stoicism on your part is prototypically Midwestern appreciation of fun...whereas on the East Coast, politico-sexual indignation is the fun."
Native Companion replies firmly, with "And they all take Prozac and stick their finger down their throat too out there. They might ought to try just climbing on and spinning and ignoring assholes and saying Fuck 'em. That's pretty much all you can do with assholes."
"This could be integral" (101-102).
The end of this rather lengthy exchange leaves the reader not with the sense that Native Companion sees the ride-operator's behavior as anything less than sexual harassment, but that she is somehow able to preempt negative affect, which leaves Wallace astounded. Wallace's tendency is to intellectualize her response as a regionally-specific, culturally-influenced behavior, and to compare that behavior to that of women on the East Coast, Wallace's home region at the time he wrote the story, and the audience to which Harper's writes. However, his efforts are ridiculed by Native Companion, who suggests that life is impossible to enjoy, at least for a not-unattractive woman, if she insists on being offended by all "assholes." While superficially average, as far as exchanges in this essay are concerned, this scene details an important reversal in positions.
In most interactions, Wallace has the last word, often in narrative form rather than within the dialogue. Moreover, this last word is often a cynical one, reflecting Wallace's inability to release himself into the attitude--arguably one of mindlessness--that the mainstream adopts and instead portraying him as the culturally attuned observer. The final line of the story A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again arguably underscores this Wallacian tendency. After spending a week on a luxury cruise liner, Wallace notes with the sigh of relative relief that "subsequent reentry into the adult demands of landlocked real-world life wasn't nearly as bad as a week of Absolutely Nothing had led me to fear" (353). "Absolutely Nothing" becomes Wallace's moniker for the emotionally hazardous state of being the cruise's participants must adopt. In its conventional sense, doing "absolutely nothing" is highly desirable, often the goal of Americans' vacation time or weekends. But Wallace recasts doing "Absolutely Nothing" as a trap in which absolutely nothing is satisfactory, five-star service becomes annoyingly slow or repetitive, and the doer of Absolutely Nothing wants only to return to the normal daily grind. In this recasting Wallace portrays himself as perceptive of the incongruities implicit in American consumption and tourism, a cultural critic among proletarians. Of course, poignant exceptions to this concluding line theory certainly exist, such as the final line in "Good Old Neon", which portrays Wallace not as an overly-perceptive cultural critic wagging his finger at all the mindless Americans but as a human being struggling yet continuously failing to empathize with those around him.
Still, noting Wallace's tendency to end in skeptical criticism, the sexual harassment dialogue between Wallace and Native Companion bears interest in that Native Companion, according to one reading, appears the culturally attuned and realistic one while Wallace is portrayed as mindless. Although Wallace gets the last line, the line lacks precocity; it instead exudes mulishness through redundant insistence that her harassment is "crucial" to his piece. This insistence winds up entirely false--Wallace and Native Companion's dialogue and all others that mentioned Wallace's politico-sexual contrast hang-up were edited from the piece that ran in Harper's. One could easily argue that the entire dialogue's removal from the Harper's piece moots the debate, since neither Wallace as insistent outsider nor Native Companion as culturally adept insider were presented to Harper's readers. However, that argument would only have validity if Wallace too had chosen to remove the dialogue from both the Harper's piece and his own edited version. Rather, his decision to include it in the collection of essays highlights its importance as a moment in which Wallace is vividly shown the requirements for average American functionality.
On the "Questions to Consider While Reading" portion of the A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again page the reader is invited to consider the repercussions of reading Wallace's nonfiction as fiction. This question was inspired by the oft ludicrous scenarios Wallace paints in his essays. For example, he spends the first part of "Getting Away" describing his encounter with a group of older female journalists, who begin to titter when he tells them he's writing for Harper's, which they misunderstand to be Harper's Bazarre, a women's magazine. When Wallace realizes their mistake, he decides not to correct them in hopes of later getting to taste-test all the prize-winning desserts at the fair. On the second day of the fair, he claims to do this, with hilarious results:
8/14/1025h. Dessert Competitions.
8/14/1315h. Illinois State Fair Infirmary; then motel; then Springfield Memorial Medical Center Emergency Room for distention and possible rupture of transverse colon (false alarm); then motel; incapacitated till well after sunset; whole day a washout; incredibly embarrassing, unprofessional; indescribable. Delete entire day. (111)
There are some obvious conclusions to be drawn from this excerpt. The first, Wallace chooses how to balance his reporting with his comedic pursuits. If this was not the case Wallace would have followed the instructions he laid out for himself in the excerpt and deleted the entire day from his piece. Or if he thought the situation was important to report, he would not have kept the line "Delete entire day." Clearly the line serves a comedic effect, leaving the reader to wonder how contrived the comedic effect was. If it was entirely contrived, then trusting Wallace as a journalist who reports actual events becomes a much less simple task. Similarly, if it was embellished, how is the reader to determine which elements of Wallace's essays are embellished to cultivate a certain affect within the reader and which are accurately reported?
This piece, along with the title essay, walks the line between journalism and autobiography. Though this piece was commissioned as a journalistic account of the fair, Wallace adds a substantial amount of personal detail, ultimately resulting in an intimate piece. Wallace writes this essay in the first person, but unlike his other articles, this one is written in a diary style. He gives time and date stamps before each section and gives a chronological recounting of his experience.
Bruce Barcott for Salon writes:
"Wallace returns home as an adult to experience the Illinois State Fair. Experience it he does, in all its barnyard-stenching, carny-pissing glory: 50-plus pages (a version originally appeared in Harper's) of pure 1990s heartland Americana as seen through the eyes of a cynical, East Coast writer so full of smart observations he could probably stand to pop a few dumb pills to give his readers a break now and then. It's a masterpiece, a perfect balance of irony, humor, reportage and cultural analysis."
Some have noted that Barcott fails to acknowledge the true Midwestern-ness that saturates Wallace's perspective. Although he spent a significant amount of time on the East Coast, his formative years were spent in Illinois, and it was to Illinois that Wallace returned when he took a semester off from Amherst to reconsider what had become a meaningless life for him. In his latter adult life Wallace would again return to Illinois to teach at Illinois State University before moving to Claremont, California. Many of Wallace's essays, as well as many of the characters he traces in his fiction (Ortho Stice, all characters in Broom of the System) are Midwestern in origin and mindset, a type with which his prose suggests he is quite familiar. This is not to say that Wallace is unfamiliar with the New England psyche, which he taps into for most of the characters in Infinite Jest.