David Foster Wallace has been on my list for a long time, but to be perfectly honest, I’ve been a bit skeptical about reading him. He’s one of those Gen-X white-dude heroes, and in my experience they have a tendency to be a trifle overhyped. A few years ago, when people were doing Infinite Summer, there was a core group of folks who seemed to think he could do no wrong and every word he wrote was perfect, and that’s just… a bit of a turn-off, you know? So I went into Consider the Lobster, a book of his essays, reviews, and articles, with a healthy dose of skepticism: would he be egotistical, would it just be a bunch of annoying logorrhea, would he be any good?
Well, I was blown away, that’s all.
If you read blurbs about Wallace’s writing, almost everyone will tell you that he’s funny. “Holding up the high comic tradition,” or “one of the smartest and funniest writers on the loose,” things like that. This is true, OK? His piece “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Have to Think,” (a review of John Updike’s novel Toward the End of Time) is howlingly funny, cruel, satirical, and so on-point that I savored every word. The last bit will give you the idea:
Updike makes it plain that he views the narrator’s final impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself, and he clearly wants us to mourn it as much as Turnbull does. I am not shocked or offended by this attitude; I mostly just don’t get it. Rampant or flaccid, Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the novel’s first page. It never once occurs to him, though, that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.
There are pieces like this all through his writing — pieces that are revealing, incisive, and frankly hilarious.
But Wallace’s writing is also deeply serious. His articles have a strong tendency to begin innocently enough as one thing and swerve into much profounder territory. The title essay was written for Gourmet magazine, and starts as a report on the annual Maine Lobster Festival. But the essay gradually becomes an examination of whether these hundreds of thousands of lobsters can feel pain and suffering, and can express a preference not to be killed — and if so, what are we doing at the Maine Lobster Festival? What are the wider ethics of killing animals to eat? What makes us reluctant to think about it, if being a “gourmet” means thinking carefully about what we are eating? Is it all mere sensuality? Wallace is clearly not trying to bait his audience: he really wants to know the answers.
His article “Authority and American Usage,” nominally a review of Bryan Garner’s dictionary of modern American usage, is another example. Some essayists might simply review the book; others might go further, and talk about why “bad grammar” (depending on your point of view) is good for American language, or perhaps bolster the other case. Wallace, however, offers his own experience as a native-born grammar nerd (in his upbringing this is known as a SNOOT — “Syntax Nudniks of our Times” or possibly “Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance”), an English professor, and a voracious reader and researcher in order to discuss the importance of authority, class, and race in American society. This all comes to bear on the question of (e.g.) whether split infinitives matter. And if you think this sounds dry — all I can say is, read the essay. The first sentence is “Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of US lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near-Lewinskian scale?” And he absolutely follows through.
I could do this for every essay in the book. Each one, whether it’s literary, political, or an analysis of some arcane piece of American society, is funny, serious, and deeply compassionate, touching on real human behavior.
Wallace is famous for his structure, of course. It is true that he is nuts about footnotes and abbreviations (and sometimes even weirder note-like structures, as in the article “Host,” which has an intricate system of interlocking boxes with arrows), which interrupt the normal linear reading experience. If a worse writer did it, it would just be gimmicky, and I don’t know how I would feel about it in fiction, but it works in these articles. The interruption is meant to make my mind switch gears, stop my comfortable flow of thought, do something differently. It did what it was meant to do, so it didn’t bother me. I wonder very much what his audience made of him when he first published these things, before footnotes were a “thing” for every half-baked experimental person out there. I also wonder what his editors made of him. Who writes an article about animal rights at the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine?
This book of sparkling, brilliant essays about the American project — about human beings trying to be human beings in some of the oddest ways imaginable — was some of the best reading I have done this year. I want to read more by David Foster Wallace. What is his fiction like? Would I like it, or is his fiction substantively different from his nonfiction? What would you recommend next?