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Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace

February 17, 2013

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About 10 years ago, I read DFW’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I hated it. I think it might have been over my head at the time. Whatever the unfortunate reason, I didn’t come back to Wallace until recently, via a Jonathan Franzen essay which led me to Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon” and eventually here. Now I’m going in. I have the considerable weight of Infinite Jest pressing down on my bookshelf next to the recent biography (D.T. Max) and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again just arrived in the mail. That, more or less, summarizes how much I liked this collection.

If you were to divide David Foster Wallace into three people—the writer, the thinker and the character—I would find each one fascinating in their own way. Together in one person, well, to avoid sounding like some gushing fanboy, I’ll just say that I know of no one else like him, and although I’m disappointed it’s taken me this long to get into his work, I’m happy that I still have plenty of it ahead of me.

As a philosopher, mathematician, logician and journalist all wrapped into one, with his hyper-intellectual mind and pervasive self-awareness/doubt, there are probably few places where Wallace wouldn’t be an outsider. In these essays, that works in his favor. He is at his funniest when he is far, far out of his element. Like in the absurd “Big Red Son,” in which Wallace attends the Annual AVN Awards show—the Academy Awards of the porn industry. It is a celebration of the best (extremely subjective, I would suppose) of the nadir of entertainment culture. It is classic fish-out-of-water. The other similar, though less absurd, essay is “Consider the Lobster,” in which Wallace attends the Maine Lobster Festival. That essay, in signature DFW style, follows the thread of a tangential thought, and before we know it we’re down a rabbit hole—this one about the nature of pain, specifically as experienced by animals.

Part of what makes these essays awesome is that, in the case of the lobster story, for example, Wallace was sent to the festival by Gourmet Magazine. Imagine the editor at Gourmet Magazine receiving the draft of the article on the Maine Lobster Festival and it’s mostly about how a lobster senses pain. “Big Red Son” was for Premiere magazine. I used to subscribe to Premiere (they stopped publishing it in 2007). It was a film magazine that was a couple notches more serious and in-depth than Entertainment Weekly. Wallace’s full essay for the magazine is 47 pages long. (It was published, in very truncated form, under the pseudonyms Willem R. deGroot and Matt Rundlet.)

Wallace is famous for his tangents, sometimes handled as footnotes, sometimes in more inventive ways (his profile of a conservative talk show host employs the use of nested boxes and arrows to organize his asides in a kind of Internet-as-print form), but I would say that, based on these essays, what makes his approach unique is that he uses his tangents to eventually achieve a meta viewpoint of his subject. In what was surprisingly the best piece in the collection, “Up, Simba,” Wallace turns a piece on John McCain’s 2000 presidential primary campaign into a look at campaign reporting. This is far more interesting (and more timeless) than a simple profile of McCain.

And despite the fact that Wallace is most likely always the smartest person in the room, he is self-effacing and likable. He is rarely much of a presence in his essays, although we’re obviously seeing everything filtered through his magnificent brain. But most importantly for these essays, he does not mock his subjects. As outlandish or wrong as they may be, or as much as every cell of his being might disagree with them, he treats them with respect.

There are a few essays that are more academic, more Wallace in his element. They are also very good (I immediately ordered Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground after reading his essay on it and had an urge to order all of Dostoyevsky’s books), but a little less enjoyable. Still, this book is a great Wallace primer. I couldn’t be more excited to dive into his other works.

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