Several years ago, I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I enjoyed it, mostly, but found it was too much of a good thing. The sort of good thing where once you’ve had too much of it, you feel a little sick and stop liking it altogether. Like rich chocolate mousse. It’s only good in small doses once in a while.
So although reading Infinite Jest convinced me that I’d never be a DFW acolyte, it also convinced me that I’d probably enjoy his essays. And know I’ve finally gotten around to confirming that suspicion!
The essays in Consider the Lobster cover a range of topics. The title essay, and probably the best of the bunch, is ostensibly about the Maine Lobster Festival but turns into a piece on cooking and eating lobsters, the ethics of eating animals, and what it means for an animal to feel pain. It’s not, as you might imagine, a think piece on why or why not to become a vegetarian. Wallace draws no conclusions and doesn’t seem interested in doing so. He’s just putting the ideas out there.
When I say Wallace is putting ideas out there, however, I don’t want to give the impression that he’s just musing on paper, although his discursive style, with footnotes inside footnotes, can give the effect of someone just following a train of thought. He looks into the raised by his experiences, whether at a lobster festival or a talk radio station or following a political campaign.
Most of these essays were writing in the late 1990s, and two of them focus on political happenings that still resonate today. In “Up, Simba,” Wallace follows the John McCain political campaign for a week. These were the days of McCain’s “Straight Talk Express.” (This was also the only time I ever voted in a Republican primary. Virginia doesn’t register by party and has open primaries, and I was intrigued enough by McCain to want him to stay in the race, even though I liked Al Gore a lot and probably would still have ultimately voted for him if McCain had won.)
As Wallace follows the campaign, he ponders the sincerity of McCain’s outsider message (especially coming from an insider) and watches as the previously amiable race between McCain and Bush turned negative. The essay is longer that it needs to be—it’s actually the complete and uncut version of an article Wallace originally wrote for Rolling Stone. But the length does give a sense of the tedium of a campaign, and there are some good insights here, including this applause-worthy line:
By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting; you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.
Similarly timely is the final essay, “Host,” a profile of conservative talk radio personality John Ziegler. Here, Wallace picks apart how conservatives are taking over talk radio and what constitutes a winning talk radio personality. This essay is probably most well known, however, for its unconventional format. Instead of footnotes, Wallace inserts his explanatory notes and asides in boxes, creating something like a flow chart scattered throughout the text. In a way, this was easier to follow than footnotes because I could see how the points linked and what exactly they linked to.
Wallace’s footnotes are at their most voluminous (and sometimes irritating) in “Authority and American Usage,” a review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of American Usage that turns into a long explanation of prescriptivism and descriptivism. As something of a descriptivist myself (meaning I believe language evolves and usage guides need to follow that evolution), I got a little irritated at Wallace’s arguments for prescriptivism (meaning strict adherence to rules). And the footnotes inside footnotes, with increasingly small type, didn’t help win me over. But by the end of the essay, he’d landed on a position that’s not so different from my own, and his praise for Garner is based on Garner’s ability to straddle the two camps.
Other book reviews in the collection include the hilariously searing “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” in which he reviews John Updike’s Toward the End of Time. And then there’s “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” in which he considers the lure of sports memoirs and how they so often fail. I liked that one a lot. I probably would have appreciated “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed” and “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” more if I were more familiar with Kafka and Dostoevsky.
Rounding out the collection are “Big Red Son” (on an awards ceremony and expo for porn movies) and “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” (on watching the news with neighbors after 9/11). The first is entertaining but a little too long and the second is short and moving but not so very different from many 9/11 essays I’ve read. Both do show off Wallace’s ability to pick up on telling details, and together they show how he can get inside totally different worlds and give readers a sense of really being there.
This is an excellent collection, and it’s easy to see how DFW achieved his iconic status. I’ll certainly read his other collections at some point, but probably not soon. His chocolate mousse prose is a treat I don’t want often and only in limited quantities.