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An American suicide

There was no subject about which David Foster Wallace could not write brilliantly, from politics to

On the evening of 20 October this year a memorial service was held at Amherst College, Massachusetts, for the writer David Foster Wallace. Wallace, who graduated from Amherst in 1985, had hanged himself the previous month at his home in California. He was 46.

Since the publication of his voluminous and extravagantly ambitious second novel, Infinite Jest, Wallace had been widely acknowledged as the finest American writer of his generation. When Infinite Jest came out, in 1996, New York magazine's Walter Kirn declared that the competition had been "obliterated". It was, he wrote, "as though Paul Bunyan had joined the NFL, or Wittgenstein had gone on Jeopardy!". More or less instantly, Infinite Jest became the benchmark against which any ambitious and intellectually curious young novelist would measure himself. And so, when Wallace died, American fiction lost its lodestar. His suicide was a kind of Kurt Cobain moment, a profound generational shock. (Cobain, frontman of the rock band Nirvana, shot himself at home in Seattle in 1994. He was 27.)

Wallace had begun to write fiction while at Amherst, and his first novel, the antic and exuberant The Broom of the System, published when he was 24, was based on his senior English thesis. One of his professors, Andrew Parker, told the congregation at the Amherst service at Johnson Chapel how Wallace had insisted on writing a thesis in the philosophy department at the same time, and had still managed to graduate summa cum laude in both subjects. Sue Dickman, an Amherst alumna, remembered the year Wallace spent there as an instructor after an abortive attempt to start a PhD at Harvard; she recalled how he would come to class with a tennis racket and let his students take breaks so he could smoke.

The mourners also heard from Mark Costello, Wallace's college room-mate in the early 1980s, who implored them not to forget "how painful Dave's day-to-day life was". Wallace had suffered from depression since adolescence, and was hospitalised during his sophomore year at Amherst. Later, he briefly shared an apartment with Costello in Somerville, near Boston. Wallace was drinking heavily and experimenting enthusiastically with drugs, and eventually ended up in McLean Hospital, a psychiatric institution that had previously counted the poets Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell among its patients. The "power of death", Costello said, was his constant companion, and "eventually it cornered him and killed him".

While he was at McLean, Wallace was prescribed Nardil, a powerful antidepressant that he would take for most of the next 20 years. By the summer of 2007, however, the drug had begun to have unpleasant side effects, and it was decided that he would come off it. Doing so had catastrophic results. "Severe depression came back," Wallace's father, James, told the online magazine Salon. "They tried all kinds of things. He was hospitalised twice . . . and had a series of electroconvulsive therapy treatments, which just really left him very shaky and very fragile and unable to sleep."

By this summer, Wallace hadn't written anything for more than a year. He had been granted medical leave from his teaching job at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and had stopped going to the gym with his friend and colleague John Seery, where they had been the only "skinny-ass egghead types" in the place.

When, in mid-August, his wife, Karen Green, had to go away on family business, Wallace's parents came to stay with him in Claremont. "He was very emotional," his mother, Sally, said. "He was just terrified of so much. We would just try to hold him. He did tell me that he was glad I was his mom." James and Sally Wallace flew back home to Illinois at the end of the month. A fortnight later, Karen came home from a shopping trip to find her husband dead.

News of Wallace's suicide first broke on the Twitter page of the Brooklyn-based writer Edward Champion. By the time the mainstream media picked up the story, Champion was already gathering tributes and testimonials from the "literary community" on his blog, the comments box of which was soon filling up with expressions of shock and anguish from Wallace's fans. The confession of one devotee that "I haven't really cried over the death of someone I haven't met since Kurt Cobain" was typical.

Within a couple of days, Dave Eggers's McSweeney's ope ration had a virtual book of condolence up on its website, and people were posting reminiscences of meeting "DFW" at readings in out-of-the-way branches of Barnes & Noble, of taking writing classes with him and, in one case, of playing tennis against him in fifth grade. (Wallace had been an adolescent tennis prodigy, playing the junior circuit in the Midwest in the mid-Seventies. The first piece of extended narrative journalism he wrote, for Harper's magazine, was about summers spent "being driven through dawns to tournaments all over Illinois, Indiana and Iowa"; and Infinite Jest is, among other things, probably the finest, and certainly the longest, work of fiction about tennis ever written.)

The internet is a uniquely effective mechanism for processing public grief, of course, but there was something striking nevertheless about the sheer copiousness of the reaction to Wallace's death. This was partly because he was the kind of writer who attracts acolytes as well as admirers. The esoteric, self-enclosed quality of much of Wallace's fiction, not least the great thousand-odd-page slab of Infinite Jest itself, tended to inspire unusually fierce allegiance in many of his fans - the sort of obsessive who can tell you the likely effects of putting your head in a microwave (this being how the father of one of the central characters kills himself) because they've checked with a "med-school acquaintance", and who posts elaborate theories about arcane plot points online ("It sounds far-fetched, but check this out . . .").

