While I don’t know anyone like this, I read reviews by people who despise the fiction of David Foster Wallace while adoring his non-fiction work as some of the best writing a person can read. I’ve heard of instances where people who were happily familiar with DFW’s journalism decided to pick up Infinite Jest or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and were shocked at how dissimilar the writer seemed. It was upon finishing a single essay in Consider the Lobster that I understood this frustration. The Wallace that wrote non-fiction is reined in, more focused, toned down, and generally more consistent and palatable. There are no page-long (or pages long) sentences. No moment of realizing that you haven’t seen a paragraph break for ten pages and you really need to pee but you know you’ll never find the spot you are again if you put the book down. In short, I completely understand why some people think there are two DFW’s, and they hate one of them and revere the other.
If I had to guess at an underlying theme of all the essay’s in Consider the Lobster, I would venture to say it’s self-delusion, or at least an American version of it. I really don’t care what you think about DFW, I don’t think it’s arguable that he wasn’t one of America’s most lucid social critics while he lived. Consider the Lobster is full of Wallace being on-point with no medium in-between he and his critique. I can tell you what Infinite Jest is about until I’m red in the face, but if you can’t see it while you read it then the criticism by Wallace will never resonate for you. In these essays Wallace has his moments of putting aside all possibility of metaphor and symbolism and simply laying bare something with astonishing clarity. This is not to say that each essay finds its mark. One in particular, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” holds very much to this theme of self-delusion, but is just silly to read and impossible to take seriously. Others, particularly “Authority and American Usage,” are astounding in every manner. Let’s get to it, shall we?
“Big Red Son”
How do I say this without sounding like a deviant? I’ve read quite a few major write-ups on the porn industry, most of which taking a feminist critique to it, beginning by asking the question of whether or not it is monstrous (Answer: Yes, it is. Stop arguing. It is.) and then answering it by simply giving a few observations, mainly from actresses. DFW alludes to these arguments, but doesn’t himself care to print them. Nor does he choose to interview an array of porn starlets to paint a picture of the conditions they work in. DFW instead heads to the people he is ironically most connected to: the writers and producers. Which is to say the same person. In the end the same picture is painted and we understand a bit more as to why writers like Chris Hedges are able to find such easy dirt on the porn industry in books like Empire of Illusion (Which is a must-read, by the way). Wallace is a good observational reporter, probably weakest on the actual reporting side of the profession than anything else. “Big Red Son” is a good read that will keep your attention.
“Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think”
This is DFW’s review of John Updike’s novel, Toward the End of Time. It’s difficult for me to say a thing about this as I have never read Updike. Primarily Wallace is concerned with the narcissism of Updike, Phillip Roth, and Norman Mailer and criticizes the latest novel by Updike as solipsism. It’s not surprising to learn that he would hate a novel by that generation of American writers, seeing that Wallace’s main mission was perhaps to invoke a sense that everyone in the world houses a deeply rich interior if you will just give them a chance. That Time tends to not allow that of any character except its main protagonist was easily enough to set DFW off. In the end the review becomes forgettable.
“Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness”
The most interesting part of this essay was DFW’s claim that Kafka’s humor is akin to Kierkegaard’s understanding of the religious. If only he had fleshed out that claim a bit more. I will revisit this essay when I have read more Kafka and see if it makes any more sense.
“Authority and American Usage”
What a gem of an essay. The intersection of passion and intellect produces marvelous things, whether they be paintings or legal documents. If you’ve listened to any interviews with DFW then you know he takes a lot of pride in his grammatical wherewithal despite what appears to be a slight resentment of his mother who instilled it within him. If you didn’t know that, then you will after reading this essay: a review of a usage dictionary that DFW takes as an opportunity to point out the failures of modernism while then using modernism’s greatest hits to make his point. In a Kierkegaardian way, DFW calls out ideology and idealism, taking “the world as it is” and indicting those who won’t accept it as the very same ones who perpetuate the status quo. What does this have to do with American English Usage? A lot. DFW’s point is that SWE (Standard Written English) is inescapably political. We can accept such a notion and go from there, or we can continue to place new restraints on ourselves (One of his critiques of Political Correctness is that it is politically correct to make those who use it feel better about themselves in a very liberal way so they don’t actually have to make real changes to the world). I think PCE (Politically Correct English) has its merits especially in relation to the LGBTQ community, but I would also award DFW his point as more of an overarching critique of Progressivism than Political Correctness. Regardless, this essay is a must-read. DFW at his finest.
