Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Consider the Lobster" by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is an author I've somewhat avoided, fearing his prose would be lengthy and over-wrought or maddeningly meta. But, an esteemed colleague of mine is an enormous fan, and when a senior (whom I taught as a freshman) stopped by and inquired whether I'd given Wallace a chance, I conceded I'd have a go if he brought in one of Wallace's works.  Hence, Consider the Lobster.

On my own, I wouldn't have chosen Lobster as the work to begin with. After all, Wallace is most famous for his fiction, and Lobster is instead a collection of his nonfiction essays, all previously published in major magazines. Some of the essays are in-person exploratory/analytical/opinion pieces (such as following the '00 McCain campaign trail or attending the Maine Lobster Festival) and others are literary analysis or book reviews. All in all, it's kind of a weird collection. I mean, typically a person reads a book review because he or she is interested in the book being reviewed, or someone reads an article about the Adult Video Awards (the book's first essay) because he or she is intrigued by porn galas. But, in this case, readers are reading these pieces not because they're interested in their subject matter but because they're interested in their author--David Foster Wallace.

Now, to be fair, Wallace's essays are very personal and heavily editorialized, so learning about Wallace from them is not the same as trying to divine Shakespeare's sexual orientation or political leanings from, say, Othello. Still, I couldn't shake the weirdness of reading a 60-page (I kid you not) review of a book about American usage in order to find the "essence" of Wallace as a writer.

Nonetheless, I'll try to offer some thoughts. I'm not sure if they'll be well-organized or coherent, since the pieces cover such a range of topics.

Wallace is clearly a talented writer. He comes off as smart but not snooty, even though he has an enviable vocabulary (I even wrote down and looked up some of the words). He seems to be someone intensely involved in trying to understand the world around him and who is willing to question himself and his opinions much more than most. For example, in the essay "Up, Simba," about the McCain campaign, he explicitly struggles with the juxtaposition of McCain's outrageously selfless war story and McCain's need to sell and act to try to win the Republican nomination. Or, in a very odd piece about a biography of Dostoevsky, he inserts random musings about God and the purpose of life without explanation except this line: "[Joseph] Frank's bio [of Dostoevsky] prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit" (271). Of course, Wallace committed suicide in 2008, and it's tempting to try to "discover" those roots in his pieces, but I don't think I'm going beyond what he offers in the text.

However, even beyond trying to understand Wallace as a man, there's some great material. I realized in "Up, Simba" that I knew far, far too little about McCain (I knew from the beginning that I would vote Democratic in '08, so I never really bothered). In "Authority and American Usage," I learned about the grammar wars and was exposed to some fabulous lines such as, "This is so stupid it practically drools" (89). I could identify with his post-9/11 cynicism (in "The View from Mrs. Thompson's) and could empathize with his desire to understand sports stars (as he tries to do through cheesy memoirs, detailed in "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart").

One of the few definitive things I knew about Wallace going in was his penchant for footnotes, which are more or less on display throughout his essays. I did find them annoying and distracting, even though reading so many has now made me parenthetical-happy in this review. I'm sure there's something to be said for the footnotes making you more aware of your reading (you can't get into a mellow flow with those kinds of interruptions), and they certainly do make you feel more intimate with Wallace (like a whisper during a movie that he just couldn't hold in).

And, as an aside (okay, really, this ought to be a footnote--damn you, Wallace!), Wallace also has the habit of using acronyms and other shorthand which I imagine learned people are just supposed to know. So, I felt incredibly stupid when it took me until the fourth to last page of the book to figure out that w/r/t means "with reference to." I had to look up "N.B." (effectively, "note").

I still would like to try Wallace's fiction someday, though I need a break from footnoting and introspection first. Nonetheless, he's a distinctive writer, so much so that regardless of what he writes about, the piece is so clearly him. However, Consider the Lobster would probably be best suited for Wallace fans or for people looking to study style through a single excerpted piece.


  1. Big fan of DWF and I enjoyed reading your post. Here's a link to a a post on blog that refers to Wallace. There are a lot of other Wallace posts on this blog including some that describe the appeal of his fiction beyond his essays that you might enjoy. You can find them by searching "david foster wallace" on the blog. Cheers...

  2. Thanks so much for sharing. The part about Wallace being "unbearably smart and unbearably insecure" really rings through in his essays. You can tell how hard he struggles to come off "right" in his work.