Just as striking, and much more significant, however, was the reaction of other writers, Wallace's peers. There was spontaneous, unanimous agreement that he had been the best of them. Jonathan Franzen described Wallace as a "huge talent, our strongest rhetorical writer". In Zadie Smith's view, he had no "equal among living writers. He was an actual genius". He was also, everyone agreed, an unusually generous man: as "sweet a person" as Franzen had ever known, "meticulous about putting people at their ease", according to Smith.

Eggers posted a series of anecdotes about Wallace on the McSweeney's website. In one, he recalled the first time they met, in the mid-Nineties, at a diner in New York. While Wallace chewed tobacco, using a teacup in his lap as a spittoon (a habit he would never give up), he and Eggers "talked about how he'd grown up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and how I'd gone to college there, how his father taught there, about the pleasures and quirks of east-central Illinois. There's something very strange and uniquely powerful about meeting a guy whose writing you find world-changing but who also comes from your part of the world."

Who else could have written a story about a marketing executive who plans to inject deadly cultures into a snack he’s testing with focus groups?

Wallace was, by his own description, an “infantile transplant” to Illinois from upstate New York: his father had done his PhD at Cornell University and had come west to teach philosophy at the University of Illinois in Champaign. His mother taught English at a local community college. Wallace described the atmosphere of the family home in an essay he wrote for Harper's: “Suppers often involved a game: if one of us children [Wallace had a sister, Amy] made a usage error, Mom would pretend to have a coughing fit that would go on and on until the relevant child had identified the relevant error and corrected it. It was all very self-ironic and light-hearted; but still, looking back, it seems a bit excessive to pretend that your small child is actually denying you oxygen by speaking incorrectly.”

Being raised as an "extreme usage fanatic" by a teacher of composition certainly left its mark on the mature Wallace's prose style. In another of his McSweeney's posts, Eggers remembered the time Wallace sent him a story, "Mister Squishy", together with a note asking that if it was to run in his magazine, it should do so under the pseudonym "Elizabeth Klemm". Eggers agreed ("we were so proud to publish it"), but the subterfuge didn't last long: Wallace was simply "too recognisable to hide, too singular to fool anyone". Who else could have written a 60-page story about a marketing executive who hatches a plan to inject deadly cultures into the "snack cakes" he is testing with a focus group? And all this in sentences of improbable length and fiendish complexity.

Take the passage in which the protagonist fantasises, while briefing his focus group, about how much ricin or botulinus it would take to bring the entire corporate snack industry to its knees. As he is doing so, he is struck by his ability to entertain such fantasies in "total subjective private" and then by the thought that half the people in the room with him are doing the same:

. . . Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as like icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknowing and -knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he'd watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg's cap's public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under their left arm or the way after any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other's arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness . . .

This is writing of extraordinary syntactic control, and it is characteristic of what Eggers describes as Wallace's "dense, discursive, and insanely detailed style". The sentence continues for almost another page; the paragraph in which it occurs runs over four pages. Eggers says that he asked Wallace to consider breaking up some of the paragraphs before the story was published: "It was as if he were visiting the notion . . . for the first time. He was that kind of genius, whose understanding of the workings of his own fiction was, I think, largely separate from ideas of audience."

Actually, Eggers is missing something here, because Wallace thought more deeply about questions of audience and address than any other American writer of his generation. All that "insane" detail, and the formal strategies he borrowed from postmodernism (authorial intrusions, digressions, footnotes, flash-cutting between scenes and so on), were meant in fact to serve the rather traditional end of saying something about "what it is to be a fucking human being".

Wallace believed that each of us is "sort of marooned" inside our own skull, and that it is fiction's job to "aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people". It was the estranging apparatus of his style - the postmodern rhetorical devices, the hyperextended sentences - that was meant to do the aggravating.

That, at least, was the theory. However, Wallace was tormented by the thought that the “antagonistic elements” in his fiction might in fact just be manifestations of a pathological exhibitionism. He deplored his own “grossly sentimental affection for gags” and weakness for “formal stunt-pilotry” that served no narrative purpose. But he also understood that this predicament was not his exclusively; it was that of an entire generation of writers who, in a sense, had come too late – who had arrived, that is, just as the bold innovations of postmodern novelists such as John Barth, William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon were being absorbed and neutered by the culture.

Wallace believed that each of us is “sort of marooned” inside our own skull and that it is fiction’s job to “aggravate this sense of entrapment”

This highly developed generational self-consciousness is one reason Wallace was held in such esteem by his peers: he held up a mirror to their own anxieties, and articulated them more clearly and honestly than they ever dared.

Infinite Jest bears the scars of Wallace's parricidal struggle with his influences. He insisted that he had wanted it to be an "extraordinarily sad" book about loneliness and addiction, rather than a postmodern one. And to this end, the novel's two principal settings are a tennis academy, which Wallace depicts as a kind of laboratory of obsession (he writes with considerable feeling about the psychic costs exacted by endless early-morning tennis drills), and a halfway house for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. However, it is also crammed with set-ups and gags that could have come straight out of the fiction of Thomas Pynchon: a geopolitical agglomeration with the acronym ONAN; a gang of wheelchair-bound Québécois separatists; and a film so entertaining that it paralyses anyone who watches it.

