Diversion and Self-Doubt in the Drive-Thru

One of the elements of the essay that we’ve discussed from the beginning is the notion of tangents and diversions, allowing oneself as a writer to let the topic drive one instead of the other way around. Only by exploring in this way, it’s argued, can we let the self-doubt required of an essay to work its way through to some kind of resolution or at least conclusion. “We eagerly embrace the essay’s non-linear quality, losing ourselves in its unpredictable twists and turns and moody swings,” writes Jeff Porter in “A History and Poetics of the Essay.” And later he says, “What we expect from the modern essay writer is a tendency to doubt and hesitate.”

On the face of it, Eric Schlosser doesn’t seem to be hesitating or doubting much in Fast Food Nation. His research is so thorough, his facts so many and so damning, that one could see why it was considered by some a polemic rather than a book-length essay. Where’s the question, really? Where’s the doubt? Where is the question that started the whole snowball rolling?

As I read, at first I wasn’t sure. You could argue that he does allow his book/essay to take twists and turns; there is no layer of the subject, seemingly, that he does not address. He doesn’t just talk about the corporations or the entrepreneurs who started them; he talks about the way they have affected American culture (global culture to some extent) on every level. His “unpredictable twists and turns,” one could argue, are the deepening layers of the onion that he continuously peels away, always asking the next question, always allowing the answer to take him to yet another question, to yet another answer, and so on. In this sense, the book is more linear than non, but it does allow for traveling down every possible path of query. And like any good reporter or essayist, Schlosser clearly goes down the paths without pre-conceived notions of what’s at the end. He lets the path take him where it will.

But is there self-doubt? Is there hesitation? I think so, though it didn’t really strike me until I came to the end of the last chapter and the afterward in my edition of the book (First Mariner Books, 2012). “Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food,” he writes. “The first step toward change is by far the easiest: stop buying it.” Then he brings the book full circle as he repeats the sentences we first saw in the introduction: “Pull open the glass door, feel the rush of cold air, get in line and look around you…” In the introduction, this ends with, “The whole experience of buying fast food has become so routine, so thoroughly unexceptional and mundane, that it is now taken for granted, like brushing your teeth or stopping for a red light. It has become a social custom as American as a small, rectangular, hand-held, frozen and reheated apple pie.” In other words, it is now an inevitable part of who we are as a people and a culture. We have no power or even inclination to move it.

When he repeats this idea at the end, he morphs it to include the concept that you have read this book now, you know there is so much more to this than you thought before: “Think about where the food came from, about how and where it was made, and about what is set in motion by every fast food purchase, the ripple effect near and far, think about it. Then place your order. Or turn and walk out the door. It’s not too late. Even in this fast food nation, you can still have it your way.” He turns the insipid Burger King jingle into an ironic call to individualism, to making a thoughtful, informed decision, not simply being swept into some completely inevitable and predictable action.

In the afterward he reinforces this idea saying, “It was never my intention to tell readers what to think. The aim of this book was simply to show the unanticipated consequences of everyday behavior—and encourage people to think for themselves.”

The doubt in Schlosser’s essay is embedded in his whole argument: whether or not people will be inspired by his work to think for themselves. He doesn’t know. He can only put it out there, argue his case as effectively and thoroughly as possible, and hope that some people who read his words will see the world differently. In that sense, he never does reach a resolution, only a conclusion. He has hope, but no expectation, and no real assuaging of his doubt.

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