Friday, January 4, 2013

Amusement Parks, Fairs, and DFW

I'm still plugging away at A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. While excited that I finally reached the David Lynch essay/argument, this means that I finished the preceding "Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From it All."  An all-encompassing view of the 1993 Illinois State Fair, as seen through the eyes of David Foster Wallace, it has been my favorite installment of A Supposedly Fun Thing... so far.

DFW's personality really shone through "Getting Away..." (keen observations tinged with human insecurities/vulnerabilities, the way the surrounding environment affects mood) and there was subtle humor sprinkled about. Allow me to list a few standouts:

  • His descriptions of the game booths, how "rows of stuffed animals hang by their feet like game put out to cure."
  • The gluttonous, sensory overload of the food booths. And this is before he eats himself into an unpleasant sounding digestive situation at the Dessert Competition tent.
  • Although his coverage of the Fair is due to a journalism assignment from a "swanky East-Coast magazine," he fails to bring a notebook with him. He then buys a notebook, leaves it in his car with the windows down, and the notebook gets ruined by rain. He doesn't even have a pen. After indulgence at the Dessert tent sends him to the Emergency Room, he ends up in the hospital gift shop to buy another notebook. He buys the only one they have, a kid's notebook, "with that weird soft gray paper and some kind of purple brontosaurus-type character named Barney on the cover."
  • The cacophonous noise from the Poultry Building is "what insanity must sound like."
  • "Clydesdales with their bellbottoms of hair"
  • Throughout the piece, DFW conducts hapazard interviews with various Fair folk. Basically asking random questions, with little more than an eye roll, profanity, or blank stare as the response. At one point he writes: "I ask a little kid to describe the taste of his Funnel Cake and he runs away." I had to laugh out loud when reading this, just imagining a rumpled DFW approaching some kid out of the blue; and the kid, having no idea who DFW is, hightailing it out of there in full stranger-danger mode.
"The Fairgrounds are creepy with everything set up but no one about.
A creepy air of hasty abandonment, a feeling like you run home from kindergarten
and the whole family's up and moved, left you."

- David Foster Wallace

To me, the center of "Getting Away..." is DFW's memory of how as a child, he was convinced that everything he encountered existed just for him. And how this sense of the world is why "special ritual occasions drive a kid right out of his mind." Special occasions such as Fairs. The child counts down, looks forward to this special event, and "every hanging banner, balloon, gilded booth, clown-wig, turn of the wrench on a tent's erection...will present itself as Special-For-Him...For-Him alone, unique at the absolute center."

This reminded me of a sentiment I've tried to capture in my own writing. In a section of my grad school thesis, there was a piece where a female character visits an amusement park (which was a much-anticipated, once-a-summer occasion from her youth), and tries to reconcile her current experience of it with her childood impressions. To bring this blog post to a close, I've included two excerpts below.

The following is from written work by Fiona Clifford:

As a kid, the drive to Funtown was the best part of summer, promised magic as August faded and the beginning of a new school year loomed near.  Every evening darkness arrived a little earlier, the threat of frost and the tips of trees already turning not quite hidden from our attention. Hair matted with chlorine and the ocean, we rode bikes around town, stained our lips red and purple with Freezie Pops. There was still Funtown to look forward to.

It was strange being at Funtown in the middle of the day...

At Funtown, neon bulbs split the night open with endless flashing circles.  Merry-go-round horses spun with boundless energy. Kids like me rushed about, thrilled to be up so late, sandaled feet thumping over wooden bridges and scattered popcorn bags.  

On the way there we shivered with anticipation, all of us in the backseat straining to catch the first glimpse of the dinosaur.  The entrance to Funtown. He was perched on the side of a cliff, ferocious claws captured by spotlight. With the night lingering on the edge of expectation, anything could happen  once inside.

I shifted to the front of my seat as Ethan drove on. I wanted to spot that dinosaur. As we neared the park, my eyes focused instead on a brown blob lumped onto a plastic pile of rocks  A bear, his crafted 
expression smeared into attempted 
wildness, stood in the place of the dinosaur.
“What the hell? Has that bear always been there?” Squinting, I tried to pinpoint where my memory misled me. 
“How should I know?” Ethan pulled into the parking lot. “Does it matter?”


It was strange being at Funtown in the middle of the day, without night casting its spell over everything. Lights were on – blinking from the seats of the Ferris Wheel, dangling heavily from the tents that promised prizes for all the money in your pocket – but no one noticed. The carousel mirrors were covered in grime and the horses reared up in various expressions of pain. Impaled with a gilded pole, their hard red mouths and glazed eyes remained lifeless. The air was thick with the smell of frying oil. Kids stuffed themselves with onion rings, fries, fried dough; simply dropping their wrappers on the ground when they were through. Cotton candy dissolved on the tongue before they ever had a chance to taste it.


  1. DFW is an amazing writer. I had no idea how complex and difficult his life was until i read his well-written biography.

    I love the visit to Funtown. Memory is a lacy cloth.

    1. His style takes some getting used to, but I'm starting to get into it more and more. I definitely want to read the bio. "Memory is a lacy cloth" - that's lovely!

  2. We had Riverview.
    The Mighty Mouse was my favorite ride. It was a roller coaster that swung your car 1/2 way off the track over the river.

    I loved to spend my pennies in the Gallery on cards with pinups. The old fashioned black and white ones, like Lana Turner and Jane Russell in tight sweaters. A penny apiece. I'd leave there with a thick pack of cards and a penny that I'd defaced by stamping it in a machine by the door out. AKA Jude

    1. What great memories, Jude! Do you still have any of those pinup cards? The Mighty Mouse sounds terrifying :)

  3. Haha, David Foster Wallace sounds like a creepo.

    I like the description of the carousel horses as being "impaled", quite the dark undertones.

    1. He uses the word "creepy" a lot, in what I've read so far any way.

      I've always thought the merry-go-round horses had freaky faces...