At times it seems as if the novel is conducting an argument with itself - for instance, in a long scene in which Don Gately, a former drug addict who is now a live-in staffer at the half way house, goes to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Boston. One of the residents in Gately's care is there, too, and complains about the "psychobabbly dialect" that's de rigueur at events like this. Gately admits that the "seminal little mini-epiphanies" routinely experienced by new inductees into AA come embalmed in language of "polyesterish" banality. Then someone else says they also find the sentimental argot hard to stomach - especially the habit the speakers have of saying they are "here but for the grace of God", which phrase, she points out, is "literally senseless", and should be used only when introducing a conditional clause. Wallace is flattering his hip and savvy readers here, inviting them to identify with this sophisticated cynicism. But it is also clear that we are meant at the same time to find something ridiculous and overwrought about someone who is driven to want to "put her head in a Radarange" by a home-spun solecism or two. Indeed, Wallace said later that the scene was designed to get his readers - privileged, educated Americans, most of them - to "confront stuff about spirituality and values", stuff "our generation needs to feel".

Infinite Jest turned out to be Wallace's last novel. He didn't stop writing fiction - there were two further collections of stories, the second of which, Oblivion, contains some of his finest work - but, as Mark Costello observed in his Amherst encomium, something changed: "If you sit down and read his prose from the early Nineties to later, you'll hear the music changing. You'll hear sentences getting longer and longer, with these wonderfully balanced dependent clauses."

According to the novelist and journalist Tom Bissell, who knew Wallace, this was also a shift in "world-view". Bissell told me: "I think the man who wrote Oblivion would not have been satisfied with the cross-dressing leader of a Québécois separatist group whose primary mode of transport is wheelchairs, or with the political acronym ONAN, both of which are kind of silly in the way Pynchon is silly, but not in the way the world ever feels silly. I believe he escaped the anxiety of his influence."

Wallace's deepening ambivalence about the moral as well as aesthetic legacy of postmodernism is especially noticeable in the non-fiction he wrote in the last decade of his life. In many of his essays, whether the brief was to write about Caribbean cruises or the Maine Lobster Festival, he can be seen grappling obsessively with all that "stuff about spirituality and values".

A good example is a piece he wrote after Harper's sent him back to Illinois to attend the state fair, and to gorge on corn dogs while watching the rural Midwest at play. "Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All" derives all its considerable force from the tension between Wallace's self-acknowledged "East Coast cynicism" and his yearning for a kind of authenticity.

He describes coming across a small hillock that, for some reason, has been covered in artificial grass: "a quick look under the edge of the fake-grass mat reveals the real grass underneath, flattened and already yellowing". Now, the postmodernist debunker in him would have been content to leave that image to stand for the emptiness and shoddiness of the state fair as a whole. But Wallace doesn't settle for simply unmasking the event as a sham; and this is partly because, for all his protestations that he is no longer "spiritually Midwestern", he remains of the place he is describing.

He understands that to be Midwestern is to be "marooned in a space whose emptiness is both physical and spiritual", and that what the state fair provides is a kind of temporary communal respite from that condition. As Bissell, himself from the Midwest, puts it, "in terms of literary persona, [Wallace] was temperamentally speaking a rural Midwesterner, intellectually speaking a high-wire postmodernist, and emotionally speaking an artist-as-priest type. I'm not sure anyone else has really managed to combine those qualities."

Wallace’s best essays are artefacts of this multifarious literary personality, dramatisations of its internal conflicts. Nowhere is this drama more powerfully performed than in the 15,000-word article he wrote for Rolling Stone about a week he spent following John McCain during his Republican primary battle, in 2000, with George W Bush. (The article was turned into a short book this year to coincide with McCain’s second run at the presidency.)

It is unsettling reading the piece now - after a Republican campaign this year conducted mostly from the sewer - to recall that eight years ago McCain represented to many the last, best hope for decency and truth in American politics. Even the most jaded hacks aboard McCain's bus, the Straight Talk Express, were wondering if "humanity and politics, shrewdness and decency" really could coexist. And Wallace finds himself as inspired as anyone: "It's difficult not to feel enthused and to really like this man and want to support him in just about any sort of feasible way you can think of."

Underpinning McCain's promise in 2000, of course, was "something riveting and unspinnable and true": that the candidate had been imprisoned and tortured during the Vietnam War, and spent five years in a box-sized cell at the "Hanoi Hilton". But whatever it was in his character that sustained McCain during those five years was shut away in that box, too. This, for Wallace, was the essential "paradox" of his campaign: the fact that the "box that makes McCain 'real' is, by definition, locked. Impenetrable." Which meant that it was up to the voter to decide whether McCain was "truly 'for real'".