“The View from Miss Thompson’s”
DFW’s essay on 9/11 is something I listened to about a year ago. Reading it returned me to the same experience. In Northwest Arkansas I’m in no man’s land when it comes to being Southern or Midwestern. Geographically I am southern. Socially, I’m a heavy mix. I have a small drawl, but in most pop-lingo tests I’m rated squarely Midwestern in my dialect. Thus, when DFW describes what it like to live in Bloomington, he’s describing my youth. This essay is interesting because 9/11 isn’t really the focal point as much as it is trying to establish the innocence of the people caught watching it. It is a bit too clever for its own good, if I’m being honest. It’s a tough subject to write about, and DFW comes close to pulling off something special. But in the end you just have an empathetic nod towards it.
“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”
What in the world is DFW even trying to accomplish with this essay? Recipe for disappointment: with knowledge that something is bad, read it expecting it to somehow be good. The mere fact that this essay was something DFW published is bewildering.
DFW’s write-up on John McCain’s 2000 bid for the Republican nomination for President is well-known. When I read or hear people talk (joyfully) about DFW’s non-fiction, it is “Up Simba” for Rolling Stone and “On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise” for Harper’s that are repeatedly praised and lifted up to the level usually only known by religious symbols. I was giddy to read “Up, Simba” considering what I have heard about it and perhaps that is why I found it underwhelming. There are the prototypical lucid moments that DFW seems to be able to write effortlessly based on some small action that most people don’t take notice of, but there is also a lot of humor that doesn’t hit well, and a lot of time spent on curious things that I think DFW found much more interesting in person than could be expressed fully in writing. The essay is nonetheless interesting, and DFW’s meditations on the nature of cynicism in humanity are erudite, but they were, for me, the only true high points in the 80 pages.
“Consider the Lobster”
Anyone who’s read Infinite Jest knows that DFW has a disturbing talent for making his readers remarkably and deeply uncomfortable with what is being described. What’s worse is that it somehow always sneaks up on you. “Consider the Lobster” pulls the same trick, beginning with what can easily be figured as a comedic observational piece and turning suddenly into a meditation on sentience and pain in Lobsters. He asks some difficult questions that I don’t have any other answers for than DFW’s own: Meat is easy and convenient to eat, despite our knowing how horrible the processes are to obtain it commercially. Why do we eat it? Because our ability to live in willful ignorance is unparalleled.
“Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”
DFW I believe was prone to soapboxes that few can understand why he seemed to care so much. When he hones in on explaining just what made Dostoevsky brilliant this essay is at its strongest. Yet when DFW tries to turn Dostoevsky’s genius into a critique of the American writing landscape I think he falls into the trap of conservative thinking that fools you into believing that things were “better in the old days.” DFW really bemoans American writing. It’s not that his points aren’t valid as much as it is that he’s wishing for something that has never existed. In the end, though, there’s a lot to unpack here and I’m probably not giving DFW that fair of a shake and can’t without a reread.
If you can make it past the distracting textnotes that interrupt the flow of this mammoth piece then you will read one of the more interesting write-ups in Consider the Lobster. Yet this essay is interesting in spite of DFW. Really he only exists in these textnotes due to the sheer wealth of information that is put in concerning what the article is about, namely, John Ziegler and the rise of right-wing radio giants. DFW’s interpolations aren’t necessarily humorous and end up being a little distracting. Ziegler is despicable and interesting enough that commentary is self-evident. Anything DFW extrapolates upon we already know. When you get to this one I promise you that you can skip the notes. They don’t work here and I’m unsure as to why they were used like they were rather than as footnotes as they severely disturb and impede the reading process.
Recommended to: This is a book that isn’t just for DFW Completionists. I would recommend it to everyone I know.
Avoid as if standing out in the sun for five hours just to support your brother’s coaching of a high school baseball team when you know you’re prone to sunburn after even five minutes outside and you know that you are destined for days of pain afterwards: This is a great collection of essays. Give it a chance if you’re even remotely on the fence about it.