David Foster Wallace’s “Ticket to the Fair” The Next American Essay

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The Next American Essay

This is a lengthy essay about the author’s experience at the Illinois State Fair in 1993. It is written in first person and is organized into sections according to day, time and location. This organization contributes to Wallace’s almost anthropological approach to writing about his experience. He provides readers with a plethora of details about the types of people, food and animals and spices up the details with occasional comments. These comments, humorous, poignant, and often sarcastic, help Wallace reveal himself without going into mundane background details.

For example, “Middle-management types enter…The words ‘excited,’ proud,’ and ‘opportunity’ are used repeatedly. Ms. Illinois County Fairs…is proudly excited to have the opportunity to present two corporate guys, sweating freely in suits, who report the excited pride of McDonald’s and Wal-Mart to have the opportunity to be this year’s corporate sponsors.” Statements like these help illustrate Wallace and his world view by, in a way, mocking others’. This mockery however does not come off judgmental or arrogant because no one escapes its wrath. Wallace does not hesitate to mock either Harper’s, the magazine that publishes the essay (“I suspect that every so often editors at East Coast magazines slap their foreheads and remember that about 90 percent of the United States lies between the coasts”) or himself (“I’m reluctant to go shirtless because there’d be no way to display my credentials”), thus maintaining the same casual, curious, and occasionally sarcastic tone throughout the piece.

“Ticket to the Fair” is reminiscent of a travelogue so the primary tension is between the author and his environment. But instead of taking the readers to a far away locale, Wallace travels to the most commonplace of environments to illustrate that one does not need to go far to encounter something exotic. In particular, Wallace addresses the question of why people in the Midwest go to state fairs. In the end he writes, “The East Coast existential treat is escape from confines and stimuli-quiet, rustic vistas that hold still, turn inward, turn away. No so in rural Midwest. Here you’re pretty much away all the time. The land is big here-board-game flat, horizons in every direction…Thus the urge physically to commune, melt, become part of a crowd. To see something besides land and grass and corn and cable TV and your wife’s face. Hence the sacredness out here of spectacle, public event: high-school football, Little League, parades, bingo, market day, fair…The real spectacle that draws us here is us.”

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D. Shield’s “Life Story,” The Next American Essay, pg. 339

After skimming through all of the essays in both books and reading a considerable number of them thoroughly, I noticed the various ways that writers experiment with structure. Perhaps I am just woefully uneducated on this subject but I was surprised to see that essayists have been taking liberties with I did not realize that essayists having been taking liberties with structure for so long. While Barry Lopez’s essays is one of my favorite of the entire book, I  will now focus on one of the other essays from The Next American Essay.

I didn’t necessarily want to critique an essay that I didn’t connect to, didn’t like or one that I found boring. Instead, I wanted to write about one I found inferior because it could have been (should have been) so much better.

I really enjoyed Shields’ fresh and unusual approach to the structure of the essay and his way of putting together sentences, each of which is fully capable of standing on its own like a bumper sticker. For example, “This vehicle not purchased with drug money. Hugs are better than drugs.” Shields also does a good job of bundling together related, or seemingly related bumper sticker sentences into sensible paragraphs that read somewhat like a prose poem. The speaker oscillates between first, second and third person perspective, depending on the paragraph. The overall tone of the essay remains lighthearted and sarcastic, consistent with the tone of the individual bumper stickers.

While this approach makes for a colorful piece with a creative use of language and rhythm, it also prevents the essay from standing on its own as a coherent and complete work. In particular, the essay tends to fall short by not being able to create appropriate tension or conflict. The essay reads like a funny, quirky, and caustic list of poignant comments (sometimes infantile but always humorous). It does not seem to progress past this point and I am not sure whether it can be salvaged or improved upon. If the author were to all of the sudden stop writing in bumper stickers or short declarative sentences, some semblance of conflict can be created but the integrity of the style will also be compromised.

Response to “The Raven” by Barry Lopez

Response to "The Raven" by Barry Lopez, The Next American Essay

The tension of this piece is the difference between crows and ravens and why there are no longer any crows in the desert. The raven (both as the bird and the metaphor for this type of person) is the protagonist while the crow is the antagonist. Lopez spends a lot of time discussing the crow’s faults (his arrogance and flamboyance) in order to illustrate how and why the raven has survived. In particular, the author shows how the crow’s arrogance leads to its downfall while the raven’s humble way of life and its quiet confidence allows him to thrive. The essay is written in third person and has no dialogue except a few instances where the author addresses the reader directly as ‘you.’ The essay is set in the desert but is not limited to it. Instead the author uses this setting to illustrate what characteristics of the the crow allow it to thrive in the city and die in the desert. As a result, the theme or the moral of the story is that people should try to live their lives like the raven, in a quiet and measured confidence.

The essay works on many levels because Lopez does an excellent job of illustrating why ravens (both as birds and metaphors) are superior to crows. The essay is reminiscent of a fable or fairy tale in that it does not cross into the realm of fiction any more than necessary and makes its point without being the least bit judgmental. This is one of my favorite essays and there is nothing about it that does not work.