What the essay is really about, therefore, is the "interior war" inside Wallace's own head between the need to believe in something larger than himself and his anxiety that the need to believe might be a sham or a fraud. And "fraud", Mark Costello reminded the mourners at Amherst, "was one of the worst words in his personal vocabulary".

In the end, Wallace took his own life. Perhaps the struggle to believe in something was too great; he had suffered too much. He was the ultimate victim of his own interior war.

Jonathan Derbyshire is a writer and philosopher

The best of David Foster Wallace

1987: The Broom of the System

The metafictional game-playing and sheer verbal inventiveness of Wallace's first novel established him as a successor to American postmodernists such as John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. It is set in the near future in Cleveland, which now stands on the border of the Great Ohio Desert (or GOD), a vast tract of land filled with black sand.

1989: Girl With Curious Hair

The centrepiece of this first collection of stories is "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way", a 150-page novella set in a creative writing workshop. Wallace said the story was "written in the margins" of Barth's Lost in the Funhouse - the professor running the workshop is the author of a famous story also called "Lost in the Funhouse".

1996: Infinite Jest

The gargantuan novel that sealed Wallace's reputation as the most exciting and ambitious American novelist of his generation. The plot motor of Infinite Jest, which is over a thousand pages long and weighed down with more than a hundred pages of endnotes, is a movie of the same name which paralyses anyone who watches it.

1997: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Wallace's first collection of extended non-fiction contains some of his most celebrated essays: the titular record of a comically awful Caribbean cruise; a paean to the genius of David Lynch; and "E Unibus Pluram", his account of the way the "rebellious irony" of postmodernism was co-opted by television.

1999: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

In the title story of this second collection of shorter fiction, several unidentified men describe their sexual proclivities - including one who can't help shouting "Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!" when he is on the point of ejaculating. Another story, "The Depressed Person", with its extravagantly long sentences, footnotes and abundant psychotherapeutic jargon, is typical of Wallace's later fictional style.

2004: Oblivion

Oblivion has several of Wallace's finest stories, notably "Good Old Neon" and "The Suffering Channel". The former is narrated from beyond the grave by a high school acquaintance of "David Wallace". In the latter, a journalist on a hip New York style magazine travels to Indiana to profile a man who developed an ability to shit perfectly rendered sculptures while on latrine duty during the first Gulf War.

2005: Consider the Lobster

When Gourmet magazine sent Wallace to the Maine Lobster Festival, he came back with the title essay of this collection, in which he asks whether it is morally acceptable to boil sentient creatures alive (short answer: no).

2008: McCain's promise

This short book about John McCain was published this year to coincide with the US presidential election. Originally published as a long narrative report in Rolling Stone magazine under the title "Up, Simba!", it is an account of a week spent following the McCain's campaign during the 2000 Republican primaries. Wallace admired McCain the man, if not the politician, and was fascinated by his years in prison in Vietnam. He did not live long enough to see the outcome of this year's presidential election.

the death of Kurt Cobain

Whatever the cultural significance of Kurt Cobain's suicide, his reasons, as with David Foster Wallace, were first and foremost personal. Struggling with heroin addiction, various medical problems and facing an impending separation from his wife, Courtney Love, the lead singer of Nirvana shot himself at home in April 1994. Yet when news broke, the public outpouring of grief among teenage fans in his home city of Seattle resonated around the world.

To many, his death represented a clash between conflicting value systems: the counterculture from which Nirvana had emerged, and the corporate world of MTV and major record labels that transformed them into global rock stars just months after the release of their 1991 album, Nevermind. Cobain's suicide seemed like an admission that these two worlds could not be reconciled. "The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I'm having 100 per cent fun," he declared in his suicide note. The irony is that this exit only pushed Cobain deeper into music-industry mythology.

But it is a mistake to see his death as an artistic gesture. Cobain had come adrift in his life, which is something he shared with the increasing numbers of young men who kill themselves every year. In England and Wales, for example, suicide remains the second most common cause of death for men under the age of 35. If you really want to know something about the hopes and fears of a generation, understanding these everyday tragedies is as important as unpicking the famous ones.

Daniel Trilling

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?

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Welcome to the zoo: what it feels like to report a presidential campaign

Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault?

Here’s how you cover an American political convention: you get up inhumanly early to fire off your first emails, chugging down hotel coffee that tastes like burnt leather. Then you put on your least-squashed outfit and you drag yourself through crowds of sweating delegates to an event or a talk (or, if you’re unlucky, the treadless circus of the convention floor), and you watch and listen with your phone in your hand and one eye on social media until you run across something that you think might be worth writing about.

You email your editor from the phone to see if your sense is correct, and the idea is saleable. Meanwhile, you’ve started looking for somewhere to open your laptop and bang out your copy. You write it. You buy a coffee so they don’t kick you out of the café. You scramble for healthy wifi. You talk your way into the giant car park repurposed as a crèche for journalists outside the arena, where your organisation has a tiny table, and Google and Facebook have giant booths distributing free snacks, just to remind you who’s really in charge of the media.

