Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

consider the lobsterSeveral 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.

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

12 Responses to Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

  1. Jeanne says:

    Chocolate mousse prose, ha! I read the lobster essay with the sense that if I’d ever thought to put together all the research and ideas I’ve had about that subject over the years, it could have come out like that, which is the mark of a really good essayist.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I got the sense from all of his essays that he’d been doing a lot of thinking and studying about his subjects and wanted to share. And he looked at things from multiple angles, which I appreciated.

  2. whatmeread says:

    Amy brother has been telling me to read Infinite Jest, but every time I look at the size of it, I get tired.

  3. We read his cruise ship essay in a writing class and it has tempted me to try his non-fiction. I’m not otherwise drawn to him!

  4. DSW is a peculiar write. I always get the feeling that he was a man who wasn’t comfortable in his own skin. I also think perhaps I’m too old to put up with all those annoying footnotes and other stylistic nonsense.
    What gets me is that for such a clever guy, he can also come across as astonishingly naive. I know he comes from somewhere miles inland but I still found it absurd in the cruise ship essay where he raved about discovering that an anchor looks like … an anchor. I can’t remember if that is in the Lobster collection or another one.
    His work is probably best taken in bite-sized samples, in magazines as originally intended.

    • Teresa says:

      I did get impatient with the footnotes inside footnotes–I kept feeling sorry for his editors! But it would be a treat to have run across any of his work in a magazine.

      The cruise ship essay isn’t in this collection. I think that’s in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. It’s an essay I’d like to read at some point.

  5. Jenny says:

    I just love his essays! I find them both very funny and surprisingly serious; he has a lot of compassion for and interest in his fellow human beings, and is (I think) much less of a navel-gazer than he’s sometimes given credit for by people who lump him in with other authors of the same time or… uh… school, I guess. I’m sorry I don’t have many of his essays left to read. I agree that they’re better spaced out, though I find them more like champagne than chocolate mousse. Similar regrets about having too much at one time, though!

    • Teresa says:

      I could definitely see the interest in other people, and he doesn’t come across as superior. He’s not afraid of serious critique, like in the Updike and Austin articles, but the critique seems rooted in real thought, rather than just a sense of scornfulness.

  6. >>>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.

    This is virtually exactly what I said when I read Consider the Lobster. I believed I compared it to marzipan, a sweet thing I have never eaten but that I’ve been told you very quickly have enough of it. :p

    That said, I do feel there’s not nearly enough of his nonfiction writing out in the world. There’s this collection and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, which I read whenever I’m on vacation, and I believe a third one that’s kind of a bunch of miscellany. And that’s it! Only three! It’s like less total pages than stupid Infinite Jest all on its own.

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