Thursday, March 09, 2017

David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster

I read and thoroughly enjoyed David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster, a collection of essays he published in 2006. It's tremendous writing, where erudition, humor, and keen observation all come together in a neat package. It's a massive mind rattling around America.

Wallace is famous for footnotes, and this book gets to the point where footnotes of footnotes are down to something like 2 point font to the point that my middle aged eyes are literally incapable of reading them without a microscope. But anyway.

The essays:

Big Red Son: this is about the porn industry, and specifically the Adult Video News awards ceremony. Wallace's deadpan view of the main players and the ceremony itself lets them become almost parodies of themselves. For some reason I also smiled at his Midwestern dialect as he mentions eating "supper" with porn stars. As someone who does not use the term, for me it conjures up a wholesome scene of homemade food and family talk, so it was jarring to see it used for people with minimal clothing eating terrible buffet food and making lewd jokes.

Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think: a hilariously negative review of John Updike's 1997 novel Toward the End of Time.

Besides distracting us with worries about whether Mr. Updike might be injured or ill, the turgidity of the prose also increases our dislike of the novel’s narrator...

Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed: a short speech from a new edition of some Kafka work. It makes you realize not only how smart and well-read he is, but how lucky undergraduates were at Illinois State when they happened to stumble onto Wallace's literature course.

Authority and American Usage: putatively an essay about a new book on English usage and how political it can be, it becomes Wallace's way of explaining why he's so obsessed with usage. He labels himself as "We are the Few, the Proud, the More or Less Constantly Appalled at Everyone Else." We learn, among other things, that Wallace was an avid reader of dictionary introductions, which apparently always involve the polemics of language. The core of the article is the never-ending debate between prescriptive and descriptive ways of understanding language, and he even uses a very funny example of men wearing pants or skirts as an illustration. Somehow that organically leads to a discussion of race and class.

The View From Mrs. Thompson: A brief narrative, diary almost, of his 9/11 experience, which becomes largely a description of Bloomington, IN and the Midwestern response in general. Quick but moving in its own way (the narrative, not the Midwest). With a twist.

How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart: Wallace is a huge tennis fan and former player (tennis was a key part of Infinite Jest) so he reviewed Tracy Austin's ghostwritten memoir. Its hard for me to imagine why he looked forward to reading it, but it worked out well because he hated it and enjoyed explaining the genre of ghostwritten books by athletes. There are gems like "there's little sign in this narrator of anything like the frontal-lobe activity required for outright deception."

Up, Simba: Wallace rode around with John McCain in the 2000 primaries for a week or so. Once you get past the now-jarring idea that McCain got people excited by somehow claiming outsider status, you can better enjoy the essay. I didn't connect as much with this essay, both because it seems like fairly uninteresting context now but also because he spends a lot of time detailing tedium. "If this all seems really static and dull, by the way, then understand that you're getting a bona fide look at the reality of media life on the Trail." Even for such a gifted writer, 80 pages of tedium can become, well, tedious. [Note: if you're wondering "Up, Simba" is what the McCain cameraman would say as he lifted the camera to his shoulder. That the title came from something so mundane gives you a sense of the essay].

Consider the Lobster: "For practical purposes, everyone knows what a lobster is. As usual, though, there's much more to know than most of us care about."  He goes to the Maine Lobster Festival, actually for Gourmet magazine of all outlets. A straightforward description of the festival then veers into the ethics of dropping a live being into a pot of boiling water so you can eat it. The result is both thought-provoking and funny. Wallace questions himself and asks the reader to question his/herself as well. I actually don't eat meat precisely for many of the reasons he (a dedicated carnivore) lays out.

Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky: He reviews the fourth of a five volume literary biography of Dostoevsky. He writes of good characters: "The best of them live inside us, forever, once we've met them." It's interspersed with quick paragraphs reflecting on love, religion, and other Big Issues and I am not really sure how he thought they fit in. As he discussed Dostoevsky's own work (as opposed to the work about his work) I couldn't help but feel Wallace specifically viewed him as a model for his own approach to writing.

Host: Wallace looks at conservative radio talk show host John Ziegler (who I had never heard of). For some reason he does not use regular footnotes, but instead puts what are clearly footnotes into boxes throughout the text with arrows pointing to them. It is not what you'd call an easy way to read. But overall his discussion of lack of accountability is prescient for the age we're in, where the president himself makes up stories in the moments when he's not playing golf. Actually, that ends up making the essay harder to read--we're living the negative effects it describes.


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