Then you file your copy. You send the link out all over social media, because that’s part of your job, and you go in search of food with your eyes all glassy from screen glare, until you have to do it again. Whenever your editor goes to bed, you think about wrapping up and relocating to a bar where you can flirt with half of your attention while drinking beer and scrolling, constantly, through social media.

At some point around 4am, you clock off and spend an hour searching for a cab that you hope you’re going to be able to put against expenses, and you chat to the driver on your way to your overpriced, out-of-town hotel, too tired to register the shock of a conversation with an actual human being. Later on, in a hotel room that you can’t afford, you ask yourself: how does it feel to have made something that hates you?

In the two heat-drunk, deadline-crazed weeks that I spent at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, that line kept echoing in my mind. It’s spoken by an android to its creator in the Alex Garland film Ex Machina, but the 15,000 journalists, reporters, columnists, television crew members and media flunkies gathered to watch the biggest American political showdown of this half-decade could have asked ourselves the same question. Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault? And what can we do to stop it?

This is a story about stories, the people who tell them and the price we pay. In all the thousands of essays, reports, video diaries, interviews and listicles produced at and around the lumbering pageant of the US presidential race, one class of person is supposed to be almost invisible, and that is the people who do the work of production: the journalists. But what is happening in politics today, particularly in the United States, and particularly in this election, has everything to do with the media – the industry, yes, but also the people in it. If the media are the message, the message is anxious, incoherent and mired in a money crisis that it has no idea how to handle. Not unlike America, as it happens.

***

Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to have spent the past two years under a rock, let’s recap. These US conventions are the official nominating ceremonies for the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as four-day pageants at which lobbyists and media flunkies come to flirt and network and make whatever passes (in professional political terms) for friends. The candidate selection is merely the excuse for this shindig, and this time the fix was in before it had even begun.

The Democrats had chosen the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, representing the centre-liberal status quo with a corporate feminist twist and a side order of hawkish sabre-rattling. Her main challenger was the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders, who believes in wealth redistribution, free university education and social justice and gained an enormous following among young voters who have not yet accepted that they owe their votes to any candidate with a blue ribbon.

On the Republican side, a field of whey-faced religious extremists had been cleared for Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-television star, who stands on a platform of imposing a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, building a border wall with Mexico and replacing the entire US electoral system with a giant statue of his gelatinous face, sculpted from misdirected class rage. This, more than anyone, was the man we had all come to see.

One of the liturgies of doctrinal Trumpism is that there is a thing called “the mainstream media”, which tries to control what “ordinary” people think, despite knowing next to nothing about their lives. The mainstream media are assumed to be homogeneous, cosmopolitan, well paid, based almost exclusively in New York and the Beltway of Washington, and liberal to its core. This is a more accurate description of Trump than it is of most US journalists I know.

Trump did not invent performative hostility towards the “mainstream media”. Every insurgent politician in recent years has taunted the press in public, while giving hacks hungry for copy exactly what they want: a story that draws in readers. And a great many journalists, at least those who have not yet given up on the notion of speaking truth to power, feel less comfortable when power tries to court us than we do when it pretends to hate us.

The ways in which we create and consume media today are not the same as they were even four years ago, during what was dubbed in the US as “the social media election”. Rapid changes in communications technology have reshaped the terrain more thoroughly than those employed to scry in the entrails of the internet for the future of human thought can anticipate. What is clear is that power flows to those who can understand and exploit the hysterical reality engine called the media – and that has always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swayed the nation with his deft use of radio – and so did Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy became the first “television president”, beating his opponent, Richard Nixon, in televised debates that radio listeners felt that Nixon had won. Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, perfected that position. Barack Obama is the first US president to understand and exploit the full potential of the internet, recognising that social media can be used to reshape the calcified structures of money and messaging that are still, across the West, called democracy.

This year, Donald Trump – a reality TV mogul before he is anything else – has taken control of the narrative, understanding, like Europe’s right-wing populist pundits, that it is possible to bypass facts altogether and hit the electorate in the incoherent space of pure emotion. What, at a time like this, does journalism mean? What does it mean to be a member of the press in an age when there is no longer a clear distinction between media and meatspace, between reality and television?

***

 American political conventions are not the staid, rainwashed yearly affairs that we are used to in Britain. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic Parties throw a festival for thousands of lawmakers, lawyers, reporters, lobbyists and the occasional actual voter on their break from handing around snacks at press parties. It lasts four days, because that’s how long it took originally to count up delegates from every state, and now the rest of the time is filled up with boozing, hobnobbing and wearing clothes that make everyone look like they’re live-action role-playing the most depressing parts of the mid-1980s. There are speeches, and more speeches, musical interludes by tame celebrities, blind children singing the national anthem, and quite a lot of God-bothering – and much of the main action doesn’t start until 4pm every day, in order to give people time to recover from the night before.

