Letters to Wendy’s

Eric Schlosser’s famous book, Fast Food Nation, tells about America’s unhealthy obsession with cheap, fattening food. So too does Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s. Schlosser’s book is a documentary. It talks about science and business and psychology. Wenderoth, however, focuses on other aspects of fast food: culture, psychosis, desperation, and consumption. His book examines the fast food phenomena and the culture that has bred it, from the point of view of the consumer. The book’s epistolary format allows us to peer deeply inside the mind of man set on self-destructive, yet socially acceptable, behaviors.

Observation

The most insightful parts of this book come from the narrator’s brief observations of his peers: fellow consumers patronizing his local Wendy’s restaurant. In one letter, he wonders why someone would order a soda without ice. On the surface, this is simply a matter of preference. However Wenderoth repositions this behavior to appear abhorrent and “appalling.” Most people, it is conjectured, prefer to have ice in soft drinks. His narrator further wonders if the person in question had brought their own ice which they would mix with the soda. This act would further differ from social norms, yet would somehow make the act less criminal as it would become an accommodation or compromise to the accepted normative behavior. He juxtaposes this relatively benign act, responding to it as some would to more “high profile” deviant behaviors.

In other sections, the narrator observes his peers from a comfortable distance. He wonders about their habits or their lives, or lack thereof. He makes futile attempts to relate to his fellow consumer on this artificial social level. In one instance, standing before a urinal, he examines the penis of another man and wonders why their two genitals do not engage in conversation, as it would seem to benefit them. While this is a clearly odd thing to think of, Wenderoth is establishing that this narrator, as a proxy for people in general, has deep problems relating to others. In most social situations, they simply cannot connect at all. By wanting the two penises to converse, he is expressing a desire for an intimate connection to another. While not necessarily desiring a sexual association, he is acknowledging his own isolation and lamenting it.

The Cultural Text

Wenderoth spends a lot of time commenting on the various copyrighted images and terms Wendy’s and other companies use in their branding and advertising. The narrator says in one letter that their comment cards, which are laced with such sayings as “We Care!” or “Tell Us About Your Visit” are what incited him to this series of psychotic missives towards the company. The character has supplanted his need to feel nurtured from another human, and replaced it with a sense of nurturing coming from a corporation.

The Desperation of Consumption

Biggie, a term used by Wendy’s for their extra large serving sized products, is taken by Wenderoth and repeatedly used to discuss numerous cultural topics. While the obvious phallic implication is there, it also refers to consumption, and how many consumers feel that “more is better” even when it is in such extreme excess, that it becomes self-destructive.

One of the more prominent images conjured by the narrator is that of Wendy herself. The famous image of a young girl with red hair adorns many Wendy’s restaurants, and the narrator finds comfort and sexual arousal in her soft features. Wendy, for him, has become a goddess, whose temple he appears before daily. Wendy bids him eat her food, and despite his increasing illness, he does.

In one of the more significant passages, the narrator notes how all life in the Wendy’s is irrelevant when the cash register is removed. No one can eat, no one can cook, no one can work without it. His insight sheds further light on the fractured nature of consumer culture and the seeming madness it brings.

Are you full?

One of the most striking themes that Wenderoth covers is that of fulfillment. If the narrator is to believe everything he reads inside Wendy’s, then he should be quite satisfied and full by his life and by his visits. Yet this is obviously not so. In this passage, he apologizes to his reader for his lack of soul:

March 6, 1997:
My life is not a story. I’d like to apologize for that. I know what a nuisance it is for you. I’ve tried to make my life into a story– you know I have– but every time I’ve been returned to the heart of the city in chains. I accept this as the fated role I am to play. I wait here, in chains, for you to pass by. For you to look out of the story and into me, into the way I’m bound, unsheltered, guilty of nothing.

This letter is not written so much to Wendy’s, as it is from a man to himself. He tries to make something of himself within the confines of the culture he lives in and feeds into, to succeed in it by escaping it. Yet despite his best efforts, he is bound to it, in a prison of his own creation.

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