Consider the Lobster

consider the lobsterDavid 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?

This entry was posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Consider the Lobster

  1. Elle says:

    I read his first novel, The Broom of the System, last year and was hugely impressed by it. I don’t think it’s as highly developed as his other work (he was 21 when he wrote it, so I felt I could cut him some slack for that), but it’s still very funny, and wildly inventive, and deeply, playfully philosophical. Highly recommended.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you, this is a great recommendation. I’ve been wondering what some of the differences were between his fiction and his nonfiction, and this is helpful!

  2. Christy says:

    I’ve never read him either, having a similar impression and reaction as you. A friend of mine is a fan, and was reading and enjoying Brief Interviews with Hideous Men earlier this year.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I’ve heard this was very good. I’ve got A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again on my list, but I’d like to try… maybe his short stories? Maybe better than a novel, for a dip into fiction?

  3. Rebecca H. says:

    Yeeesssss! A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is similarly good. There is another collection of his essays (that may have some overlap with the other two collections) that I haven’t read yet. If you are up for a long book, Infinite Jest is amazing. I’ve read one short story collection (Oblivion) that was good although not like Inf. Jest. His fiction tends to be darker and more serious than the nonfiction. I enjoy his nonfiction more, but Infinite Jest is something to experience.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m actually always up for a long book (1000+ pages doesn’t faze me) as long as it’s good. Long for the sake of long… meh. But “amazing” and long — that I will do! Thanks for the recommendation — it’s reassuring and it makes me feel I have a lot to look forward to.

  4. Teresa says:

    There were parts of Infinite Jest that I found utterly amazing. I’m not sure that those amazing parts quite made up for the slog parts, but I think the slog parts annoyed me more because of reading it during Infinite Summer and experiencing some of the dynamic you describe of people not being willing to concede that maybe some parts of it weren’t entirely brilliant.

    I did decide from reading Infinite Jest that I would love his essays–parts of the novel read like long essays, and I loved those sections–but I haven’t gotten around to them yet. The usage essay in particular sounds amazing. I absolutely believe in that seamy underbelly and have seen bits of it myself–being an editor means glancing at that underbelly once in a while and trying to figure out what to do about it.

  5. Thanks. I’ve never read him either so now maybe I should check him out!

  6. Leah says:

    I love when expectations are blown away like this! I loved Consider the Lobster; the essay on Garner’s Modern American Usage actually made me buy the book. The only other DFW I’ve read so far is A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and I would highly recommend it!

  7. Yep, I had this identical experience! I’ve tried a few times to read Infinite Jest, and within a few pages I always want to punch David Foster Wallace. But his essays are brilliant. I just wish there were more of them.

    (I’ll also add that DFW is like a very, very rich sort of dessert. Cheesecake or something. Where I’m super into it, and then at some point I’m like, Damn, I need to eat some carrots. This is too much and needs to be scaled back.)

  8. Matthew (Bibliofreak.net) says:

    DFW has been on my to-read list for ages. My sister dipped (almost certainly the wrong word!) into his fiction a couple of years ago and, I think, enjoyed it. Your review only wants to get round to him more quickly, but where to start – fiction or non-fiction?…

  9. Jeanne says:

    I’m so happy you loved these essays! You describe the title one so well.
    My son, who is an even bigger DFW fan than I am, recommends that you read Oblivion next. It’s a collection of short stories.
    We both loved Infinite Jest. I highly recommend reading it alongside a 17-year-old boy.

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