This would not work in Britain. America still takes itself too seriously to consider how crass this looks to an outside world that also has reason to fear a vicious, swollen toddler with alarming hair being given access to the US nuclear codes. This year, the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, came first, as befits the case for the prosecution of the political status quo. On the Saturday before it began, the airport was already lousy with journalists looking for Trump people to interview.

Armed police circled the terminal as a choir of children from local schools sang patriotic lullabies to soothe us into what would be a two-week fever dream of nativist fear-mongering and empty political pageantry. The candidates, remember, had already been decided by a grudging, deeply divided electorate. All that was left was ritual, and the dim, thrilling possibility that someone might do something off-message.

I bought the first coffee of the week and got in a cab to call my editor while my synapses soaked in diluted stimulants. The roads were jammed with thousands of hacks doing the same, some of whom already had deadlines to meet. Nothing had happened yet. That didn’t matter. We were here to create news, not report it.

“The threshold for news now is very low,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times and an old friend from (where else?) the internet. “There are more of us running around and there’s less to do. A lot of us were bracing for something potentially as bad as the protests at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] in Chicago in 1968 . . . That’s always the conflicted part of the business. Chaos and mayhem make for selling newspapers, but if you live here in Cleveland, you want nothing to go wrong.”

Why did we come here? To see the show. We had heard that there would be protests, which always make good copy, and dissent on the convention floor. And we knew without doubt that there would be frothing cryptofascism, which makes better copy. The more Trump claims to hate the press, the more we fall over ourselves to give him the attention he craves. He is an insider trader in the attention economy.

I heard the word “zoo” repeatedly. The reporters had “come to see the zoo”. A zoo: where you pay to see dumb and dangerous beasts in cages, and then eat ice cream. Is that where we thought we were? There were wire fences around the convention zone and the people there knew that they were on show, putting on a spectacle for the liberal media that they claimed roundly to despise. Trump’s people made it clear that this convention was about showbiz, although the celebrity roll-call was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a man from a TV show called Duck Dynasty and a handful of C-list actors. The DNC had Snoop Dogg.

As delegates, lobbyists and reporters continued to flood into Cleveland, nothing – at least nothing resembling substantive news of any kind – continued to happen relentlessly. But we were all hoping for a moment of transcendence, a big breakthrough. A great observation or piece of writing that would make our editors proud and our landlords happy, back in the places we were from – sorry, the places we were based. None of the reporters, it seemed, was from anywhere. Instead, we were based in New York, or based in Washington, or based in a small village in Finland. We were transient half-people, scrapping for meaning and a living.

It quickly became apparent that the promised protests would not be occurring. We had prepared ourselves for open-carry gun marches and riots in the streets, and so had the police of every local district, who had been shipped in to bristle on every corner, but anyone with a sensible point to make had decided to stay at home. The gun protest turned out mainly to consist of a man with two guns, with dozens of reporters circling him like hungry vultures that had heard the dying screams of political discourse.

Mark Twain is apocryphally said to have observed that there were only three real American cities – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – and everywhere else was Cleveland. The place did look like it had been hastily constructed out of plywood and the overwhelming impression was of being backstage on a giant movie set, which helped with the sense of unreality not one jot. Nor did the way that everyone in town seemed to spend between a third and half of their waking hours staring at a phone or a laptop screen. The screen-time/real-time distinction had disintegrated completely and we had all come a long way to be in the same place, looking at our phones.

Still hazy from jet lag, I dunked myself in a basement swimming pool; its acid-blue water was the temperature of fresh urine. I dried off in the bar, chlorine tightening my skin. Next to me on an unforgiving leather sofa, Adele M Stan, a reporter from the American Prospect, was wrapped in a shawl, checking her phone. This, she told me, was the strangest political convention of the seven that she had attended. Many of the major Republican political players, unwilling to yoke themselves to Trump’s toxic popularity, had decided to skip it, and so had most activists with any sense. Instead, the space around the stadium was a clear field for ranters, ravers and swivel-eyed performance artists masquerading as political actors – just like the stage.

For two weeks, in two cities, I met almost nobody who was local. The town centres had been cleared and scrubbed for the event, the local tramps and beggars ungently encouraged to move on. Often, even the waiting staff and Uber drivers had come from out of town. Many of the real citizens had left to rent out their homes on Airbnb. 

Everyone in the action zones seemed to be from somewhere else.

I know nobody from Cleveland and yet, within an hour of arriving, I had run into five people I know. They had come to get the story. It quickly became apparent that they had also come to get laid. I have never been so consistently hit on as I was in those first three days in Cleveland. Tinder was lit with people “in town for the week, trying this out for the first time”.

I ended up having some of my most honest conversations of the trip with other reporters on the instant dating app, where we seemed to feel more free to voice our political opinions. We would start off straight-up flirting, then ease into confidences about how bizarre the experience was and intimate existential panic about the nature of sanity, bracketed in plaintive requests for the sort of sex you have with strangers as the world is ending. I matched with two people from The Daily Show. The week was a stew of pre-fascist panic: mate or die.

***

On the walk down to the convention centre in Cleveland, the streets seemed empty except for stray reporters, security guards and a giant billboard howling: “Don’t believe the liberal media!” Overhead, a chartered plane flew the slogan “Hillary for Prison”. This line was available over the next few days on buttons, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, announcing to the world that the trolls had taken the wheel of political discourse. Hillary for Prison. Like much of what passes for political conversation in this election, it makes sense only if you say it in an American accent, and it’s not as funny as it seems.
Outside on the corner, two enterprising young men with button-down shirts and ice-white smiles that did not flicker were selling Clinton- and Trump-themed boxes of cereal for $40 each, because they had college debts that they couldn’t rely on the Democrats to cancel. I switched on the recorder, a decision I almost immediately regretted. The spiel they gave me was so polished that I was unsurprised, a quick Google search later, to find five articles about them already published.

There was still little to do but drink coffee, so a square mile of cleared city was full of reporters running around, wired and jumpy, wondering what we were missing. We were desperate for something, anything to kick off, not because we liked the idea of civil unrest but – hey, it had to be better than cluttering up the hotel lobby.

Speaking of hotel lobbies, one thing bears repeating: most of the reporters in Cleveland weren’t as fancy as we were making out. For every well-known news anchor and overpaid op-ed writer, there were dozens of production crew, staff bloggers and freelance reporters living from pay cheque to pay cheque. On Monday afternoon in the aptly named Public Square, I met up with five reporters whom I had known since we all got our start together covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They had driven down from New York and found a floor to crash on in the hope of making enough money covering the convention to pay for the trip. Back in 2011, it seemed that new media had the power to reframe democracy. Five years later, that turned out to be entirely true – but not in the way we expected.

We gathered to reminisce about that time, about the protests, the excitement, the arrests, the brief, gorgeous sense that a different world was possible. We’d also heard that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine would perform an impromptu concert in the square for the protesters, so we sat at a café table, waiting for that to begin. Rage had been all over Occupy like a rash and could be relied on to drum up some modest mayhem.

In the opposite corner, a few dozen young people were gathered around a speaker stage. We spent an hour checking social ­media with one eye, while catching up on what had happened in each other’s lives – who had got married, who had broken up, who’d been made redundant, who had got custody of the dog. We met covering Occupy Wall Street; now we are, apparently, the liberal media establishment. It took us an hour to realise that the people crowded around the small stage were not the warm-up for the protest. They were the protest. By that time, it was over.

***

I turned up to the Washington Post’s convention-viewing party with a gaggle of other young hacks, all of our well-honed powers of observation focused on predicting when the snack table would be restocked and how long we could stay before somebody noticed that we were freeloading freelancers who came here to pinch the wifi. The Washington Post, underwritten by Amazon money, took over a bar near the convention centre and offered on-site massages and craft beers. There were also speaking events throughout the day. Nick Pinto of the Village Voice was not the only one to notice that those who had sponsored the shindig, including representatives of Big Oil, got to put their point of view across unchallenged at these events. So much for liberal bias.

On the big screens behind the free bar, the convention speeches were playing, but almost nobody was watching. Nobody was watching as Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, took to the stage to curse out the “mainstream media”, which lived in a different world from “regular folks like us, who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living”. “It’s been a rough year for media experts,” he said. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”

At the Republican convention, I saw 15,000 reporters trying to find a new, original angle on the only story that mattered – that a dark mood of nationalist populism had taken hold in the world’s only superpower and whatever the outcome of this election, there will be suffering. There will be pain, distributed among millions. I saw the flags in the arena, the pomp and excess, the hundreds of fists raised. Country-rock music played throughout. It was like a nightmare marriage of Nuremberg in 1933 and the Eurovision Song Contest, and I knew that this story was not new.

***

Journalists have a way of acting as if we were not political animals with political appetites, as if we were spectators. There may have been a time, in a previous generation, when this was true, when commentators and editors got to play politics like it was a game. But times are changing and so is the industry, and we’ve got skin in this game. Nobody who expects to be personally unaffected by a Donald Trump presidency would, for instance, steal an entire jar of BuzzFeed-branded pens (including the jar), which is what I saw a young freelancer doing at the Washington Post party. By the end of the first week, we were all ready for a little bit of hope. But that wasn’t the story the Democrats were selling, given their reluctance to lie with such lucrative momentum as their rivals.

Philadelphia in late July was hotter than the underbelly of the sun and the air was soupy with moisture. This is not a place where Europeans should ever have settled, for a number of good reasons of which the weather is not the least. The heat sent everyone a bit loopy, as if we were walking through treacle in a dream. And, like in a dream, the narrative kept slipping out of focus. From the start, the messaging was all about the grand story of America, a nation that does not need to be made “great again” because it is already great, a nation that survives by hallucinating its own legend – but the gathered press could not help but share the sense of having been cheated. The awkward truth that Trump and his followers have tapped into is that there are millions of people for whom America is not, and never has been, all that great.

A few days before the speeches started, the crypto-justice trolls WikiLeaks dropped an enormous cache of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server that had probably been hacked by Russian agents. These appeared to show, to the surprise of nobody, that the Democratic Party had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders from the start.

The convention opened with accusations of corruption and the announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic chair, was resigning. That afternoon, hundreds of Sanders supporters braved the heat to stand outside City Hall to make their feelings known. The one thing I heard from everyone I interviewed – and the one point of agreement between the Bernie supporters and Trump’s people – was that the mainstream media were not to be trusted.

The overwhelming impression of being a reporter at the DNC was of being held hostage – literally, as well as figuratively. Everyone was too tired to move and certainly too tired to flirt. Where the Republican convention was a slosh of sexual energy, of directionless desire, the Democrats’ was all about desire deferred. I deleted Tinder from my phone to make more space for interviews.

The convention centre was miles out of town and getting in involved a system of passes and checkpoints so complicated that you would have been loath to go outside the media zone, even if it weren’t more than 30°C in the shade. The press was stashed in a system of speciously air-conditioned marquees outside the convention hall, with three stinking porta-potties to service thousands of reporters and no water available. Jerry Springer was there, and I had no idea why. Is he a Democrat? Or does he simply materialise wherever reality television meets Freudian psychodrama, wherever people try to pretend that working-class people screaming at each other is entertainment?

It was, more than anything, a physical slog. The tone was set by the way in which the perimeter had been given over to Uber, so that it was hard to get close without taking the on-demand car service. Entry to the security zone was through an oasis-like Uber tent, where you could pick up free water in exchange for your lingering discomfort with Silicon Valley economics. It’s like being in a rewrite of Children of Men for the gig economy. A new adventure in bleak.

Many of the reporters in attendance had just come from Cleveland and were already worn out from a week of frantic deadline-wrangling and late-night networking – not optional in an industry in which job security is based largely on personal connections. Here, the reporters were taken for granted and so was our good coverage. The understanding was that we would encourage our readers, implicitly or explicitly, to support the nominee because we had no other option. By the end of the second day, it wasn’t clear if we would even be allowed to leave without at least a tweet declaring ourselves #WithHer.

On day two, after the roll-call of states was read out and Clinton was officially nominated, some Sanders delegates – who had hoped for something more than the status quo with a feminist varnish – staged a walkout. The first I saw of this was movement in the media tent, that unmistakable herd motion of reporters who realise potential copy is happening near them, like chickens moving as one at the rattle of the seed trough.

Finally, something off-message was happening. After days of manoeuvring to ensure that no left-wing protesters got near the press, they came right to us. T-shirted delegates from Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee stood in the press tent with hand-drawn signs and sticky tape half hanging off their mouths. They had taped their mouths shut to symbolise their silencing by the Democratic committee but were having to untape themselves every few minutes to give interviews and, after the third or fourth time of doing this, the tape started to lose its stickiness. Those trapped outside chanted: “The whole world is watching!” For once, at least for those with a broadband connection, this was true.

They played us like Slick Willie plays the saxophone. It was masterful. We heat-exhausted copy-monkeys, strung out on hours of refreshing TweetDeck, found ourselves standing on tables, holding our phones aloft like protective amulets, trying to capture whatever it was that was happening, because something, for the first time in days, was definitely happening. Something unplanned. Something off-script.

The decision to occupy the media tent was borderline genius. It was one of the best-played protest moves I had ever seen, placing the dissenters instantly in front of the world’s cameras. Like the convention, it was staged not for those who were present but for readers and viewers elsewhere. The internet was the invisible current in the room. The rest of America and the rest of the world were not here, but we were haunted by them – by the sense that real life was going on just outside the room.

Yet, like in a horror movie from the scrag-end of the 1990s, it turned out that we were the ghosts all along. It turned out that we, the delegates, the lobbyists, the spectators and the precarious, anxious press corps, were the ones haunting the real world through the internet, trying to make sense of a story that had run far ahead of us, trying to form the narratives of which material life is made. We sneer at reality TV without understanding that we are active producers in the greatest reality show of all: US politics.

It was enough. I didn’t care enough about what Hillary Clinton had to say to drag myself through the sweltering nightmare of the convention centre for another minute, so my colleague and I fought our way to a cab and watched it on TV, at home. It turned out that Clinton had little to add to the story that America has been trying to tell about itself for decades, apart from a fantastic array of pantsuits and a series of promises that she will be under no obligation to keep.

With the world facing the alternative of Donald Trump, it is now on us – those who create and sustain the narratives of identity and change in the US and beyond – to make that sell, in order to avert disaster. We may not be the establishment but we find ourselves in a position of having to advocate for it, and to do so convincingly to those for whom the prospect of a woman president is not sufficient to inspire faith in a better future. That’s what the media are good for right now, in this fever dream of an election – and it might not be enough.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser